A new, "real-life" Pokémon gym has opened up in Osaka, Japan as part of the new Expo City. It's the first of its kind, anywhere in the world. I went along on its opening day, November 19th, to see what the attraction offers fans of the pocket monsters phenomenon.
The gym is actually a selection of paid games spread across two floors, rather than home to a selection of sweat-spilling, muscles-testing workout machines. Each one allows its player to digitally interact with a wide variety of Pokémon. Also on site is a Pokémon-themed café and a giant Pokémon store, while the walls are naturally adorned with all manner of franchise-relevant murals.
The gym is in the north of Osaka, so if you're staying in the city centre be aware that it will take you a fair while to get there. On entry, you buy a card for 500 yen (about £2.60, or four US dollars) that you charge with credit in order to play the games. Each game varies in price from 400 to 600 yen. Right now, the gym features no smaller, cheaper arcade games or prize machines – in stores elsewhere you'd at least find a few options, like the Wii U-destined Pokkén Tournament or the popular Tretta games. But in Osaka, it's the seven larger interactive games or nothing.
The 600-yen attractions are more like shows than standard video games. Audience members sit down on benches while digital Pokémon and their trainers address the crowd. Volunteers are asked for, or a camera picks out participants for the show, be they originally willing or not. Once the cast is in place, these shows unfold in a display of dazzling lights and special effects, but while impressive they're hardly worth the asking price if you're one of the people left sitting down, merely an observer of the action.
The 400-yen games are either played individually or in pairs, and are more traditional in design – there's a bowling game, boxing and an interactive space map game. Some of these allow levelling up, but you'll have to pay multiple times to reach the later stages of each.
A big problem with the Pokémon gym, if you're a visitor from abroad, is that all the games are in Japanese. It doesn't matter how big a Pokémon fan you are, if you've no Japanese language skills at all then a visit to the gym is going to be a confusing, disappointing experience. It's also not a destination that solo tourists should really bother with, as one of the 400-yen games is a pairs-only affair, and being cold-shouldered in the bigger parts of the gym, without anyone to sit there with, would be a fairly depressing situation.
To call this a gym makes sense in branding terms, but there's little here that really demands physical fitness. Don't expect to actually train a Pokémon, either – your interactions are only ever brief, assuming you're one of the visitors whose yen is rewarded with a call to the stage.
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I had time to try three of the gym's games – two of the more-expensive shows, and the aforementioned boxing game. The shows on offer, right now, include a Charizard battle show, a dancing show, one called Machamp's Counselling and another called Zoroark's Slick Dojo.
The battle show didn't actually involve a battling at all, and just had a digital Charizard asking audience members various questions, albeit with lots of flashing lights and animations. The dojo show was a lot better; it had the entire audience trying a couple of very simple moves, so everyone could get involved. In the dojo game, I was picked on to try and copy what the digital character showed me on screen.
The boxing game was fun, and I can see it becoming addictive. Players can "level up", but to do so meant spending another 400 yen. It was more physical than the other games, and had me in a sweat by the end. The concept was very similar to a dance machine you still find in British arcades: you follow instructions appearing on the screen, performing actions when the relevant icons reach a certain trigger point.
For big enough fans of the Pokémon franchise, even if you don't play any of the games, there is loads of merchandise to keep you entertained and your wallet open. The store is impressively stocked, and the café sells everything in Pikachu wrapping. Granted, it's mostly junk food, but still: Pikachu wrapping.
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The gym has a Universal Studios type of feel, with the audience participation element and staff dressed as characters from the Pokémon universe. It's worth a visit by any Pokémon fan, but do get some basic Japanese learned beforehand unless you want to feel truly lost. And it's worth mentioning, too, that there's plenty more at Expo City to keep you amused, even once you've polished off the café's menu and stuffed every Poké-plushie you can into your backpack.
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