More than just a way to discover dead bodies and irritate law enforcement, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality multiplayer smartphone game that has quickly amassed a huge amount of interest. But where does it all come from? Indeed, what even is a Pokémon? Here’s a brief history of a phenomenon 20 years in the making.
A bug collector's fantasy
Pokémon is a Japanese creation. The man responsible for it, Satoshi Tajiri, was inspired by a childhood fascination with collecting bugs. The main games in the series are developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo. Pokémon's golden years shone through the late nineties and early 2000s, starting with Pokémon Red and Blue, which were released for the Game Boy in the US in 1998.
What is Pokémon?
The duo of games were essentially role-playing games (RPGs) that saw players control a character who wondered a coastal landscape, dotted with towns, forest and mountains. The land, called Kanto, was inhabited by a cast of strange and wonderful creatures, Pokémon, which the player was tasked with capturing in Pokéballs in order to catalog, train and fight them. The morality of keeping wild creatures in quantum states within tiny red and white balls and training them for exhausting and violent physical combat is widely ignored throughout the Pokémon universe.
The first Pokémon games featured 151 Pokémon scattered about Kanto, and the catchphrase “gotta catch ‘em all” urged players on to complete their Pokédex, an encyclopedia of all the Pokémon in existence. The task of catching ‘em all was made increasingly difficult through successive entries in the franchise, with over 720 Pokémon appearing in the sixth generation of the games.
While Nintendo feared that the concept might not appeal to the Western market, it was a huge success, most notably spawning a trading card game and TV anime series, which popularized Ash and Pikachu as the faces of the franchise. The term Pokémania was coined to put a name to the web of merchandise, movies and monster toys that sprang up, swallowing millions of dollars and launching Pokémon into the stratosphere.
The morality of keeping wild creatures in quantum states within tiny red and white balls and training them for exhausting and violent physical combat is widely ignored throughout the Pokémon universe
Demand for new Pokémon games has barely dwindled. The latest in the series, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, released in 2014, proved the most successful UK launch of any of the titles.
The concept for Pokémon Go began life as an April Fool's prank in 2014. Niantic, owned by Google at the time, and Nintendo teamed up to create a YouTube video that announced the Pokémon Challenge, a Google Maps-based search for Pokémon that would reward the most diligent hunters with the title of Pokémon Master.
This short-lived escapade formed long-lasting ties between Niantic and Nintendo. The idea of developing an augmented reality Pokémon game took a step towards reality, and, in 2015, The Pokémon Company announced that Niantic and Nintendo were working together to produce Pokémon Go.
Pokémon Go represents a colossal next step for the franchise
The game sees users move an avatar across a real-world map using the phone's GPS. Dotted around the world are PokéStops, which can be used to gather Pokéballs and other in-game items, and gyms, where players can train their Pokémon. When a Pokémon appears on the map, you can press on it. When you do this, the Pokémon appears in augmented reality, superimposed onto the image seen through the phone's camera, allowing you to throw Pokéballs at it until you capture it.
Pokémon Go launched in the US earlier this month and made a rapid ascent. News stories across the web hailed its meteoric rise above Tinder, heading for Twitter. Tales of robberies, dead bodies and serendipitous friendships also proliferated, all adding to the publicity, allure and concern over the game.
Niantic's servers were overloaded by the amount of people playing the game, leading to a delayed international launch, with users in Asia and Europe still waiting for a chance to play the game through official channels.
At the moment, the game is the focus of global attention and a potential milestone in mobile gaming, augmented reality and the applications of smartphones. Whether it can sustain and build upon this platform is yet to be seen, but Pokémon, from the humble beginnings of a child gathering insects from the streams and forest of rural Japan, has cut a unique and lucrative path, with Pokémon Go representing a colossal next step for the franchise.
What are your thoughts on Pokémon Go? Are you excited, scared and indifferent?