Pokémon GO Review: Magic From Mediocrity

I don’t think anyone could have anticipated Pokémon GO’s runaway success. What started out as a Google Maps April Fools’ joke has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon, skyrocketing Nintendo’s value and prompting millions to leave the house to hunt imaginary creatures. I don’t need to tell you this; it’s all over the news, and everyone has heard of “That New Pokémon Thing” by now. What’s incredible about Pokémon GO’s triumph is that it’s all despite the app’s systemic mediocrity, laundry list of technical issues, and overall lack of support from its creators.

After customising your trainer avatar and struggling to find a free screen name, you’ll be guided through catching your starter Pokémon: one of the venerable trio of Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle. Finding and catching Pokémon starts by leaving the house and going for a walk, and when you’re close enough to a Pokémon it’ll pop up on your Google Maps-like interface. Hunting down specific ‘Mon in your area is aided by the “Nearby” feature, which uses a hot/cold approach indicated by the number of footprints beside each individual creature: fewer footsteps means you’re closer.

Once you’re close enough to unveil a Pokémon, the catching process is initiated by tapping the creature on your screen. The game then enters a first-person viewpoint as viewed by your phone’s camera, superimposing the Pokémon onto your camera’s view via AR (or a generic field scene if that’s not your bag). You then fling Pokéballs at your quarry Paper Toss-style to catch it before it runs away, timing your throw alongside a shrinking circle for the best chance at success. There’s no weakening your targets via battle; catching creatures in Pokémon GO is closer to the Safari Zone areas of the main series.

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Levelling and evolving your cast of Pokémon is different to the original games, too. Capturing a creature lands you two currencies: Stardust, a generic resource used to increase your Pokémon’s Combat Power (CP); and Candy, a species-specific resource that is fed to your Pokémon to make them evolve. This encourages catching monsters of the same species repeatedly to accrue enough Candy to power up and diversify your collection of Pokémon. Duplicates can be permanently transferred to this game’s guide, Professor Willow, in exchange for an extra piece of Candy.

Wild Pokémon aren’t the only things you’ll be hunting in your area. Scattered around the map are Pokéstops, which are small landmarks that you check into for items such as Pokéballs, Potions, Revives, and Razz Berries (an item that can be fed to wild Pokémon to reduce the likelihood of their fleeing). These points of interest help give you something to aim for as you amble in search of nearby rarities. Interestingly, I’ve learned a great deal about the areas around my house that I wouldn’t have spotted or sought out otherwise- statues with some unseen detail or graffiti I’ve walked past a thousand times without noting.

Slightly more substantial landmarks, however, are awarded Gym status. This is where battling comes in, acting as the game’s multiplayer aspect. When you reach player level 5, you’ll be able to join one of three teams: Valor, Mystic, or Instinct. Players from each team will fight for control over Gyms for their faction. Training at an allied Gym will increase its level to allow more creatures to be assigned to defend it, while challenging and winning battles at a rival Gym will lower the its level until it’s empty to be claimed for your faction.

Fighting over and claiming Gyms is the game’s most disappointing feature by far; it’s such a poor representation of the main Pokémon series’ battle system. Rather than tactical turn-based battles, Pokémon GO’s fights are a repetitive and boring numbers game. Pokémon CP stats are probably the most important factor in winning a fight. Challenge a gym and you’ll face each of its defending Pokémon in what amounts to a mashfest; prodding the screen doles out your fighter’s basic attack, which charges a special attack that is activated by holding your finger down. Incoming attacks can be dodged through swiping to the side, but to be honest it’s more efficient to mindlessly assault your phone. Type advantages can be leveraged to take down your rivals, but more often than not the creature with the highest CP will win and the random assignment of each Pokémon’s paltry couple of learned attacks is a source of much frustration if you’re trying to play smart.

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The whole Gym-competition process very much favours attackers; defenders can be knocked out of the gym one at a time, and if your Pokémon faint then you can back out to revive them before continuing your assault, meaning with enough healing items you can simply brute-force your way to victory. You’ve also got a team of 6 Pokémon with which to make your assault, which is at least a couple more monsters than the average Gym will hold. This makes it incredibly hard to maintain your hold on a gym for long enough to earn substantial defender bonuses. Needless to say, the whole battling system is mechanically weak and a near-pointless expenditure of time and resources.

