By Neil Merrett
When it was released last year, Pokemon Go, a mobile app based around Nintendo’s all conquering collect-em-up series, offered to provide value and companionship in the intangible. It arguably fell short in maintaining such mystique in the long-term, yet the potential of augmented reality could still be huge for a commercial titan willing to take a few risks.
Pokemon Go was developed by Niantic as an app that let humans in the real world track down and then capture a selection of Pokemon in specific locations through their phone, whether in woodlands, the heart of British democracy or even outside a kebab shop. It was briefly the most-high profile app in the world in terms of news coverage, social interaction and even impacts on some church congregations.
As a licensed product rather than Nintendo-backed software, Niantic’s app nonetheless embodied some of the main values of the Pokemon series, such as exploration, interaction and battling imaginative and not-so imaginatively designed creatures imprisoned in balls.
For many gamers that have once loved or even stuck with a 21 year-old game series that first debuted on the original Gameboy in 1996, Pokemon has thrived on a heady emotional and commercial cocktail of building up a squad of lovable and ferocious creatures to battle.
In essence, it provides a perfect pet; a creature that will battle and die for their owner, but which can be handily sealed away in storage when needing a break. A Pokemon can be just for Christmas without any of the usual pitfalls of having to care for a vulnerable creature.
With creatures transferable between certain game titles, the concept of Pokemon as a game and its wider series of cards, movies and comics, was is forging an attachment with the creatures you have to tame, defeat and usually capture.
Having been created in the mid-90s alongside software such as the Petz series of desktop creatures or the Tamagotchi LCD devices that required individuals to train, feed and clean up a primitive digital pet, the game fit perfectly into the short-lived zeitgeist for cyber animals.
Pokemon, which initially came in just two varieties of red or blue coloured cartridges, has remained a significant commercial draw over the following decades in a way that tamagotchis or Dogz and Catz, as well as a host of physical mechanical pets have not.
The most obvious reason is that the game creates a narrative bond between the player and various Pokémon in order to build a relationship forged by rearing the creatures to battle nefarious organisations, rival trainers and malevolent creatures in a way that an LCD screen powered piece of plastic that solely poops and eats can’t.
It is like having your own cuddly army to go to war with.
But where next might the series go in trying to capture the essence of bonding with a pet?
Games such as The Last Guardian on PS4 were delayed for around a decade of development to try and build up a more genuine story about a young hero forming an attachment with a seemingly lifelike hybrid of puppy and dragon that left some critics in awe and others somewhat frustrated with the experience.
Yet those that loved the game mostly did so for the nature of your relationship with the gigantic creature known as Trico, which served as a kind of wild, potentially lovable creature to be nurtured and cared for, as well as protected. No small feat when a good dozen or so times the size of the player.
Pokemon, albeit now in a form that is much more technically sophisticated than earlier versions of the game, is arguably not designed with the same depth regarding the bonds between man and animal.
The initial game was built partly on the concept of rock, paper, scissors, where a player must select a pet with elemental properties that could overpower a rival animal. Fire beats water, stone defeats electric, etc.
Yet the idea of naming and forging a basic relationship with an animal is surely central to the appeal of the series.
When Paddington, your level 12 Pidgeot is felled for the first time by a wild electric-based Pokemon – the series’ creatures are built around mostly elemental classes of animal of fire and water that have since been expanded to include Fairy-types – players are supposed to feel some connection.
Admittedly, the ethics of forcing captured animals into battle was always going to fall foul of animal right’s advocates, perhaps justifying a more fantastic menagerie of ghost and dragon-like creatures alongside genetically modified telepathic mutants and bog standard caterpillars.
With the latest versions of the main Pokemon series hitting the 3DS this month, the Pokemon Go mobile app remains a distinct, sometimes controversial entity in the Pokemon franchise, rather than an interesting new direction for the series.
With augmented reality supported by the 3DS, the opportunity to take the exploration and global events of the app of and add real world appeal to the usual tracking down of unique creatures to the 21 year-old game series seems a bold evolution for a game that puts a lot of sway on the process of expanding and changing.
It will be interesting to see how the series develops from its enormous popularity at a time where games are increasingly looking to explore more complex real world narratives about relationships and loss, while also incorporating concepts such as permadeath. In Pokemon, would the stakes be much higher and perhaps rewarding if your own reared creatures or Pikachu named after a beloved first pet was also at risk of permanent loss and erasure in a poorly-planned battle?
What if this was a creature that had been hunted down by the player in some real-world locale and raised on a steady diet of care, training and suburban battles? The nurture aspect of the game could carry a whole new, and perhaps unwanted level of emotional depth.
Pokemon Go hinted at a wild, feral existence living in our broadband, offering a form of solace and surprise in an increasingly digital world. Yet without the main game’s series narrative and adventure to forge relationships the series, the spin-off app and Nintendo appears to be falling short of the more emotive potential of the series.
At a time where Nintendo is working to blur the boundaries between gaming in a bedroom and out in the world around us with its hybrid Switch console, Pokemon should be a perfect heightened reality of the experience of bonding with beloved creatures.
When it comes to really innovating the Pokemon concept beyond its profitable and barely changed RPG battles, Nintendo has been found wanting.
Pokemon delivers the fun, but does it really give us the feels?