A year ago today, July 6, Niantic unleashed Pokémon Go, an unexpectedly fitness-aspirational scavenger hunt whose dazzling uptake no one saw coming. In hindsight, we should have guessed better. Pokémon is the third-bestselling games franchise in the world after Tetris and Mario, and that’s restricting our count to the handheld turn-based roleplaying games at the franchise core.
Pull back and the brand’s grasp seems boundless. In 2017, it boasts card games, collectible miniatures, an ongoing TV show with in the vicinity of 1,000 episodes (The Simpsons, which started half a decade sooner, boasts just over 600), 20 theatrically released films, comic books, lord knows how many clamshell Pokéballs, Pikachu plushies and other critter-snatching toys, warehouses of clothing (yes, I’ve surrendered and bought my children Pokémon underwear), soundtracks, a gazillion guidebooks and a live action film in the offing. It is the highest-grossing entertainment franchise in the world, full stop, ahead of Star Wars, Harry Potter and James Bond.
I was staying at a river cabin when Pokémon Go touched down without ceremony last summer. My cellphone signal was spotty, my data coverage intermittent and sluggish. It took several attempts to finally grab Niantic’s augmented reality curio, and first impressions weren’t strong. The interface was bland and perplexing: a lanky, spike-haired adolescent appeared to moonwalk over chartreuse flatness divided by a geometrically primitive ribbon of blue (the app’s crude semblance of the Mississippi). Unearthing Pokémon after the tutorial’s giveaways seemed haphazard. The avatar only moved when you did. Triangulation felt like a crapshoot. And what sort of Pokémon game, to say nothing of games in general, made perambulation mandatory?
But then my almost 4-year-old snatched the phone away and began stalking the premises. Within minutes he’d grasped that the real…