How will we remember 2016? The year of Brexit? The year that Bowie, Prince and Paul Daniels died? Or the year Pokémon Go took over the planet in about a week? If we know historians (and by Jove, we really don’t know any of them all that well), then we suspect it’d probably be the latter. In a relatively short period of time, Nintendo and software studio Niantic has brought back the Pokémon craze of the nineties, dressed it up with the aid of smartphone technology and unleashed it onto the unsuspecting masses. The result? Everything changed. Literally, everything. Kind of.
You might be thinking: “How has my life changed? I don’t even know what Pokémon Go is?” and if you are thinking that then we must only assume you are living under a rock. On Mars. In an alternative universe where Pokémon Go was never invented. Because it has infiltrated all known forms of social media, news and culture websites (including this one – no-one is safe). But if you’re still not sure, Pokémon Go is gloriously simple to explain: It’s an app that uses your smartphone’s GPS to track down and capture Pokémon in real-life. That’s pretty much it. Well, like any Pokémon game you can train, evolve and fight your Pokémon at various gyms, which are usually identifiable landmarks such as castles, churches or Holocaust memorial museums. Which is fine, but the true fun in the game is just going outside and finding Pokémon. Because apparently, you gotta catch ’em all. Why? You just gotta, OK?
Your life changes once you have Pokémon Go downloaded, because then that dull existence around you called reality, full of billions of years of evolutionary marvels, is now just one giant map where you can find new Pokémon. You’ll start to wander aimlessly around, staring intently into your smartphone as you desperately try to follow that rustling of leaves in a faint glimmer of hope, that it might just be Pikachu and not Rattata again. Please God, not Rattata again. Then you’ll find yourself standing in the same spot for ten minutes, hopelessly waiting for your slack mobile data provider to pick up an internet connection and once it does, praying that the servers don’t crash again. Which they do a fair bit, unfortunately.
When Pokémon Go does work though, there’s something just a little bit special about it. Because it’s a game that can only be played by the player leaving the house and interacting with the outside world. It may not be the first of it’s kind like this, Niantic have ventured into augmented reality gaming before with Pokémon Go‘s older brother, Ingress. But Ingress never made the kind of impression that it’s newer sibling has made, as it stamps an imprint across the entire globe. For example, look at what happened when players found out that a rare Vaporeon was spotted in Central Park:
When was the last time a game made something like this happen? Never. Unless you count the time that everyone rioted about the ending of Mass Effect 3. But we’re not including that because that isn’t a real thing that happened and we just made it up for geeky comedy effect. This kind of crazy stuff is happening in the real-world because of Pokémon Go. People are actually arranging social gatherings to hunt for Pokémon together, this is a game that is bringing people together and in a world where most multi-player gaming revolves around conflict and fighting each other, that’s kind of, y’know, nice.
However, the niceties of Pokémon Go could also be considered a weakness. Let’s be honest, that dark side in all of us wants to fight and it’d be great to battle other players we meet. Except you can’t really do that. Instead you have to be content with using the Poké Gym as a way-point to fight other players’ Pokémon that have been left there, as you compete to take control of the gym for your chosen team. Has the element of direct battles been left out because of their potential to cause actual skirmishes on the street? Or is it just an ace that Nintendo are keeping up their sleeve, ready to unleash in future incarnations of the game? Either way, it feels like the most intriguing part of an augmented reality Pokémon game, is not currently present and this means from a purely gaming perspective, Pokémon Go lacks something vital.
Pokémon Go isn’t really a traditional video game experience though. Not in the same way that walking simulators such as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture aren’t traditional gaming experiences (although Pokémon Go is essentially the ultimate walking simulator). No, this is an entirely different kettle of Magikarp. Pokémon Go is an out-going experience, designed to be shared with others and purposefully built for the social media generation. The photo capturing element is a veritable open-invitation for all kinds of Snapchat related shenanigans, some of which have somewhat inevitably gone down the NSFW route – you smutty human race, you. But this is precisely why Pokémon Go has become so popular, so quickly. It’s spread through the internet like a cute little virus and only those true off-grid folk out there, could’ve managed to avoid it’s long-reaching, cuddly tentacles.
The incredible popularity of Pokémon Go has also excitingly opened the door to augmented reality gaming and if you scrunch your eyes and concentrate extra hard, you can imagine the future possibilities, as developers scramble to take popular franchises and make them all AR in a secret attempt to steal your information and sell it to the CIA. How about Metal Gear Solid Go where you to find and hide in real-world cardboard boxes, as stupid imaginary guards patrol the area? Or The Last of Us Go where you.. where you.. actually, no. The idea of such a game is too terrifying to even establish a one-line concept for.
The future possibilities of AR gaming are tantalizingly close to us, much like a lumbering Snorlax standing in front of you blocking your path to work (best sick-note excuse ever by the way). Pokémon Go has set the Poké Ball on fire and sent it rolling along to see what chaos it might cause. It could genuinely be game-changing or it could end up as just another passing craze, like a modern day Tamagotchi. In the meantime though, let’s just enjoy Pokémon Go for what it is and gleefully hum that catchy theme song, as you wander into the path of oncoming traffic trying to capture a Charizard sitting in the road.