Aside from that major mechanical failing, Pokémon GO is absolutely rife with technical issues so ubiquitous that you’ll be hard pressed to find discussion pass without their mention. The game frequently crashes and loses contact with the servers, an issue especially prevalent whilst catching Pokémon. Countless times I’ve had to reset the app as the game freezes on a rattling Pokéball, hoping that either I’ve caught the creature or that it’ll deign to reappear nearby for another chance at capturing it. Checking into Pokéstops frequently doesn’t work, halting your progress as you dumbly swipe at the screen in vain.

The Nearby feature has been broken for over a week now, showing all surrounding creatures as a distance of 3 footprints away. The use of this feature was more art than science when it was actually working due to its vague nature and and the unreliable updating of your location by GPS. Now players are forced to utilise the even more imprecise method of walking in random directions until their desired Pokémon moves to the top of the list, then hoping it springs up in the general vicinity.

It’s a fairly common occurrence for one of the game’s several menus or features to simply not load- arbitrarily locking player out of the Store, refusing to transfer duplicate Pokémon, or failing to load Gym battles. One time for me, after earning enough Pokécoins to make a purchase in the store the game decided to buy double the number of my desired item, effectively stealing my currency. That would be incredibly frustrating had I acquired those coins through microtransactions.

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The most vexing factor in all of this is the almost complete lack of communication on Niantic’s part amidst these ubiquitous issues. Despite Pokémon GO’s overwhelming success, there doesn’t seem to be any substantial effort yet made to patch any technical problems. Servers would frequently break down entirely, often coinciding with the release of Pokémon GO in a new country. A quick check of official Twitter channels reveals a frankly lacklustre level of community interaction and support, the infrequent updates all-but ignoring the slew of problems ailing the app. It’s a situation that makes me wonder if they’re lazy, swamped, or just incompetent. That’s not a good look.

Pokémon GO, then, is a shallow, mechanically unfaithful game in technical shambles.

And I can’t stop playing it.

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Despite its many, many failures and incompetences as a game and product, I’m borderline addicted to Pokémon GO. At time of writing I’ve caught over half of the available creatures. I’ve walked just under 75KM with the app open. The first night I acquired the game I walked around collecting Pokémon until my phone battery died, forcing me to come home. The same thing happened the following night. By the third day I’d acquired a portable phone charger to prevent that from happening again.

Pokémon GO manages, with simple geocaching and jumpy AR that makes the game harder, to inject a sense of adventure and discovery into the mundane real world. It magically invokes the fantasy that’s been the core of Pokémon since the beginning. I’ll run outside or explore new places just because a new Pokémon appears on the Nearby list, and several unintended hours will pass by almost by accident before I reluctantly return home.

Beyond that, Pokémon GO brings people together. On my first night out with the game I met and chatted with 7 strangers in chance encounters as we felt our way through its early stages. “All I want right now is a Dratini”, said one person. “I’ve hear there’s quite a few Dratini on Burley Road”, another chipped in. “Yeah, that’s the word of trainers I’ve met around there”.

Since then I’ve seen untold numbers of people out hunting for Pokémon. The game inspires conversation and co-operation; a Pokémon found in a location is catchable for everyone that stumbles upon it until it despawns. You can acquire Lures to attach to Pokéstops, summoning wild Pokémon to the spot for every player in the area for the next 30 minutes. You’re very likely to collaborate with at least one person in order to find some elusive creature, and in my experience it’s natural and easy. That’s quite something, speaking as someone that suffers from anxiety.

I have some doubts regarding the game’s longevity, but with the right updates I can see playtime stretching from a couple of months to several years. Currently the endgame is basically hatching eggs in the hope of acquiring unfound Pokémon to fill out your Pokédex. There’s a lot of features that I’d love to see: a friends system, trades, breeding, and most importantly an overhaul of the battle mechanics with the option to challenge friends to a fight. I really hope that Niantic listens to feedback and works to make Pokémon GO reach its sky-high potential.

Somehow, somehow, this game is so much more than the sum of its parts. Somewhere between the freezes, server crashes, and mediocre mechanics, there’s a magic to Pokémon GO. With some improvement, it could be the Pokémon game we’ve always wanted.

The Alison Rapp Situation

Yesterday, Alison Rapp of Nintendo Treehouse, was fired from her job following a hateful harassment campaign seemingly spearheaded by Gamer Gate supporters.

