Pokémon Go is a great experience, but a terrible video game

If you want the most enjoyable Pokémon experience, the Nintendo 3DS is still your best bet...

The second you boot up Pokémon Go you can easily see how it has become the phenomenon it is.

It is the perfect marriage of idea and branding. After all, Pokémon Go - which is finally available in Ireland - is in many respects a reskin of developer Niantic Lab’s previous game Ingress. In that game, you explore and ‘capture’ landmarks as you explore virtual maps by exploring in real-life - exactly the same way you play Go.

Ingress built a cult following, but it was never quite a runaway success. Adding Pokémon to the mix - building on a classic Google April Fools' joke - was an ingenious way to not only reach a massive new audience, but also arguably fully realise the basic ideas that defined Ingress. The difference a colourful coat of paint and 150 pocket monsters can make.

There’s a genuine thrill to a Pokémon popping up nearby as you walk or drive around - even if it is just another darn Rattata or Pidgey. Even when you quickly get over the novelty of the game’s alternate reality camera mode, the idea of helping capture a world map while 'catching 'em all' is irresistible for those of us who grew up as Pokémon players.

The problem, however, is a significant one: Pokémon Go is a dreadful video game.

Before we get to why that is, we have to explain why the traditional Pokémon games are fantastic video games in the first place. We’re talking about the main Pokémon series here - the handheld RPGs that started with the iconic Red & Blue versions. There are dozens of spin-offs to the main series, but really the majority of them are worth ignoring.

However, the main games - which have moved from the Gameboy to the Gameboy Advance, and then to the DS and 3DS - are popular for very good reasons. There’s the obvious ones: the iconic character design; the level of polish applied to each game; the simple but effective presentation; and the sheer thrill in ‘catching 'em all’.

There’s much more to them, though. Nintendo and Game Freak’s decision to sell two different versions of every game was perhaps cynical but also ingenious - it encourages co-operative and social play in a really positive way. By no stretch of the imagination is Pokémon the most expansive or complex RPG series in existence - but that works to its benefit, striking a welcome balance between accessibility and complexity.

The series hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years. Having played Red and Gold (or generations I and II) as a kid, a few years ago I picked up Pokémon Y (or generation VI) out of curiosity. It was still fundamentally familiar, and some of the new Pokémon were a bit naff (Klefki prime among them). But the experience had also been refined and expanded in some really clear ways without undermining what made those early games so appealing almost two decades ago.

Pokémon games, basically, are great games. Pokémon Go is not a great game.


Pokémon Go's concept is so strong that it will keep many - myself included - playing for quite a while yet. But as a Pokémon game, it’s shambolic.

Obviously, server issues are a major problem at the moment given the game’s unprecedented popularity. Even when they’re working as intended, though, the game is undeniably glitchy and unpolished. That, admittedly, comes with the territory - this is a technologically complex game operating on an almost global scale, and it’s semi-miraculous modern phone and GPS technology can keep up with it at all.

However, for a series that has always been notable for the amount of care and polish put into it - MissingNo excluded - Pokémon Go is, well, a bit of a mess.

While many of the familiar Pokémon mechanics carry over, they have lost a lot in translation. Battles are now tedious where previously they were dynamic and exciting. Evolution and levelling up is a long, frustrating process in the new app, compared to more recent games that have managed to successfully make the experience much less of a ‘grind’.

There’s also an element of randomness to the experience - while a certain logic dictates where Pokémon are (Pikachu near electrical sources, for example) it can be frustrating trying to track down ones you are looking for. It doesn’t help that the game’s ‘nearby’ feature remains maddeningly vague and inconsistent.

Then there’s the fact that Pokémon Go is ‘free-to-play’. That means that some of the game design choices are inevitably restrictive in order to encourage you to pay some money.

To be fair, Pokémon Go is far better than many free-to-play games - it is generous with basic supplies, and most of the optional purchases are largely unnecessary. You can definitely play without paying, and it's not 'play to win'. But it’s clear that helpful items like incense are thin on the group to encourage people to purchase - which is perfectly acceptable given the game is free in the first place, but it does add a clearly commercial element to the very game design that wasn’t there with the games you just buy outright.

Pokémon Go is still freshly hatched, and given the nature of modern gaming updates over the coming weeks, months and years could effectively change Pokémon Go entirely. They’re already working on introducing trading with other players - an essential element of any Pokémon game that is sorely missed in the early version of Go. The servers will stablise and the whole experience will hopefully become much smoother than it is now.

There is no denying Pokémon Go is a brilliant, clever idea with just good enough execution to have bewitched millions. But if you’re looking for a really, really good Pokémon game? Well, Sun and Moon are out later this year...