Pokemon Go: the lamest way to catch ‘em all

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

Pokemon is one of those franchises that makes me suspect I really missed out on something in my childhood. While I was generally familiar with the franchise while growing up, I never got “into it” until high school. At that time, several of my friends played the video games, which, for those who don’t know, are the canon for the series — everything else, such as the anime, is derived from them. I decided to see what they were so interested in, so I bought a used copy of one of the games and had a blast. Then bought another, and another eventually the entire main series, give or take a few and now I’m waiting happily for November 2016, which will feature another major release.

Now, one might think that I was among the many excited for this summer’s release of Pokemon Go. At first, I was. What could be better, I thought, than getting to be the “very best, like no one ever was” in real life? Turns out, anything is better. I didn’t even try to download the game (to be fair, my phone never has storage space anyway) because I soon saw that it is a hollow shell. Pokemon Go is an insult to the name of “Pokemon,” a tremendously dumbed-down attempt to manipulate nostalgic millennials into wasting time and money.

As someone who has played enough Pokemon games to have observed how the series’ gameplay has evolved from its beginning, I am offended that Niantic (Pokemon Go’s developer) decided to neuter the system and leave only its bare bones. Pokemon is meant to be a role-playing game, where the challenge, and thus the entertainment value, is found in hunting and catching all the monsters, in making snap decisions in battle and most importantly, in creating a balanced set of monsters, attacks and items for your team. The problem with Pokemon Go is that it does an adequate job handling the first of those three, and in a very spectacular and enthralling fashion no less, but it reduces the other two to a combination of luck and picking personal favorites, without concern for actual skill.

During the years I’ve played Pokemon, I’ve seen a number of very intense battles: I recall one match where I planned a specific tactic in advance with a friend, with both of us training specific Pokemon for things to work, only to have it fail because of an unexpected response from our opponents —  yet we came back and won. Pokemon Go offers no chance for that strategy; battles are reduced to bad button mashing, and teams can be “unbalanced” (i.e. six Pikachus, or any team with duplicates, would have no chance in real Pokemon battles, but in Pokemon Go, they can if you catch strong ones). Whether your Pokemon are any good is simply due to how long you’ve played, plus luck (which, I admit, is a factor that’s always been there —  because no one wants to catch the exact same monster every time).

The opportunity to “catch ‘em all” is a major selling point of the game for a generation of people who grew up with the TV show. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. What is a problem, though, is billing this nostalgia-packed game as free, then sneaking in seemingly innocuous charges, using real currency and not the in-game money, for unsuspecting users. These insidious costs are called microtransactions, and they’re nothing new to video games; mobile games are especially prone to them, as it allows companies to make a profit off the game when there’s zero upfront cost.

Now, for many players, microtransactions in Pokemon Go will never be a concern; they’ll just consciously make an effort to never waste their real money on the game. But some players are not so restrained. Perhaps they’ve used all their Pokeballs before they go out on a hike to catch more Pokemon, so they spend a quick dollar or two to restock, in case they encounter anything rare. Or perhaps they can’t wait to hatch an egg, so they purchase an incubator to speed up the process. All these things cost in-game cash, but where does one get this? You buy it with your own cash, or more likely, a credit card, because it’s so accessible. And enough people play like this to turn a hefty profit for Niantic; they’re in the black because their millennial customers are sufficiently impatient, as a group, to pay for things they could get over time if they waited.

It’s tragic that Nintendo let another company drag this beloved franchise through the mud. By stripping Pokemon down to the pocket monsters that are its namesake, Niantic shows that it doesn’t understand what made the franchise so popular in the first place.

I for one will wait until November, and hope that Nintendo’s newest real Pokemon game restores my hope and enjoyment for the series.

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