The thing no one warns you about when you decide to become a Pokémon trainer is the humidity. It's hot and muggy on my first day hunting down Pikachus and Geodudes in Brooklyn, and my already clammy hands are getting even sweatier from the heat of my phone—
For the uninitiated, Pokémon Go is a game for iOS and Android that uses real GPS data to turn your surroundings into a game world, allowing you to walk around your neighborhood while collecting items, capturing creatures, and doing battle at designated "Pokémon Gyms." It's a solid pitch, but with clouds gathering overhead, I'm more worried about the impending rain than I am about catching them all. Especially since I can't even connect to the game's server.
When Nintendo first started promoting Pokémon Go last fall I was curious, if a little skeptical. The game's announcement trailer is every school-yard and water-cooler "What if there was a game where…" conversation turned into high-quality CG. Just watch:
It's nostalgia given motion. It's a promise of the imaginary breaking into the real world and bringing us all closer together along the way. Who wouldn't want to be part of that? The reality of Pokémon Go is much less exciting. The imaginary doesn't pierce into the real world so much as it butts up against the mundane constraints of design and technology.
Made by Niantic and the Pokémon Company (which is partially owned by Nintendo), Pokémon Go simplifies the complex rules of the traditional Pokémon series and instead emphasizes exploring your real life surroundings. As you wander around, you'll find various Pokémon in the world, tap on them, and then use the simple touch interface to throw a poké ball at them—if you toss it right (and if you manage to stay connected to the server) you'll add them to your collection. Pokémon Go can also use your phone's camera to display all of this with rudimentary (but still sometimes impressive) augmented reality. As I walked along the street, I was really hoping to catch this little Doduo…
Unfortunately, the game crashed. My entire first day with Pokémon Go was dominated by technical issues: The game locks up, struggles to connect (or stay connected) to the servers, its GPS fails to update accurately, items vanish or fail to work as they should, and it crashes again and again. It's a mess.
Worse, Pokémon Go just might not be that good even without the technical problems. As in Ingress, Niantic's previous GPS-driven game, Pokémon Go uses local landmarks like murals, churches, and monuments as in-game destinations. Some of these destinations give you items (more poké balls, healing items for your pokemon, etc.) and others are gyms where you can do asynchronous battle with rival players. Every player aligns themselves to one of three teams, each trying to take over the other's gyms while building up the defenses of their own. Though the early game is mostly about walking around, stumbling into new pokemon, and building up your collection, it seems like the long-term focus of Pokémon Go will be these gym battles.
The bad news is that those battles are pretty disappointing. Imagine a really imprecise version of Punch-Out!! or Infinity Blade. You swipe left and right to dodge incoming attacks, tap to fire off your own, and hold down on the screen to launch a special attack once you've charged it up. Pokémon Go does include the familiar elemental resistance system, but all the fights I've been in so far haven't benefited from it. It never feels like more than wild gesturing and hoping that the commands I enter actually send through to the server.
All of this leads to a stuttering rhythm of play that goes against everything that has made Pokémon so great over the years. A good Pokémon game entices you to stay awake in bed just so you can get a taste what the next area holds. You slide effortlessly from one battle to another, trying out new pokémon and formulating strategic plans. Tension peaks at key battles, and then smooths out once you're through it. Pokémon Go doesn't have any of this flow. Instead, it moves in fits and starts that match its choppy interface.
So, you connect and head to one landmark, you wait for it to load in. It fails to load in, but hey, there's a Pidgey! You click on the Pidgey, the game crashes. When you boot it back up, the Pidgey is gone. You start to walk a bit further but in game but you've been locked in place, so you stand around and wait for it to catch up. You're stationary and locked to your phone in a way that makes you look like a tourist in your own neighborhood. There's no flow here, no rhythm to disappear into.
The strangest thing is none of that may matter. Because it's Pokémon and it's communal and every now and then you turn the corner and see a man slouching over a mailbox and there at his feet is an Ekans and you think hah, yea, okay, this works. Because on the way to work this morning, my bus route led me past a Magmar—a weird sort of lava duck pokémon—and when I wasn't quick enough to capture it, I felt a sharp sense of loss. Because I've been thinking about making a trip to the river tomorrow, just so I can maybe find some more water-type pokémon.
It isn't just me, either. So many people have started conversations with me about Pokémon Go today. People who don't game even—coworkers, old friends, lapsed Pokémon fans who have suddenly remembered this thing they once loved, and love the novelty of seeing it drip into our world again.
On my way home last night, after the heat had broken, I saw Pokémon fans crossing the streets, heads down, illuminated and consumed by the game's glow. I saw one guy sitting on the subway launching the game over and over—I'd guess it was crashing on him, too. I saw a group of four kids gathered around the darkened entrance of an old karaoke place that had been designated as a gym. They were grinning and shouting and joking. One of them had been left behind as the others moved on—more connection trouble most likely but he was committed to standing in place and staring at his phone. It was when they finally all circled back around, phones in hand, that I knew they were all playing.
I approached them coyly—they were total strangers—but I barely got a word out.
"Are you play-"
"Yeah, haha, yeah." Huge grins.
They'd never played a game like this, they told me. They liked that they got to hang out together and go to weird places. They liked that it was Pokémon. Suddenly, I didn't really mind the crashes or the poor progression mechanics or the lackluster battles. Suddenly, I wanted to call my friends up and go for a walk.
I wanted to bury those guys in questions, but they were anxious to keep moving—there were more Pokémon gyms to hit and it was getting late. But before they left, they did tell me that the technical problems that were vexing me and so many others didn't bother them at all. The servers being broken must just mean that lots of people were enjoying the game, they said, and that meant that Niantic and the Pokémon Company would turn this very basic game into something special.
Given the way this thing has launched, I'm a little skeptical. But I hope they're right.
Follow Austin Walker on Twitter.