This isn’t really going to be a game review. Taken purely as a game, and ignoring its wider impact, Pokémon Go is not very good. It crashed frequently before a recent update, there’s nothing to do outside populated areas, the drain on battery and mobile data is high, and it’s incredibly hard for new players coming in to the game a few weeks late to catch up.
Let’s not even mention that there’s no actual end goal - owing to regional differences and some monsters that aren’t available at all, it’s not currently possible to catch ‘em all.
On a walk around a busy city centre in the days and weeks after release, you’d be hard pressed to remember all of this.
My all-time favourite sport, people-watching, has become vastly more enjoyable thanks to Pokémon Go. Here’s how a standard interaction plays out.
- Person A and Person B approach one another on a busy street, country path, wherever.
- They each notice that the other is looking at their phone.
- Sheepish grins.
- “Are you…?”
It’s hilarious, it’s gorgeous, and this is happening all over the world, all the time.
The best kinds of game, for me, are the ones that create stories that last long after they’ve been switched off. My first of these was, of course, the original Pokémon, but there have been lots of others, across a huge variety of genres. When we first got our Xbox 360, I spent every morning in registration class swapping stories with Adam and Daniel about our exploits in Oblivion the night before. A few years later, lunchtime conversations were dominated by hilarious (er, to us) retellings of games of Halo, then Minecraft, then Borderlands and many more.
Pokémon Go is another one of these fantastic games - not even games, experiences. Here are some stories from my first couple of weeks.
Welcome to the world of Pokémon! My name is Oak…
I installed the game when it first came out in the States, via a hopefully-not-dodgy APK sideload. I managed to convince my brother to do the same, but most of my pals around home wanted to wait until the game was actually released in the UK.
I’d expected there not to be much activity and thought I could get in there early by capturing a few gyms. Boy oh boy was I wrong. The game wasn’t even out and every gym in Jordanstown was already captured.
On our first Poke-walk around the relatively sleepy little town we grew up in, while walking through the university grounds, Luke and me walked past a lady who looked to be in her forties. She had her phone in her hand, but we didn’t really think anything of it; we’d assumed this game would be mostly confined to those in their mid-twenties, who were children when the Pokémon craze (I suppose we should now call it the first Pokémon craze?) was at its peak.
“You hunting too?”, she said, smirking.
We were too shocked to say anything. It was only a few minutes later that I said, “we should have told her about the Hypno in that car park”.
Later, at Loughshore Park, we found two Pokéstops less than a hundred metres apart. Someone had set a lure on the bandstand, and we spent a little while there catching Magnemites. As we walked on, I glanced into some of the parked cars - nearly every single person in them was playing Pokémon Go.
Interestingly, the bandstand’s description on the Pokéstop says “dedicated to Ross Aiken”. I don’t know who Ross is or was, but I wonder if he’d be happy that half of Jordanstown now probably knows his name.
A little further on, I battled, and defeated, my first Pokémon gym (go team red yeah woo Valor). While I was in the middle of battling, a gang of four chaps around our age approached, all looking at their phones. We had a nice chat until Conor - who I recognised as someone I played badminton with years ago - said, “thanks for the gym”.
I looked down. The cheeky bastard had waited until I’d beaten the gym and then, while I tried to choose which Pokémon to leave defending it, snuck his own in under my nose. I tried to battle it again, but the rest of his mates piled all their high-level monsters in on top of it. Aaaargh.
A little later, after Luke had gone home, I decided to sneak back to the gym and capture it (again). I left it defended by a very high-level Hypno - the one from the car park - called ‘Ha Ha Conor’. Unfortunately it turns out other players can’t see your nicknames, which is understandable but a bit saddening.
As I headed back for home, I crossed paths with a dad and his ten-year-old, unmistakeably playing Pokémon. I was immediately accosted by a Pokémon trainer half my height.
“What team are you?”
“I’m Yellow. Did you capture that gym?”
“Yep, just now.”
“I’m taking it from you.”
He sped off for the statue where the gym is, his dad chasing after him, roaring with laughter.
All this happened in one hour-or-two walk around my home town. None of these conversations would have happened without Pokémon Go, and the game wasn’t even out yet.
Are you a boy? Or a girl?
I didn’t start playing in earnest until the game was properly out in the UK, and Neil, Daniel and the Ryans were able to join in. The photo at the top of this post is from one of our first proper Pokéwalks together. We got very excited about Caterpie. We were so new to this game.
At the gym at the entrance to the university, we met two kids, unsuccessfully trying to capture the gym. They had a chat to us about Pokémon; we were shocked to find out that they didn’t actually know what Pokémon was, they just wanted to join in with the game. I’d never felt so old. We gave them a few pointers and we parted ways. I like to think they’ll dig out an old Game Boy some day and experience their first real Pokémon game - I kind of envy that they still get to have that first playthrough.
Later, down by the Lough, we met a middle-aged couple sitting by the Pokéstop. We had a chat to them - the lady said she didn’t know much about the game, but they were joining Yellow team because their niece was on Yellow team.
“As long as it’s not Blue”, we said, and we all had a laugh. Except Neil, who joined Blue team, the filthy traitor.
We went on our way - a short conversation, but yet another of so many that would never have happened without this game.
After the others had gone home, Neil and me decided to walk back past Whiteabbey church, where there was a Pokéstop. On the way, a wild Pinsir jumped out at us - a pretty rare find. I ran out of Pokeballs half way through capturing it, so had to run up to the church, spin the Pokéstop, and run back before the Pinsir disappeared. We both managed to get it, and probably looked pretty strange to passers-by. Who cares? I GOT A PINSIR.
On another day, one so hot that the screen on my phone was uncomfortable to touch, we were back at that same gym outside the university. We’d managed to capture it between us a little earlier, but had seen that someone was battling it - so back we went on the defensive. A chap around our age, from Yellow team, was busily trying to take down our gym, with little success. I decided to be diplomatic.
“Is there any chance you could just, y’know, stop that?”
After the standoff had gone on for a few minutes, we cunningly decided to let him whittle down the gym, and then pinch it from under his nose right before he could put a replacement Pokémon in, a trick I’d learned not so long before. We all had a good laugh about it and Jack - our new pal - came with us on our walk. We still check to see if JackFFX is holding any gyms around Jordanstown - he’s been a bit quiet of late.
Your very own Pokémon legend is about to unfold!
This is just a tiny selection of the things that, without Pokémon Go, would not have happened in the last few weeks. I’m still going for Pokéwalks (a real word, I promise) with friends nearly every day, and I still see hordes of people hanging around landmarks looking at their phones. Sometimes I talk to them. Sometimes I make friends.
There’s a fair amount of horrible shite going on in the UK and the world at present, and a lot of this summer has been characterised by political turmoil and disaster. In a few years, though, I’m willing to bet I’ll look back on this summer as the one I spent playing Pokémon Go with some of my oldest friends.
I don’t know if the game will have any lasting appeal beyond this summer, or whether any changes or additions Niantic make (I want a Totodile!) will keep me interested. For now, I’m going to keep going for walks with my Pokémon friends. Even the ones that don’t, y’know, actually exist.