Three days with Nintendo's £35 Pokémon Go Plus accessory
Remember Pokémon Go? If your response to this is a shrug, Pokémon Go Plus probably isn't designed for you. If your response is that you're now only three candy away from fully evolving your latest Buddy Pokémon then hello there, do keep reading, you're in good company.
For the uninformed, Pokémon Go Plus is a small Nintendo-made Bluetooth accessory for the popular mobile game which counts your steps and interacts with the main app while it lays open in your phone's background. The Plus lets you catch Pokémon and check in to PokéStops with a single button click, with responses in LED flashes and patterns of vibrations. Interested? It goes on sale today in the UK and around the world, although comes with a not-insignificant price attached: £34.99.
When Pokémon Go first launched, everyone was taken aback at the game's success - seemingly including developer Niantic. Anyone playing in those initial few weeks will likely have stories of seeing countless others playing too, perhaps grouping up with them as you hunted down critters using Pokéradar. I remember a posse of us from Eurogamer's Brighton office - writers, coders, sales people - running across the road to capture a Dragonite together.
Like one of its own monsters, Pokémon Go captured the zeitgeist and had it locked up for weeks, but it was obvious this level of exposure could never last. Who knows if Jeremy Corbyn is still playing, or whether Hilary Clinton's speechwriter will reference the game again? What I know is that Niantic has taken its sweet time with its work on adding Pokémon trading and a proper radar feature, which has only exacerbated the inevitable cooling of interest. (The Plus has been similarly delayed, and was originally due to arrive much closer to the app's initial launch.)
I'm still playing Pokémon Go, even if it is just on my walk to and from work (my poor phone battery can't take much more). I have all the Pokémon you're likely to see and am just working on hatching or evolving the last 20 using the game's eggs and buddy mechanic. My phone mostly sits in my pocket, counting steps. I'll log into the dozen or so PokéStops on my route to top up my items, go through and weed out the potions I don't need, and that's about it.
It turns out I am Pokémon Go Plus' target customer. The Plus is for people who don't want to have their phone out all the time. I'm happy to let its single button press take care of the need to stock up items (the automatic acquiring of PokéStop loot is very useful). And while the gadget requires me to keep Bluetooth turned on, the app appears to drain a little less battery power while in the background, counting steps to hatch eggs and earn candy for my Buddy Pokémon.
I'm less sold on the Plus' one-touch Pokémon catching. It works exactly as intended - you're notified of a Pokémon nearby and tap the Plus to begin capturing it. But the device will only use regular Pokéballs (try this when you're out of stock and it will automatically fail) and not Great or Ultra Balls. It won't let you use a Razz Berry. It speeds the whole process up considerably, sure, and has a good chance of success, although like any capture it can fail. The only way you know which Pokémon you've caught is to then check the app. There's no way of seeing which Pokémon you may have let flee.
There's nothing to stop you using the Plus with your phone out, of course, and this perhaps provides the best experience. A Plus icon on your phone's screen points to whatever the device has just notified you of - a PokéStop, a particular critter - so you can take action via the Plus' button quickly. If it's a Pidgey or Drowzee, great - let the Plus do the work and capture it with a button press, risking it failing is fine. If it's something more uncommon, you may want to go through the capture process manually via your phone.
Going back to your phone does feel like you're defeating the point of the Pokémon Go Plus somewhat - especially after handing over enough cash that you could buy a whole new Pokémon game. But this is just an option - and it is easy to see what your Plus is notifying you of even with your phone in your pocket: PokéStops cause the Plus' button to flash blue, Pokémon make it flash green.
The LEDs are good but very bright sunlight can defeat them. However, after some extended use you can intuit which notification is which just by their different patterns of vibration. Three long buzzes? That's a Pokémon. Tap the button and you'll then get three staccato buzzes as the imaginary Pokéball wobbles, the Pokémon now inside. Success is rewarded with a rainbow of LED colours and a long vibrate. PokéStops? That's a ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two vibration. Simple click of the button - just tap it against your side - and a chirpier vibration as your loot is rewarded.
I immediately opted for the Plus' wriststrap option, with the gadget worn like a watch, although there's also a clip for pinning to your lapel, pocket or bag strap. You'll need a small cross-head screwdriver to switch between the two attachment options, strangely, so it's best to pick one and stick with it.
The only time the Plus has become a chore is when I've spent a good deal of time out of phone signal range, and the device has either powered itself down or simply decided not to cooperate. Thankfully, the syncing process is simple enough that you can quickly connect and disconnect the gadget to reset it. It's as easy as heading to the app's settings menu and tapping to open/close the Bluetooth connection. This is a welcome addition, especially for families with more than one Pokémon Go player - units are not tied to any particular phone or user, meaning the Plus can be passed between people as desired.
If you're like me - still playing, albeit at a more relaxed level - the Plus is a fun extension of the app, but still a pricey addition. At £9.99 it would be an impulse buy. At £34.99 it's the choice between this and a pre-order for Pokémon Sun or Moon. Perhaps you know a Pokéfan who would love to extend the fantasy of Pokémon Go further. Perhaps you still have a posse of pals ready to go out and search for a Dragonite. Pokémon Go Plus isn't a bad bit of kit, but it feels like its general appeal will be limited.
Got a Pokémon Go Plus yourself? Here's our how to guide on pairing, LED meanings, Android support and everything else we know.