It’s the current headlining event of the ongoing Video Game Culture War, as it’s being called; although labelling this event as an act of warfare might lend undue legitimacy to what’s essentially thousands of children throwing a misinformed, illogical, and uneducated tantrum.

There were several alterations made localise the English version of Fire Emblem Fates for the West. “Skinship” was removed, which is a mini-game that occurs when you invite a character back to your room to spend time with them and gain support bonuses from them. In the Japanese version you pet them on the face using the touch screen, but this was removed in the English version of the game. Other decisions include leaving out the Japanese audio track, and altering other sections of the game perceived as problematic to Western audiences. A lot of people were displeased about the localisation of this game. So displeased, in fact, that they decided to grab their pitchforks, light their torches and attempt, in earnest, to ruin a woman.

The harassment of Rapp came about several months ago, when alterations in Fire Emblem Fates’ Western release became apparent. Criticism of the changes decried the changes as an act of “censorship”, with people wanting a more “authentic” version of the game in English. Rapp, as an employee of the Treehouse -Nintendo of America’s product development division that were responsible for the localisation of the English version of Fates- came under fire from people that blamed her for the modified or missing sections of the game. This is despite the fact that she worked not in the localisation department, but in marketing as a spokesperson for the game; the decisions for what parts of the game should remain intact were never made by her. She was simply the most visible employee related to the game’s Western release.

The constant witch-hunt that characterises reactionary Gamer Gate culture had found a new target, and so began the cycle of harassment that’s sadly too often seen nowadays. Research on Rapp turned up evidence of her personal views on Feminism as well as details of her personal life, as well as her open criticism of the harassment of women that was perpetrated by Gamer Gaters in the fever-pitch stages of the movement. People used these findings to justify calling her names like “Feminazi” and “SJW”, which are insults that always make you seem very rational and clever.

Amongst the discoveries about Rapp’s personal life was an academic essay she wrote in 2012 in defence of the Japanese culture around sexualising girls that much of the West would label underage. The work focuses on the nuanced societal contexts around pornography laws in Japan, and the legitimacy of International pressure on Japan for it. This led to her critics including white supremacist site the Daily Stormer, to label Rapp as a paedophile, or a paedophile supporter. This is in spite of the nature of localisation that the Treehouse had performed on Fire Emblem Fates; it seems to me that people had become so focused on demonising and discrediting Rapp that they forgot she was arguing about the cultural legitimacy of content pertaining to elements they wanted in the game for authenticity’s sake.

Throughout this whole debacle, Nintendo remained quiet. The company offered no comment or support as one of their employees endured what must have been an extremely scary ordeal. Instead, they quietly moved Rapp away from the spotlight, and ultimately decided to terminate her job yesterday. Rapp tweeted in announcement of the occasion: “Today, the decision is made: I am no longer a good, safe representative of Nintendo, and my employment has been terminated.”

Nintendo denied that the harassment campaign was related to Alison Rapp’s termination in a statement provided to IGN. They stated that Rapp was fired not as a result of her “being the subject of criticism from certain groups via social media”, rather for “violation of an internal company policy involving holding a second job in conflict with Nintendo’s corporate culture”. They go on to say that they “firmly reject the harassment of individuals based on gender, race, or personal beliefs”, which I’m sure Alison found very reassuring and helpful.

Rapp admitted on Twitter that she had carried out some moonlighting under a pseudonym (Nintendo has a strict policy on their representatives in non-sanctioned appearances; localiser Chris Pranger was terminated following an appearance on Part-Time Gamers Podcast and talking candidly about work), claiming that she was working anonymously to avoid people connecting the dots between her side-work and Nintendo, while she earned some extra cash to help with student loans. She also tweeted that “Moonlighting is actually accepted at Nintendo. It’s policy”. That’s a claim that has the potential to throw a spanner in Nintendo’s carefully-worded rationale.

The concluding section of this post features a lot of conjecture on my part, although it’s the story that makes the most sense to me given the information I’ve found. Feel free to form your own opinions based around what information you’d care to gather if you feel like I haven’t presented enough to support my closing statements.

