How (and Why) to Play Nintendo's New Pokémon Mobile Game

Psyduck in Pokemon Go
Niantic, Inc/Nintendo
Niantic, Inc/Nintendo

It's a breezeless 90 degrees in NYC, and I'm standing on a sunlit street corner flinging Pokéballs at a Psyduck I spotted on my way to Starbucks. No, this isn't a fever dream: it's part of my experience playing the newly released Pokémon Go mobile game, and truth be told, it isn't even the weirdest part. Allow me to walk you through the highs (and lows) of what will likely become your latest obsession: the first real-life Pokémon hunt.

Note: I played the game on an Android phone, but the experience on an iPhone is roughly identical.

Pokemon Go map
Niantic, Inc/Nintendo

How Pokémon Go actually works

Once you've set up your character, chosen a suitably hilarious nickname, and picked a starter Pokémon (the classic Charmander/Squirtle/Bulbasaur choice), you're let loose into the world -- which, in the case of this game, is a virtual map of wherever you're located overlaid with colorful nodes to interact with as you move around. The blue markers peppering the streets are Pokéstops: points of interest which, once you're within range, provide you with items like Pokéballs, health potions, and eggs (which incubate into Pokémon after you walk a certain distance). The more ornate markers are Gyms, which allow you to battle other players -- more on those later.

You'll also notice little animations of rustling leaves from time to time: these are the locations of wild Pokémon, and once you walk within range of them, they (usually) turn into an adorable little monster for you to capture. This, as you'd expect, is the main reason you're playing the game.

Pokemon Go Rattata on the street
Niantic, Inc/Nintendo
Pidgey in Pokemon Go
Niantic, Inc/Nintendo

Hitting the "AR" (or Augmented Reality) button in the top left of your screen activates your phone's camera, propelling a Pokémon into whatever environment happens to be right in front of you. This can provide some neat, transcendent moments. On my first adventure, I found a Pidgey sitting on an outdoor cafe table. The results can also be extremely awkward; I found a Doduo half-floating on a man's chest in the elevator.

A swipe up on your screen will fling a Pokéball at the lil' sucker. Score a direct hit, and you've just caught yourself a new buddy. The ease with which this works is dependent on a variety of factors, including your throwing skill, the CP (Combat Points) of the Pokémon, and the type of Pokéball you use. Also, the Pokémon you find will vary based on where you are in the world: you'll find water types near water, grass types in parks, and so on. I played the game in Manhattan, so I found mostly rats and birds. Pretty legit.

Also worth noting: it's easy to get immersed in this game, to the point where you might just walk into traffic/off a cliff without noticing. Yes, the game warns against such behavior each time you load it up, but the nature of how you play makes such accidents almost inevitable. So yeah, definitely be mindful of that when you play.

Professor Willow in Pokemon Go
Niantic Inc/Nintendo
Pokemon Go Gym Battle
Niantic, Inc/Nintendo

Where the game falls apart

Once your character hits Level 5, the Professor Oak-type instructor (who happens to be a ruggedly handsome silver fox for some reason) announces that you're ready to join one of the game's three teams (Red, Blue, or Yellow) and start battling for control of the various Pokémon Gyms scattered across the map. This is arguably the worst part of the game, for several reasons.

Gone are the strategic Poké-battles of old, replaced by a swipe-to-dodge and tap-to-attack mechanic that might be fun if it weren't so inscrutable. There's no tutorial to help you get a handle on how battles work, so you're thrust into a fight against another player's Pokémon which, generally speaking, are MUCH more powerful than your own. Whether this is a result of my own ineptitude or the game's micro-transactions (which, for a few bucks, allow you to pay to artificially power up your Pokémon) isn't clear.

Also, it's important to note that you're not actually playing against anyone: the Pokémon you fight are computer-controlled. You never actually battle your friends, trade Pokémon with them, or even interact with anyone in any meaningful way in this game, which is kind of a huge part of the Pokémon experience. Gym Battles are basically a more complicated version of becoming a mayor on Foursquare, except the place you're mayor of doesn't actually exist. Could it change in updated versions to come? Cross your Pokéfingers.

Pokemon Go Pokeball
Niantic, Inc/Nintendo

Why you should still play it

Awkward Gym Battles aside, Pokémon Go succeeds in one key area: the visceral joy of finding and catching Pokémon in a real-world environment.

Yes, the endless virtual wandering of the old games is replaced by actual wandering. Yes, buggy GPS tracking can result in your character not moving while you walk, or catapulting yards away from where you actually are. Yes, you'll only find Pokémon if you keep your screen on, which drains your phone's battery while also causing it to heat up dramatically. Ultimately, though, these complaints are outweighed by the feeling of randomly discovering a Horsea in your bathroom sink -- at least, it is if you're enough of a Pokénerd to know/care what a Horsea is. Really, there's nothing like Pokémon Go, and it's exciting. This is the future and the now.

Already playing, but looking for some advice? Check below for some insight into how to get new items, power up your Pokémon, and win those dreaded gym battles.

Poliwag capture in Pokemon Go
Niantic, Inc/Nintendo

How to get Stardust

Stardust is important if you wanna power up your Pokémon, and really, there are only two ways to get this stuff in the game. Firstly, every Pokémon you catch provides a little bit, so it’s a good idea to catch every single Pokémon you see, regardless of whether you need them or not. Note: Pokémon hatched from eggs provide you with stardust as well.
If that’s not enough, you’ll have to suck it up and take part in dreaded Gym Battles: assigning a Pokémon to hold a Gym for you gives daily rewards in the form of items, like your beloved Stardust for example.

How to get Candy

Example: Wanna evolve that Poliwag into a Poliwhirl? It’ll take a whole bunch of Poliwag candy, which you’ll only get by catching more Poliwags. Each new one you catch nets you a little more, and you can also transfer these excess Poliwags to Professor Willow in exchange for, you guessed it, more Poliwag candy. Collect enough, and Poliwhirl’s as good as yours. Simple as that.

How to Battle

The only place to battle is in a Pokémon Gym, which we’ve already explained are vicious arenas of iniquity and horror, but if you’re dead set on progressing quickly in the game you’ll have to take part.

First and foremost, you’ll need to use the stardust and candies you’ve been collecting to power up your Pokémon so they’ll stand a chance of defeating the gym’s defending team. Additionally, there will likely be multiple rival Pokémon to face off against at those Gyms, so you’ll need to build up a stable of powerful Pokémon instead of relying on one heavy hitter to see you through.

You’ll also want to bear in mind the classic Pokémon strength/weakness matrix. For instance, water types are strong against fire, but weak against grass. Grass types, consequently, are weak against fire, and so on and so forth. Work this into your strategy as you build a well-balanced stable of Pokémon to knock an opposing team from a Gym.

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Gianni Jaccoma is an editor for Thrillist, and spent way too much of his childhood attempting to catch 'em all. Follow his journey to Pokémon mastery @gjaccoma.