Friday, September 23, 2016

COLUMN: Pokemon Go

It's been a trying week. Every time I turn on the news, it's the same thing being played out over and over: Needless fighting. Actions that don't seem to make any sense. Frustrated people taking to the streets.

Yep, Pokemon Go is one heck of a game, eh?

I like to think I'm fairly relevant when it comes to most matters of pop culture... but if there's ONE thing that instantly makes me feel my age, it's Pokemon. I just don't get it, and I don't think I'm meant to. Perhaps this is because I'm not NINE, which seems to me the ideal target audience for Pokemon. At least that's what I thought, but now everyone with a cell phone is out there playing Pokemon Go. I'm now the old guy who yells at neighbor kids to get off his lawn. No, really. I just looked out my window and two teenagers were capturing Pikachu or whatever in my front yard, and I just yelled at them. I'm THAT guy.

"Pokemon," which is Japanese for "GIVE US ALL YOUR MONEYS," was created by a guy named Satoshi Tajiri in 1995. What started as an idea for a video game quickly morphed into a media empire of console games, card games, cartoons, movies, and even a theme park. The franchise is centered around fictional creatures called Pokemon, which humans catch and train to battle one another for sport. As you train your Pokemon, they become more powerful, develop new abilities, and become harder to defeat. There are, to date, 729 different varities of Pokemon, all of which play into the game's primary motto, "Gotta catch 'em all!"

I don't really know if those kids in my yard were capturing Pikachu, but that's the only Pokemon I know by name. Pikachu is an asexual rouge-cheeked yellow creature that looks like the result of an ill-advised love tryst between a cat, a pig, and Snuggle the fabric bear. If it has any attack moves, I'm pretty sure it hugs its enemies to death and smothers them with cuteness. I've heard the name Charizard, too. I think it might be one of the more advanced Pokemon, but who knows? Your child knows, that's who. Wait, let's look it up online.

"Whereas its pre-evolutions Charmander and Charmeleon are ground-bound lizard like creatures, Charizard resembles a large traditional European dragon. Despite the resemblance, Charizard is explicitly a Fire/Flying-type, not a Dragon-type, except in its 'Mega Charizard X' form; however, it can learn Dragon-type attacks." Thanks, Wikipedia, that clears things right up. But any kid into Pokemon will have an encyclopedic knowledge of this stuff, and who knows, maybe it's teaching them math or something.

I assumed it was all a dying fad until last week, when Pokemon Go showed up for download. This game uses your cell phone's GPS and camera lens to insert Pokemon into the real world. To be successful at Pokemon Go, you have to actually get up and walk around outdoors. If you want to train and battle the Pokemon you've captured, you have to feed them "candy" and then find "gyms" and "Pokestops" that are based on real world locations. Those places serve as hubs where players can meet up and hang out. If you've gathered too many of a particular species, you can discard them in exchange for "candy" where I presume they're then virtually euthanized in a virtually humane manner.

So to recap, you're catching animals, confining them in cramped spaces, bulking them up, and then training them to fight one another against their will. So you're essentially teaching your kids all the fundamentals of dog-fighting, except with Pikachus instead of pit bulls. Neato.  

The game is a free download, but of course you need Pokeballs to store the Pokemon you collect, and you need lures to draw wild Pokemon to Pokestops, and all those extras require real money, presumably because Satoshi Tajiri needs another mansion to house his mountains of cash. Despite it being a giant fiscal suckhole, I suppose it's kind of a cool idea for a game. The real world integration is a fun novelty, and anything that gets your sedentary butt up walking around can't be a bad thing.

Well, except when it IS a bad thing. Like when the gamemakers had to apologize this week for putting a Pokestop at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Or the guy who caught a Pokemon atop his grandfather's casket at the funeral home. Or when driving home every night becomes a bad Driver's Ed sim film, with one foot hovering over the brake to avoid the idiots darting into traffic to catch invisible monsters.

Still, I wanted to know what it was like, so I downloaded Pokemon Go for myself the other day. Here's what it's like: you fire up the game, set up a user profile, create a character (I am "MichaelVick99",) and then you're immediately faced with your first challenge: a message that says "Server Busy. Try Again Later." This was my favorite part of the game.

Eventually, I made it onto the server and into the exciting world of Pokemon. Of course, by this time, night had fallen and I wasn't about to go hunting for Pokemon through the back alleys of Rock Island at midnight. But no worries, because as I spun my phone around, little did I know there was a Charmander IN MY LIVING ROOM. I grabbed my Pokeball, took careful aim, and captured my first Pokemon! HOORAH, I WIN.

Catch 'em all? Nah, I'm good. There are days when I have a tough enough time taking care of two cats, so I don't need the resposibility of a virtual zoo, thanks. I'm good with my Charmander. I've named him Fluffy. There's no point training him, coz then he could evolve into a Mega Charizard X, and I'm pretty sure my homeowner's insurance does NOT cover incidental damage from European Fire/Flying-type pets.

So that's the end of my Pokemon adventures. It's way too complicated and I'm fairly confident I can think of 729 things I'd rather be doing than catching 'em all. Besides, this game just came dangerously close to causing me to get actual exercise, and that's not cool. I'm having a trying enough week as is.

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