Nintendo is a company whose mascot features so few discernible character traits that he could barely be considered offensive to anyone (aside from the Italian stereotype thing). It seems most likely to me that Nintendo fired Alison Rapp because she is a person that’s outspoken about her views, Nintendo’s suits wanted to distance the company from someone with views that some people on the internet take umbrage with. Someone dug through Rapp’s past with such an obsession that they could concretely link her to anonymous work not even related to games. Nintendo used that information to axe her in stead of their real grievance: she’s a high-profile figure in social media that doesn’t fit into their modus operandi: risk-less, inoffensive and above all tightly controlled messaging. So afraid they were of alienating any small portion of their audience, no matter how vile their actions and tactics are, that they grabbed whatever reason they could find to get rid of her.

Image credits- mynintendonews.com

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD Review

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD continues the unrelenting trend of HD remakes, as well as the apparent Nintendo initiative to rerelease the Legend of Zelda back catalogue. Benefiting from modern graphics processing and unbound from the Wii’s motion controls, Twilight Princess HD revives one of the darker stories in the series’ history, replete with tweaks to improve the experience.

Twilight Princess is very much a Zelda game, and so it follows the familiar formula: you’re Link, an originally humble young man that rises to heroism armed with the ability to endlessly roll into pottery without sustaining a concussion. You wear green (most of the time), throw chickens, and have a horse. Gorons, Zora, Leevers and a boomerang. You know the drill.

Twilight Princess’ trick is that denizens of the Twilight Realm are invading the land of Hyrule, enveloping the land in a sinister haze that reduces the populace to mere spirits. Link however, chosen as the avatar of courage by the goddesses, assumes beast form while in twilight zones, allowing him to fight back against the darkness in the form of a wolf and with the help of friendly Twilight companion Midna.

The core gameplay loop revolves around lifting the twilight curse from affected areas as well as the time honoured Zelda tradition of- say it with me- clearing out dungeons to collect X amount of magical McGuffins to Save The Day (literally, in the case of Twilight Princess).

If you’ve played any amount of the Legend of Zelda series, you can probably rattle off the themes of the various dungeons and temples found here: fire, water, forest, time, shadow, desert, ice. Twilight Princess’ greatness lies simply in its solid dungeon and puzzle design. Even the water-based temple manages to avoid being outright infuriating. The layout of the rooms, puzzles, enemies and bosses is spot-on making each dungeon a joy to play through.

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Twilight Princess’ other main strength lies in its visual design. This is maybe the darkest Zelda to date (except for Majora’s Mask), narratively and literally. Realms draped in twilight feel suitably warped, and the twilight enemies are perfectly creepy and twisted. Primary antagonist, Zant, has an especially inspired design that truly sets him apart. And when things take a lighter turn, you’re treated with luscious colour returning to the world and hazy golden light replacing the sombre tones of the twilight curse. The game excels at creating a world steeped in history and grandeur. Twilight Princess might be a spiritual successor to Ocarina of Time, but its look is absolutely its own.

While combat in Twilight Princess is faithful to the trademark combat of the series, it’s worth mentioning that, unbound from the cumbersome motion controls that turned some off the Wii release, Twilight Princess HD boasts a sturdy and satisfying combat system. Your initial well of familiar abilities- horizontal and vertical sword swipes, stabs, jumping and spinning attacks- is gradually expanded upon as you’re taught hidden skills by the Hero’s Shade, a character very important to Zelda lore.

The drip feed of new abilities, as well as your constantly growing arsenal of items and gadgets, makes play feel like it’s constantly evolving as you gain more potent and varied options of dealing with problems.

Gameplay in Link’s wolf form is also a joy, with Wolf Link’s high manoeuvrability and limited but formidable set of abilities. I really like this dual state of gameplay, especially later on when you get to switch between the two forms at will. I often chose to morph into Wolf Link to sprint across the world rather than call my horse Epona, because while Epona controls well in motion and combat, she controls horribly if you’re moving across anything less than open fields.

We have this beautifully designed world with expertly crafted mechanics and challenges, but there’s something stopping me from fully engaging with the narrative. I absolutely adore the lore that Twilight Princess offers, and I think the story’s actually very well plotted. There are loads of interesting little narratives sprinkled throughout the story, and Twilight Princess has some great oddball characters. I do feel like Zelda games lean too heavily on oddball characters though, and they miss the mark a bit too often with the wacky writing. With so many zany characters it’s sometimes hard to take the world seriously enough to care about saving the people in it. Luckily the narrative is strong enough that I always wanted to see what happened next.

