The Best Game of the Worst Year

2016. The year of the devil. In one trip around the sun, we lost eight thousand celebrities, World War III finally started, and 80% of the world’s population died from Zika.

On the other hand, we got a Pokémon game for phones, so I’d say it all balances out.

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I think a lot of people will skip over Pokémon Go when making their Game of the Year lists. Not because they didn’t enjoy it, but because it’s weird to even think of it as a video game. You don’t really spend most of your time with it looking at a screen, nor are any of the mechanics very deep. If anything, Pokémon Go almost feels like more of a gamified excuse to go on adventures with your friends.

Typically, I despise free-to-play mechanics. They exist for no other purpose than addicting players and tricking them into sinking time and money into a shallow experience that’s just a prettied-up number incrementor. Pokémon Go uses some of these same techniques; you get daily bonuses, there are microtransactions, everything is tied to XP, and so on. And, make no mistake, it does these things to get you to spend money—at the same time, though, I can’t have too huge of a problem with it when it uses these systems to motivate you to spend time outside rather than sit in front of a computer. Honestly, a weak excuse to walk around town with my friends is all I’ve ever wanted from a multiplayer video game!

This is where a lot of critics will chime in and point out that I could have been doing just that with Ingress four years ago. This is also where these same critics miss the point. Slapping the Pokémon brand on top of an already-existing video game isn’t an arbitrary decision when doing so creates the ideal version of Pokémon. I mean, come on, isn’t this what we’d always wanted from Pokémon? The ability to catch them in the real world? Catching Pokemon is a hundred times cooler than whatever an Ingress is.

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That’s not to say the game is perfect. Choosing to do away with a traditional battle system in favor of the one we got hugely diminished the game’s depth and stripped away a large part of the “Pokémon in real life” fantasy. Imagine if you could have real strategic battles against everyone you saw—it would have kept the game alive for so much longer!

“Psh, yeah,” the contrarians say. “The game was dead after a month. Lame.”

But think about how awesome that month was. Think about how totally crazy it was to go outside on a sunny afternoon and see everyone—everyone—playing Pokémon Go. Kids were actually riding their bikes around town fighting gyms. Mobs of people were running across city blocks to get rare starter Pokémon. You could go out at 2 am and run into some of the coolest people you’ll ever meet on late-night Pokémon hunts.

In our era of Twitter harassment and political Facebook rants, Pokémon Go used technology to bring us together. Its lack of a tutorial forced you to bond with total strangers to learn the ropes. You were encouraged to head out in groups for a better chance to take on gyms. It being a free, family-friendly mobile game released during summer vacation meant that everybody could join in.

Pokémon Go wasn’t just a huge game, it was a huge thing. Like, think about it: was it not literally the biggest thing you’ve ever seen? Bigger than the Super Bowl? Easily.

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I know it seems like circular logic to say “even though the game had problems it was good because a lot of people played the game because even though it had problems it was good,” but I’m not sure I care. Let it be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, instead, continue to complain about Niantic on reddit while using a GPS-spoofing bot to totally rob yourself of any enjoyment possible—everything has to be a controversy, after all.

In the meantime, I’ll be remembering one of the most awesome video game experiences I’ve ever had, where for just a few weeks, the world was able to come together, have some fun, and forget about the worst year ever.

…except for pretty much every year before modern medicine was invented.

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