As has been chronicled on Kotaku, my journey into Pokémon GO has been one that began two years ago in lockdown-induced happiness, and then slowly descended into disappointment after disappointment. However, this weekend, despite what appear to be Niantic’s best efforts, I finally experienced Pokémon GO at its absolute best: A joyful day out with a group of awesome people, chasing shinies and working together to tick off tasks.
This past Saturday marked the conclusion of 2022’s dragged out Pokémon GO Fest, during which the godforsaken story of Professor Willow’s disappearance was finally resolved, and at long last we were able to catch the long-promised Ultra Beasts, Pheromosa, Buzzwole, Xurkitree and Nihilego, as well as the ultimate prize of Shaymin Sky-Form. But, for the first time in my experience, it wasn’t just me and my boy playing. And it changed everything.
My main point of contention with Niantic’s recent unwanted changes to POGO, beyond its determination to ignore covid advice that borders on fervor, is the company’s bewildering belief that if they make events harder to join in, somehow more people will end up playing together. This Saturday, however, had no such silliness in place. Instead, the closing Fest event ran from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a new set of tasks and raids every two hours. So, as is becoming traditional for such in-game events, Toby—now seven years old—and I set off to the local park, where there are a host of gyms and stops to more easily plow through challenges.
The ‘bandstand’ is the best spot. Three gyms in reach at once, plus it’s the only place we’ve ever seen anyone else playing, even if it was for just a cursory, slightly awkward mutual nod of recognition. Toby had his swimming lesson at 11.30, so we figured we’d get the first chunk of tasks completed, and then inevitably after the break he’d decide he now didn’t want to play any more, and I’d be left trying to finish the challenges at home like the big, sad person I so very often am. Except something else happened. Standing by said bandstand was a circle of humans, all holding phones, all holding them out and looking down.
As we walked down the hill, instead of protectively closing in, they looked up, noticed our phone held out in that distinctive way of POGO players, and invited us over! Three adults, three kids, many Pokémon t-shirts. We made it eight. They were the loveliest bunch, a couple with their 10-year-old boy, and a mum with her 9 and 13-year old boys. Straight away we were invited to catch a Pheromosa, and for the first time in two years of playing this daft game, I experienced a genuine, real-life, in-person raid.
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This is not for want of trying, but instead as a result of what Niantic cannot accept: That it’s not 2016 any more, and there aren’t gaggles of excited players crowding around every gym. For my entire POGO career, I’ve had to use apps like Poke Genie for it to be possible to do any five-star raiding, meaning I’ve mysteriously captured legendaries from countries all around the world, but never from down the road from my house.
We chatted away, swapped Pokémon experience stories, Toby whipped out his binder filled with his favorite TCG cards, and just the most congenial hour was had by all. But it was time to go to swimming, and so—having swapped friend codes—we said our goodbyes to our fleeting friends.
Determined to try to keep him on a Pokémon GO track for a bit longer after his lesson, because yes, obviously, I’m the one who wants to be playing it now far more than him, I suggested we walk even further from home to get some lunch. At 1.45 p.m., and with a Machop still missing from that second section’s collection challenge, I made him scoff down his remaining ice cream and we set off to catch the blue blighter who refused to appear inside the restaurant. He was right outside, but the third chunk of the day was about to begin, new Pokémon to catch, and most importantly, the electrical fire risk of Xurkitree to capture. I suggested we walk back through the park, just in case.
And they they all were! Our gang! They’d moved about since, but were back at the bandstand too, and once again we were warmly invited to join them. It turns out the two families had met each other in the same location a few months back, despite each living in other cities in opposite directions from our small town. All were avid Pokémon fans, the one couple having been so since the beginnings in the late 90s, the other mum having picked it up when her kids did, along with her partner, and then quickly becoming the most obsessed member of the family. Which is, er, a little familiar. Cough.
As the tasks ticked around, we all completed them as a group, working together to help each other out. When Toby found a hundo Swirlix, everyone rushed to try to grab it, including what turned out to be other players who were quietly nearby. When that tiresome other-(one)-dimensional helmeted chap told us we needed to walk a kilometer and hatch an egg, we set off in two groups to do a lap of the park. There was friendly ribbing, cheerful banter, and even some deep-and-meaningful grown-up chatting.
We ended up spending the rest of the afternoon, through to about 5.30, with these awesome people, and I’m delighted to report we swapped numbers, and are planning to meet up for future Community Days and events. It’s the golden Pokémon GO experience I’ve only previously heard about, most often in the comments below other POGO articles I’ve written, from nostalgic, lamenting long-term players. And I finally encountered it for myself.
I much better get why Niantic is so fixated on this. While of course the billion-dollar company is primarily driven by making vast amounts of money, its rhetoric is almost entirely framed around a desperation to rebottle the escaped genie of 2016. It will infuriate and alienate the entire planet of players, by making bone-shatteringly obviously bad decisions, just because it gets the idea in its head it’ll cause people to find community once again. The company halved the length of Community Days this year, just because it thought it meant people would be more likely to encounter each other if the timeslot was restricted. The obvious reality is that it just means more people are unable to join in, and the chances of encountering someone when there’s no one else around aren’t improved if you make taking part more inconvenient.
Yet, on Saturday, for one of the game’s biggest events of the year, I experienced it. I get why people who lived through the game’s heyday would so desperately want to see that happening again. It makes a massive difference, and one that I imagine most people who (like me) never played the game before covid have never known. I can’t wait to meet up with them all again come the next chance, and play the game as it was intended.