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The core game of Twilight Princess HD is largely unchanged from the initial release. Changes to the game are mainly to help gameplay run smoother with the benefit of hindsight and the WiiU hardware. Item changes are handled with the WiiU gamepad touchscreen, and the transformation between Human and Wolf forms for Link can now be handled with a single icon tap rather than having to strike up a conversation with Midna, which makes transformation-heavy segments run much more slickly. You start with a larger wallet, too, holding up to 500 rupees at the start of the game. Five hundred rupees is still nowhere near a useful amount, and this is a problem I’ve always had with Zelda games, but it’s a welcome change nonetheless.

Of course, the graphical overhaul is where the bulk of the effort has been put. Twilight Princess HD does a decidedly okay job in updating the graphical fidelity to be palatable for modern audiences, making the GameCube and Wii originals look quite dated by comparison. The step-up to high definition does improve the feel of the world and allows us to greater appreciate that excellent visual design as we drink in ancient ruins and bustling castles.

The graphical update is just okay, though. Twilight Princess HD still very much looks like a last generation game, and while Link himself and a handful of main characters’ character models look great, there are lots of instances where the world just doesn’t look as good as I might expect from a 2016 release. Just look at the work that Saber Interactive put into remastering Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2; they took two very dated games and made them look like contemporary releases. Granted, they were working with more power than the WiiU can perhaps offer, but still: I think Nintendo could have done better with Twilight Princess HD.

Twilight Princess HD was largely a technically smooth experience for me, although the experience was marred by the occasional bugs. In tight areas the camera was prone to juddering, which tended to stop once I’d manoeuvred Link or the camera to a more open space. There was also a recurring bug in the sand temple where Link would keep start walking very slowly, as though he were walking through quicksand spots, even though he was firmly on solid ground. This meant that I had to switch rooms or die to reset so that the timed puzzle in one of the rooms was doable. It was an easily fixed but nonetheless serious downer for what was one of my favourite dungeons of the game.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD is a good remake of a splendid Zelda game. It pays its due diligence; the graphics are updated to be palatable to modern audiences, although the overhaul does not excel by any means. The controls translate well to the WiiU gamepad, and I really do appreciate the many little changes that have improved upon some of the niggling annoyances of the original game. If you didn’t play Twilight Princess when it came out, the game is still a fantastic Zelda game today, sitting alongside Wind Waker as one of my personal favourites in the series.

Pokémon GO: Don’t Get Your Hopes Up Yet

So, Pokémon GO was announced. Haven’t seen the trailer yet? Well, go watch it. I linked it just here for you. Cool, wasn’t it? Got a lot of questions, now, don’t you?

For those of you who haven’t seen the trailer, Pokémon GO is essentially the Pokémon Google maps April fool’s prank from last year: a location detection-driven game which may or not be AR (thanks to the confusion of the last 3 seconds of the trailer versus the rest of it), where you find Pokémon near to you using location services on your smart phone in order to catch the Pokémon. It seems that the game will be using many of the same mechanics as the main series, namely Pokémon battles and catching wild ‘mon with Poke balls. You can also buy a bracelet called the “Pokémon GO Plus”, which vibrates to let you know when an event, like a wild Pokémon, is nearby.

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The game’s being developed by Niantic, known for their AR location-based game Ingress, inassociation with Nintendo and the Pokémon Company. Not many details about the game have been released besides the trailer. We don’t know to what extent the gameplay of the main series is represented, the extent of Pokémon being confined to their habitats (are all Pokémon available in, say, a single city or county area?), and how often are legendary Pokémon events (hinted in the trailer as a girl battles Mewtwo in times square while a clock counts down the time of the special event). If the game is AR and uses a graphical style similar to much of the trailer, will there be support for AR glasses like Google Glass? For the record, I don’t care how stupid I’d look if that were the case.

There are also a few questions to be raised about potentially problematic aspects of the game. This setup is prime real estate for the pay-to-win model; if you need to buy Pokéballs, do you pay real money, or do you have to buy in-game currency? In the main series, you earn cash through beating other trainers, whereas the other trainers in this game are real people, so does the winner get in-game cash as a prize gift, or are the funds subtracted from the loser? Even if this game is the AR dream that we’re all hoping for, pay-to-win mechanics could be a real deal breaker.

Pokémon GO is currently scheduled for release in 2016. I’ll file this one under “Intriguing” for now.