While Nintendo's second ever mobile effort, the absurdly popular Pokémon Go, has already won a legion of fans and sent the company's shares through the roof, a lot of people out there will be scratching their heads and thinking "What on Earth is this Pokémon Go thing all about?" Dive in as a long-time gamer takes the plunge and boots up the hottest mobile game of the year.
The premise here is simple. Using your smartphone's camera, the game projects animated critters into your immediate surroundings, letting you capture and battle them. You can also visit real world locations to gather items, as well as team up with and compete with other players.
On paper, it's a clear attempt to take the core Pokémon concept – capturing and fighting little monsters – and take it into the real world with a touch of augmented reality. For fans, that seems like a dream come true, but what's it actually like to play?
When you first boot up the app, you create your character from a limited set of aesthetic options, and are then immediately tasked with picking your "starter" pokemon, just as you would in a standard franchise entry.
Then, your chosen animal pops up on the screen, AR-style, and an upward swipe on the display sends a pokéball (which is a sort of super-high tech, spherical animal cage) flying forward, and within moments … congratulations, you've captured your very first Pokémon!
That action is extremely simple – literally a single gesture – but it's also quite satisfying, at least at first. From our experience with that app, that's Pokémon Go in a nutshell: It's kind of fun, and a little addictive, but there's not a whole lot of depth on offer.
Having bagged our first Pokémon, the next thing we did was wander down the road to the nearest Pokéstop, which are useful locations tied to real-world landmarks, in this case a local sculpture. When you get close enough, you can spin an icon that pops up on the screen, and are rewarded with a selection of new items, free of charge.
While I hadn't encountered any wild Pokémon during my walk to the Pokéstop, I had a little more luck on the return journey. Strolling along, a vibration alert told me a creature was close by. After a tap on the screen, the Pokémon – a Pidgey – sat there in front of me, ready for catching. After a first missed attempt at flicking the pokéball towards the little guy, my second shot hit its target, and within moments another pokemon was mine.
Tapping around the UI and then closing the app with nothing left to do, my opinion of the experience sat somewhere between enthusiasm and apathy. Catching the Pokémon was in no way a challenge, and the whole thing is over in a matter of moments, but the novelty of seeing it right there in my world, like I'd actually happened upon it in the wild, was undeniably satisfying.
Spending more time with the app, the mechanics take a little getting used to. Unlike other Pokémon games, your on-screen avatar has an experience level, which you increase by completing various tasks, such as capturing new creatures, evolving Pokémon, or visiting locations.
Each Pokémon also has its own stats, which you can level up, but the Pokémon itself doesn't have a level like in other franchise entries. It's a little confusing when you first jump in, and the game doesn't do a good job of explaining what the different stats mean.
With the game having only just landed here in the UK, and combined with the fact that I don't live in a particularly built-up area, it's fair to say that these early experiences of Go are lacking one big element that's helping to make the app such a runaway success across the globe. As the Pokéstop and Gyms are located in the same spot for everyone, there's a big social element in going out and seeing other people playing the game at the same time as you.
That social element also goes deeper than a shared individual experience. Once you're at a high enough level, you can assign your Pokémon to a local Gym, and you can even battle enemy-controlled Gyms to level up your pokemon. Battles' controls are about what you'd expect from a casual smartphone game, with the whole thing handled via a series of timed taps and swipes.
The overall experience of the game isn't exhilarating (at least for an adult), or even particularly revolutionary – we've seen a similar concept before in Ingress, an earlier title by the same company, made back when it was under the Google umbrella.
On the other hand, the way that it at least attempts to take the classic game into the real world makes it extremely likeable, even if it's not all that exciting to play. It's fair to say that the title's appeal would be a whole lot lower for people who have never picked up a Pokémon game, and it's likely that the novelty factor will wear off pretty quickly for a lot of players. That said, the game is extremely accessible, and that novelty factor alone makes it worth downloading and taking for a stroll.
A brighter future for AR gaming
What's more interesting than the game itself is where it might lead, and what it means for gaming as a whole. As an adult gamer, I'm not gripped by Pokémon Go, but I'm excited about what it's doing for augmented reality gaming. All of that player popularity and press coverage that the game is receiving won't have gone unnoticed by rival game developers. Pokémon Go straight up proves that augmented reality and gaming are a good match – and can tickle the collective funny bone of the masses.
And that has us thinking: What's next? What could this lead to? Well, AR is already off to a good, if somewhat slow start. On a non-gaming level, it's already started to make its way into the shopping experience, and while it's still in a very pricey developer device at present, Microsoft's Hololens has already begun to show us what AR gaming could make possible. Magic Leap, while more secretive than Microsoft, is another behind-closed-doors leader in this field. We can also imagine devices such as Lenovo's Phab2 Pro smartphone, which has Google's environment-mapping Tango tech on board, getting an enhanced version of Pokémon Go somewhere down the line.
Nintendo's upcoming NX console is still shrouded in secrecy. Who knows, maybe the company is providing a glimpse at the future here, with the new system providing something in the way of augmented reality functionality. That one's certainly a long shot ... but we can dream.
So, in short: Yes, Pokémon Go is a novelty game, it's possibly something of a short-term fad, and yes, that novelty will likely wear off pretty quickly for most of us. But as novelties go, it's an extremely exciting one and it might just provide augmented reality with the kick in the pants it needs to go mainstream and start truly blowing our minds.