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Friday, September 29, 2023

'Pokémon Unite' Is the Perfect, Simple Game We Need Right Now

Each year, right up until peak peach season, pop-culture mavens weigh in on the reigning “song of the summer.” It’s got to be danceable and upbeat, yes, and somewhere up there on Billboard. But it also has to capture the essence of the year it describes—or more specifically, summer’s brief respite from it.

After gaming’s biggest year ever, buoyed by stay-at-home orders and self-imposed isolation, a game of the summer may be in order too: social enough to ride on the energy of our post-vax consortations and light enough to briefly quell lingering anxieties as the pandemic drags on. Toss in some nostalgia for good measure, since many of us are thinking of better beforetimes. Pokémon Unite, out July 21, may be that game—a simple, addictive team-based battler perfectly timed to unwind us when we need it most.


The player in Pokémon Unite is a Pokémon trainer who sends their pocket monster off into five-versus-five competitions. Their team wins by scoring the most points in enemy goals. Pokémon earn those points, level up, and even evolve by killing smaller Pokémon scattered around the map or by fighting other players’ monsters. And leveling up unlocks new, better moves. Charmander, for example, starts with Fire Spin and Flame Burst. As it evolves into Charmeleon and Charizard, the player can customize their move set with Flamethrower, a ranged fire attack, or Fire Punch, a dash attack, and so on. It’s an infinitely simpler, sportier take on a massively popular genre: multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA. (Think League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm).

Every round of Pokémon Unite contains the following: small successes, big successes, big failures, and finally, the catharsis of a win or loss. The rhythm is enchanting. Momentum starts with players pummeling small monsters and creeping closer to the opponents’ zone. Then they might dunk a humble 10 points into an enemy goal when ghost Pokémon Gengar’s back is turned. Full of energy, they might push deeper into the danger zone with a cadre of pocket monsters and 50 points in their back pocket. Hubris gets them too close to the enemy’s base and they are overwhelmed by the whole opposing team at once. Fifty points gone. Failure is invigorating and educational. And unlike the more competitive MOBAs, the player can’t really measure how well they’re doing until the game’s already over.

Because the games are just five to 10 minutes each, and because the mechanics are relatively simple, it doesn’t suck to suck, at least at first. As one does, I fixated on my childhood fave, Venusaur, before I even got my hands on him. (Every single Pokémon I’ve encountered is fun to play; you can never go wrong.) Pokémon Unite gives the player time and space to pick up the basics, and even if they don’t, nobody can yell at them because comms are disabled, except for canned phrases like “I’m going top.” As more and more of the mechanics emerge—like combining moves with other players or synergizing move sets—Pokémon Unite becomes less like a kids’ soccer game and more like FIFA.

That’s not to say it’s inherently complicated. Pokémon Unite lets you invest in it as much as you’d like, and it will not punish you for playing casually. You need no knowledge of MOBAs, Pokémon, or even video games in general to pick up Pokémon Unite and have a great time. If you prefer, you can also cheese-grate your brain against tier lists and build recommendations and get your min-max fix. The lesson here, as with any summertime pop banger, is that complex does not mean more satisfying.

A “song of the summer” doesn’t just resonate. It enhances. It gets everyone on their feet at BBQs, has us bobbing our heads on the beach. Pokémon Unite enhances this strange moment in history when many people are not sure how social they can be, or more generally, whether they’ll ever be able to access carefree attitudes of yore. Millennials will find that playing as favorite ’90s Pokémon summons a sweet sort of wistfulness. Doing it alongside friends, even more so: So many people are playing it that it has inspired lapsed gamers (maybe those who put down Animal Crossing) to pick up their dusty Switches and catch games with long-lost Nintendo friends—notably indoors, as Covid’s Delta variant sweeps the nation.

Pokémon Unite will never resonate on the level of a Justin Bieber bop, and even saying so makes a ridiculous comparison. And it won’t bring absolutely everybody together like Pokémon Go, since it’s on just one platform. But it hit at just the right time, in just the right way, with exactly the intended audience. It is connecting people, mostly indoors, over some nostalgic IP and friendly, low-stakes competition. And most importantly, it carves out space for small, meaningful bursts of social fun at a time when we desperately need it.

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