"Daddy—I mean Bulbasaur—there's a Pokémon over there!"
My almost-4-year-old son—I mean Jigglypuff—is holding my smartphone with one hand and stabbing the air with the other, like someone who's just spied a talking dog. We've codenamed each other with the monikers of our favorite Pokémon, the adorable little monsters at the heart of Nintendo and The Pokémon Company's blockbuster critter-snatching franchise.
I glance at the smartphone's screen and spy a tiny, lemon-lime caterpillar bopping near some real world shrubs a few feet over. We're tinkering with the augmented reality game for iOS and Android devices by former Google startup Niantic called Pokémon Go. As in get up and go, because there's no game to play if you're not physically up, out and walking around.
That's because Niantic's mapped a fantasy world brimming with Charmanders, Squirtles, Weedles and more onto real-world streets, parks and buildings by employing a miracle of algorithmic wizardry and realtime location data. Players, or "trainers" in game-speak, can team up to square off against others for dominion over virtual turf mapped onto real world landmarks (churches, sculptures or museums). Imagine bug collecting meets king-of-the-hill meets Google Maps. This novel amalgam of beloved franchise, smartphone technology and free-to-play business model has turned Pokémon Go into an overnight, international hit in a matter of days since its July 6 release.
"Okay Jigglypuff, but hold my hand," I tell my son, who darts out the door to the shrubs and starts swiping his finger on the phone like someone trying to strike a wooden match. Each swipe lobs a tiny red-and-white sphere called a Pokéball at the caterpillar. After three or four tries, the ball connects, and both he and the game go nuts. There's shouting and jumping, then the screen tells us the creature's name. "Daddy, we got Caterpie! We got Caterpie!" he squees. In my mind, a.k.a. "augmented reality 1.0," a parental "mission accomplished" banner has just unfurled with a rewarding thurp.
Off we stroll from our cabin on the banks of the Mississippi where my family is spending a lazy summer vacation. It's turned out to be a strangely amusing mid-afternoon lark, weaving between cottonwoods and cattails, a park activity gym and a ranger station. At one point we almost veer into the weeds where poison ivy lurks. At another, my son wants to climb the steps to the deck off the back of the ranger station "Because please daddy please, there's a Pokémon up there!" Yes, Pokémon Go's exalted reach extends even to Nowhereville, Flyover Country. As soon as my son figured out there were water-based Psyducks and Poliwags and Krabbys lurking around a nearby river, Pokémon Go became an obsession.
The game as experienced by someone a bit older, on the other hand, probably won't. Instead of fighting to "capture" wild Pokémon in chess-like, stat-riddled battles as in the older Game Boy and Nintendo 3DS games, players have only to get close to wherever the app indicates there's a creature lurking. Find one and the screen shifts to camera mode, at which point you'll see a colorful Ivysaur or Rattata or Pikachu mugging near whatever your camera's scanning, be it your couch, someone else's front lawn or in front of the Supreme Court. Swipe to flick your Pokéball, and presto, your collection swells, though it's hard to miss, because this is a game that doesn't want you to.
It's as if Niantic, having laudably asked players to get up off their duffs and wander upwards of miles in the real world to make headway in the game, doesn't want to offend by piggybacking a bona fide game on top of its stealth exercise regimen. It's a paradox: You're enticed to get out and notice things in the real world you might otherwise blow past (a good-verging-on-grand thing), but in the guise of an experience that doesn't feel much like a game at all (a dawning disappointment the more you play).
Pokémon Go could (and arguably should) have mitigated this by making its king-of-the-hill battles more interesting. Pokémon gyms in the game are special locations mapped onto real-world landmarks ruled by leaders who can be challenged by rival, nearby players. Level up, join a team, and you can vie for control of virtual real estate, which in theory sounds like the stuff of Poke-dreams. But in practice, players just tap to attack, or swipe to dodge. And not in a way that rewards thoughtful dexterity, but more a confusing slapdash one that feels mostly down to chance. Clicker games like Adventure Capitalist have more nuance.
Bugs abound, too. The game crashed several times on my iPhone 6s Plus. I have no idea why. Sometimes the map screen stopped updating, at which point restarting just brought up a server connection error. (The servers have been down for me as often as they've been up.) And playing the game drains batteries fast, though the same is true of using an app like Google Maps, so we're maybe talking more about a categorical shift in app categories there. Launch quirks—especially capacity flubs when a game's this meteorically popular—are to be expected. But reviews are snapshots in time, and this is where Pokémon Go is less than a week after launch.
As a referendum on augmented reality—that other alt-reality tech lying in wait to leapfrog the recent wave of niche wraparound headsets—Pokémon Go is a slam dunk. But as a game, once the hunt-and-catch novelty wears thin (or the soles of your shoes do), there's not enough happening under the hood. It's effectively the inverse of studio Game Freak's acclaimed turn-based strategy roleplaying games, responsible for the lion's share of the franchise's popularity. Which is fine, of course, because Nintendo's argument is that games on smartphones shouldn't imitate games on other platforms.
I think that's exactly right. But I don't think the corollary is to hollow out the gameplay. Is the game missing features Niantic's planning to add? Should trainers be able to battle other trainers without having to go to real-world gym hotspots? Should we be able to see other trainers (or at least other teams) on the map? Will "Pokémon Go 2.0" be the wealth of more tactically interesting combat so many wanted? Will we eventually be able to trade Pokémon with other players? We can hope. (The firm's chief has promised updates to deepen Go's gameplay.)
"Daddy, I'm running really fast!" says my son later from his booster seat in the back of my car. He's once more in possession of my phone and swiping away. We're cruising through light summer evening traffic on the way to a swim lesson in town, my Honda Fit's modest speeds making Pokémon Go's game trainer sprint. Every few blocks he makes sounds of exasperation or delight as nearby critters blink in and out of existence. I ask him to describe what he's doing in the game, which he takes instead as invitation to explain the game itself. "So you have to throw the Pokéballs at the Pokémon," he tells me, pausing. I imagine his thoughts spooling up like a jet turbine. Or maybe he's just busy winging Pokéballs. "If you miss, you lose," he continues, his tone almost dour. And then like sunlight shooting through the clouds, his words brightening, he says "But if you get the Pokémon, you win!" At this point in his life, it's enough.
3 out of 5
Reviewed on an iPhone 6s Plus