I have a major problem with Pokémon Go. Namely, I think it’s a joke of a Pokémon title. The problem is, it doesn’t quite feel like a Pokémon game. Now, granted, there have been some stranger spin-offs (Pokémon Trozei! in particular comes to mind), but Pokémon Go, to me, is one of the biggest failures in gaming this year, because it fails to capture the essence of Pokémon, yet attempted to appeal to our sense of nostalgia when it comes to the memories associated with the main games (and, by extension, the anime). It’s not necessarily that it was a bad idea; no, I think it was an excellent idea. Unfortunately, it was undercooked and failed to live up to the Pokémon name.
But what exactly makes a Pokémon game a Pokémon game? What was it that attracted players of all ages – kids, teenagers, adults, what have you – to these stationary sprites on a handheld device? Was it the story? The music? The level grinding?
No, it was all of that and more. It’s not the story, it’s the specific events that transpire (like battling AZ in Kalos or facing down Red at Mt. Silver in Johto). It’s not the music, it’s the emotional appeal attached to that music (like I covered last time with Kindred Spirits on the Roof). And, most importantly, it’s not the level grinding, it’s the immersion into the world of Pokémon: the struggles of training and the bond with your Pokémon, until ultimately your long journey culminates with the defeat of the region’s villainous team and your ascension to the title of Pokémon League Champion.
Let’s look at this last point, because this, to me, is what Pokémon is all about. It’s about building the bond with your Pokémon, and all of the stories you create while heading for the Elite Four: the blood that pumps in a close Gym match, the bitterness of defeat, the attachment you develop to these pixelated sprites on a small, six-inch screen; HGSS even allows you to have a partner Pokémon that walks outside of its Pokéball. You find yourself relying on some Pokémon more than others, developing their personalities in your head. As the game’s region slowly unfolds and you reach new cities or towns, you take in your surroundings, remembering key events or key people along the way that help you on your journey. This is what Pokémon is all about: the bonds you develop with your Pokémon on a long journey.
Even most of the spin-offs got that part right. Mystery Dungeon removed the human/Pokémon barrier completely, where you become direct friends with other Pokémon, relying on them and their courage as you took on dungeons with endlessly hostile individuals. Pokémon Ranger‘s entire theme centers on seeing Pokémon as partners and not as servants.
So let’s go back to Pokémon Go. Its trailer was very well done (as all trailers tend to be), appealing to this attachment by reminding us about that sense of exploration and triumph. Trainer and Gym battles are depicted as epic brawls, with you sending your Pokémon out to directly combat someone else’s, where winner takes all and losers graciously admit defeat. It then culminates with a battle for the ages, as you team up with other trainers to take down a legendary Pokémon, trusting your best friend to do the job.
But that’s not what happened. Instead of partners, Pokémon in this game became stats. Instead of an epic battle, battles became rapid tapping excursions. Instead of appealing to the very core of Pokémon and its journey, Pokémon Go became a quick check of your phone for more powerful monsters to catch, without any modicum of the care you would put in for a real pet, or a real partner.
I so wanted to love Pokémon Go. I knew it was going to be nothing like the trailer, but I entertained the idea of going out to see the world with my Pokémon by my side. Instead, all we got was another mobile game: heartless and boring. Granted, the game does encourage exploration; you have to be willing to do some searching if you want to catch more Pokémon, but without that feeling of companionship that all of the main games afford, it feels empty – a waste of time. Maybe the idea was flawed in the first place, or maybe there was just no way to really implement these ideas into a mobile game. Maybe it may even be human nature that felled the title; in our inherent laziness, we developed apps that automatically locate Pokémon without even having to search for them. Regardless of the cause, Pokémon Go was a failure. In my eyes, it can’t even call itself a Pokémon game.