The past few weeks have seen Pokémon Go take the world by storm. Office-goers, police officers, Olympic athletes, senior citizens, politicians and children of all ages have been swept up in this global craze that shows no sign of abating. I don’t like it.
It’s a fad, the naysayers scream out.
It’ll go the way of Orkut, say others.
It’s just so dangerous, lament others still.
All of those points may well be valid, but my problem with Pokémon Go has less to do with those who can’t get enough of it – running into oncoming traffic to catch a Pokémon, quitting their jobs to focus on the game and whatnot – than the philosophy (or lack thereof) of the app itself.
Here’s my fundamental problem: Pokémon Go is not really Pokémon. At all.
It was at some point in 1999 that a friend and I decided to get hold of Pokémon Blue and Red respectively for the Game Boy.
Virtually identical in every way apart from the packaging – both the box and the cartridge – and a handful of exclusive Pokémon, Blue and Red at first, seemed like just another example of the quintessential Nintendo strategy of multiple versions.
A slight detour first.
For the uninitiated, here’s the multi-version strategy explained: You’d buy a Game Boy and then six months later, there’d be another one, identical in every way except it was red in colour. And a few months later, there’d be a green one. With the genre-defining (for the 64-bit gaming era) N64 system, this strategy wasn’t restricted to colours (of controllers and consoles) and opacity (yes, they made see-through versions too), but also branding eg the Zelda special console and so on. And guess what, there were enough completionists who would buy every single version – gotta catch ‘em all and all that.
But in 1999, I wasn’t so cynical and the idea of being able to link Game Boys to trade and battle Pokémon sounded like a great time – particularly since certain Pokémon would evolve after being traded.
It was shortly after the first time I tried this whole multiplayer trading/battling thing that I realised the real beauty of the game lay in its storyline – the journey of an absolute newb, who rises through the ranks to become the greatest Pokémon trainer in the land.
Set in Kanto (based on the real-life Japanese region of Kanto), your quest saw you travel flatlands, hilly regions, caves, cities and the sea to capture Pokémon of all varieties, win badges for your efforts, snuff out the designs of the evil Team Rocket and finally defeat your arch-nemesis. The RPG elements of the game – buying move updates for your Pokémons, shuffling rosters, levelling up, choosing whom to evolve etc – complemented the simple-but-engaging story perfectly.
That’s the trip down memory lane out of the way.
Over the years, Nintendo would release Pokémon Gold and Silver, Ruby and Sapphire, Diamond and Pearl, Black and White, X and Y to take advantage of the capabilities of each new games console. And while the graphics, features, and bells and whistles would continue to improve and evolve, at the heart of it all, the story largely remained the same. As did the enduring presence of Professor Oak – your guide through the world of Pokémon.
Over time, Nintendo attempted to play with the formula of Pokémon to reach a wider audience, with a hugely successful card game, the underwhelming Pokémon Stadium and its sequel – that eschewed story for battles – and the highly ill-advised Pokémon Snap – an on-rail first-person game, where you just photograph Pokémons.
But more than any of those versions, its Pokémon Go that goes most against the ethos and ideology of what Pokémon is supposed to be – as envisioned by creater Satoshi Tajiri, who was an avid collector of insects in his youth.
Go, as its name would suggest, throws you right into your own city on a quest to capture Pokémon. That’s where the problems start. There’s no context and nothing to explain just why on earth you are catching these things.
To get as many as possible and complete the set?
To kill time?
To be like all your friends who are also doing it?
To find some replacement for the now-fairly-passé Candy Crush?
In the absence of context and the philosophy of the Pokémon world, the exercise is entirely futile. You may as well be going looking for geocached documents or discount coupons for a variety of restaurants and stores.
The next problem is with what you do once you’ve captured a Pokémon. In the Game Boy games, you are responsible for training them, ensuring they’re in prime shape and tip-top health. On Go, they’re little more than trophies.
And finally, there’s the most crucial problem: The absence of an engaging story – the threadbare rationale for what you are doing that is provided by Go isn't worthy of being called a story.
The Pokémon games work so well because of the story that gives form, shape and reason to your adventuring. The games work so well because of the non-playable characters, the missions on which they send you and the dialogues they share with you. For instance, it’s only after you’ve gone through Diglett’s Cave and cracked the missions therein that you can truly understand the value of capturing a rare Dugtrio. Similarly, the dilemma of just what evolved form to confer upon your Eevee – there are eight options – only makes sense when you realise that what is done, cannot be undone and you will never find an Eevee again. Or how about the agony of missing out on a Mewtwo – the rarest Pokémon in the first game? How about the fact that there were no mods available to 'game' the system with the original games (and you were compelled to work hard for your achievements), the way mods keep popping up for Go?
You won’t find any of that in Go, because it’s an app and not a game. Augmented reality is great, no doubt. But it’s not for Pokémon. Not yet anyway.
And to anyone who has played and loved the actual games, that – and not the danger of being hit by vehicles, walking off a cliff or losing a job – is the reason to steer clear of Go. Instead, download an emulator of the original games and prepare to step into the real world of Pokémon.