Review: Pokémon Go (Launch Edition)

The latest “unless you’ve been living under a rock” craze of 2016 is a simple augmented reality game starring one of Nintendo’s most lucrative ensembles, Pokémon. Once it hit in selected markets, the rest of the world clamored to get it through any means necessary before it saw proper release in their market. It’s been the highlight of countless kids’ summer breaks, and pushed as many adults outside into the hottest temperatures of July.

Is the game any good? Not really. It’s actually bad in many aspects.

But that’s not what’s important here.

Fueled By Nostalgia

Growing up in the nineties I remember the way Pokémon swept through my elementary schools. I saw the little batches of animal-shaped pixels and colorful trading cards supplant the death-grip POGs had upon our school yard. Frankly, watching unexpected coworkers and acquaintances hunt the same creatures in the middle of my daily routine is very similar.

Back then, I asked for the Game Boy games as gifts; whether my parents had heard what a deep rabbit hole of cash it was, or we couldn’t afford them that year, or what, I never did end up joining in on the fad. I claimed I was too old for such a childish property to hide my outsider angst and peeked over the shoulders of friends and cousins when they battled gyms or sought Mewtwo in his lair. Later I caught up with the franchise on the DS and have since amassed a “living dex” in the current generation of games. So I approached this game with some interest: being Canadian I had to wait a week for the opportunity to play it legit, and I wanted to see what the hubbub was about.

After a week of playing it somewhat casually, I’m still not sure what it’s about. The game caters to the nostalgia of my specific generation while exploiting our dependence on our smartphones, or simply offers children something neat to do with a new technological experience. Once you’re hooked the compulsion to reach higher levels will push you to wander your neighborhood, catch stronger monsters, and challenge gyms.

Look past the gimmick and the mobile game hysteria, however, and you begin to see the game’s massive flaws. Players are forced to capture hordes of useless, weak, and undesirable monsters like Ratatas, Pidgeys, and Weedles just for the chance to capture slightly stronger clones of the same species, and maybe a rarer breed in the process. The actual battles are best played as frantic screen-tappers with the barest minimum of strategy. Team development is a joke, a tedious experience that shames many old school RPGs – catch monsters for candy, “transfer” monsters for candy, repeat.

And yet, despite this shallow gameplay, the world is hooked.

The Medium is the Message

It’s not the game itself that’s important; it’s the experience. Pokémon Go may shamelessly appeal to your inner child to lure you in, but it also fulfills the greatest daydream of those halcyon days – finding those monsters in your everyday life. You could find your beloved Charmander on your own front step, or Ponyta in your backyard, or the Magikarp you eventually evolve into Gyarados at your favourite real-world fishing spot. For many, it’s a childhood wish brought to life.

Debatedly, the most important feature is its teams. The war between the three coloured factions does so much to add incentive and replay value. When players aren’t playing, they’re debating which team is better and strategizing with teammates to take down local gyms.

The most tremendous thing it has accomplished is getting kids out and about. Older generations like to complain about how kids are glued to their smartphones and televisions, rarely leaving the house or engaging in the old pasttimes; now kids are glued to their smartphones outside, exploring their neighborhoods. I have seen such a dramatic spike in the number of kids outside enjoying the summer over the last week, like roaming packs of scooter-bound Pokémon hunters. Coworkers have marveled at the family time they’ve spent, walking 5-10km in a single night with kids who, a week prior, complained of boredom while refusing to do anything fun.

It’s the ultimate compromise between the old ways and the new, like a grand scavenger hunt, a turf war, and an MMORPG rolled into one package, played in the real world. Players are exploring the real world with a technological tool as a lens, and in the process enhancing their engagement with both worlds. The game itself may be a piece of trash in its current state, but it’s also so much more than the sum of its code; as an overall experience, it’s the most influential game in decades.

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Retro Gaming Review: Retron 3 console

The Retron 3 console appears to be a grand slam – it plays Nintendo Entertainment System, Super NES, and Sega Genesis games, with RGA and S-Video cables, on two wireless controllers or original gamepads. Sounds pretty awesome, right? It is, but it’s also far from perfect.

The basic functionality is there; if you don’t have the time, space, or money to hunt down three classic systems in a sea of potential scams or ripoffs, the Retron 3 is a solid alternative. One machine does the work of three, and you end up saving a lot of space in your entertainment centre. But it sounds too good to be true for a reason.

I’ve had my eye on this system for a while; when trading in a stack of old strategy guides at the local indie store, I got a heap of credit and decided to put it towards one of these bad boys. I own a particularly odd model of NES and it doesn’t work on my modern flatscreen, and I only want a Genesis at the moment for the Sonic games and Ecco, so this seemed an awesome alternative/solution.

After unboxing and setting it up, however, I realized that the SNES slot didn’t work. Switching it out at the store for a second copy wasn’t a hassle, but it speaks to the quality of the product. This is a somewhat complicated piece of technology from a less than big-name company, so it seems some corners were cut during production and/or design. Fair enough, I figured; once I had a fully functional unit on my hands I was appeased.

Now that I’ve sunk some solid time into the system though, I’ve come to a conclusion: if the wireless controllers are the biggest appeal for you in this package, you will be sorely disappointed should you purchase this system. Imagine Nintendo or Sega made a wireless controller for their system way back in the heydays of these systems – that thing would probably be a bit better than the pair of controllers that come with the Retron. I thought, “hey, I can sit on the couch and play some Genesis,” and found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV just like my five-year-old self.

A constant line of sight is required for the controllers to function, and from a relatively close distance too. Everytime my cat walked by, the signal was disrupted; hell, even when I tilted the controller idly I found it unresponsive. You might as well cross “wireless controllers” off the list of features or benefits on this package. I highly recommend using the original corded controllers – at least you don’t need to maintain an awkward hold to keep playing. To boot, swapping batteries is a pain, there’s no way to manually sync controllers to a system, and there’s no way to remap the buttons, which are particularly awkward on SNES games that utilize the shoulder buttons (ie. Super Metroid). 

But again, this is a small-time company we’re dealing with. It’s impressive that they put this system together at all, let alone with two wireless controllers (shoddy though they may be) for a fair price. Swapping between inputs is a breeze, and S-Video is a nice inclusion (for SNES and GEN only; NES games shit their pants when they try to output to that space-age technology).

When it comes down to it, I can overlook or work around the Retron 3’s flaws. Just heed my advice before you take the plunge: it’s worth your time to invest in at least one controller for each system, and to test all three system slots as soon as you get it set up to ensure they work properly. It’s not perfect for today’s completely wireless setups, but the novelty and convenience of having the three original great consoles in one device on one input on your TV truly is worth a little inconvenience.

[EDIT: Since I originally wrote this review, Hyperkin released the Retron 5, which appears to be leaps and bounds beyond the 3 – it plays the same systems’ games, as well as Game Boy, Game Boy Colour, Game Boy Advance, Famicom, and Super Famicom games. Its biggest selling point in my books is its HDMI compatability, which allows you to play original NES carts on modern TVs that don’t support old connections. There’s a new Home menu and improved (Bluetooth!) controllers, among other features. However, this model runs near $200 at many retailers, and the Retron 3 remains an affordable solution for many retro gamers. If you still have some original controllers and only care about 8- and 16-bit games, the Reton 3 may be the better choice.]

[Official page]

RATING: 3/5

Originally posted on Tumblr, 2013/08/04