The Games that Defined the Decade: Pokemon Go

Gotta not get hit by a car

I remember the first time my mom mentioned Pokémon Go. The game had just had its awful, broken launch, but it worked pretty well in the remote area she lived in. She called to ask me about it because all of the employees at her store were playing it on their breaks and on the job when they thought she wasn’t watching them through the store’s CCTV. At this point, my mom was aware of what Pokémon was due to having me as a son, but probably not familiar enough with it tell the difference between a Squirtle and a Pikachu.

So she called me to ask me about the game and when I explained to her what it was, she replied, “There are Pokémon all over the store. I saw them on the phones.” This is an absolutely perfect “mom” description of what Pokémon Go is. Yes, it’s the game that puts little pocket monsters in her store, in parks, at universities, on the highway, and everywhere else Niantic programmed them to appear. Pokémon were everywhere, and so were trainers of all ages who came together to catch ’em all.

Pokemon Go

It’s a rare occurrence for a mobile game to absolutely dominate the zeitgeist. There are popular apps that rake in millions of dollars every year, from Candy Crush to Arena of Valor, but no other smartphone title of this past decade brought together casual and hardcore players from countries around the world. The novelty of the experience — walking around your city or town hunting these creatures — was so simple that even people who’d never played a Pokémon game before would at least see the appeal of it. For those who had spent years collecting all the ‘mons on their Game Boys, GBAs, and dual-screen devices, it afforded them the opportunity to become a trainer in ways they could only pretend to before.

On paper, Pokémon Go seems like the most obvious idea for a guaranteed success, but we can’t gloss over how unlikely its continued popularity seemed at launch. Sure, it was going to be big in the beginning because it’s Pokémon and just about everything that franchise touches turns to gold. But it hit app stores in a rough way. It crashed a lot, it was feature light, and there wasn’t much to the gameplay outside of catching ’em all. We scored it 3.5 because its launch was such a disaster.

But the game slowly got better, and as it got better, the promise of the technology developed by Niantic — based on its original title Ingress — became clearer. Pokémon Go was a game that made full use of every aspect of a smartphone, from its camera to its touchscreen to the tracking of your movement that we can only hope won’t be used for nefarious reasons. It set a benchmark for what developers could do with burgeoning AR technology, and like all popular experiments, it paved the way for a variety of imitators based on some of the biggest intellectual properties in entertainment.

Pokémon Go may not get the headlines it did in its first few months. There are no more stories of people trespassing onto government property, getting hit by cars, being assaulted, having their phones stolen, or stumbling upon dead bodies while trying to catch that Raichu. But don’t for a second think that means nobody is playing. It’s not the fad people claimed it would be in the same way Pokémon isn’t the fad many thought it would be in the ’90s. Pokémon Go is a cultural landmark and currently the best example of how augmented reality can change how the world interacts with games and how those games interact with the world.

[You can read all of our Games of the Decade choices here as they arrive.]

CJ Andriessen
Just what the internet needs: yet another white guy writing about video games.