By Matt Peckham
September 30, 2014

Drop the word “Pokémon” into Apple’s or Google’s app stores (no need for the diacritical “e”) and you’ll unearth all sorts of odd-sounding concoctions, most of them creature-making tools or field guide paeans to Nintendo’s cutesy media franchise about a world full of exotic monster-pets you can catch and train to do your tactical bidding.

For years, Pokémon on smartphones and tablets has been a strictly fan affair, a cosmology of unofficial encyclopedias and builders, trivia games and wallpaper libraries. But all of those were unvarnished adjuncts compared to the wealth of games, cards, books and movies that swim in officially licensed waters.

Today everything changes: a Pokémon game is finally available on Apple devices. And not a port of one of the color-and-gem-obsessed Pokémon roleplaying games for Nintendo’s handhelds, but a translation 0f something that’s been around for as long as Pokémon itself.

When Pokémon Trading Card Game, or Pokémon TCG launched in 1996 as a physical card game (the same year Satoshi Tajiri launched the series with Game Boy games Pokémon Red and Blue), Patrick Stewart was squaring off with Alice Krige’s Borg, the original Beverly Hills 90210 was just past its halfway point, Sega’s barely one-year-old Saturn was staring down the headlamps from Nintendo’s oncoming N64 train, and Apple’s Bandai Pippin game system no one remembers arrived (and promptly disappeared).

After a run that’s approaching two decades and some publisher deck-chair rearranging, the partly Nintendo-owned property (via its The Pokémon Company International–a Nintendo affiliate) has gone where pundits have been claiming Nintendo needed to for years: Apple’s iPad and iPad Mini.

The Pokémon Company International says the new Pokémon TCG app is free-to-play, so gratis to download and get started. New players begin with a few freebie digital decks and can earn additional ones by winning battles–a little like Blizzard’s Hearthstone, in other words: play casually for nothing, but if you want to play competitively against other Pokémon sharks, you’ll probably have to spend money at some point. There’s also a cross-media incentive: If you buy physical Pokémon TCG products, you’ll get a code that unlocks their digital counterparts.

Pokémon TCG for the iPad and iPad Mini should feel familiar to OS X and Windows players, who’ve had access to it as a downloadable game since April 2011, says The Pokémon Company International. Who you are and how well you’re doing transfers cross-platform, too, so there’s no need to manage separate accounts. All the key PC game features–tutorials, online battles against the computer or other players, deck-building, trading cards, customizing avatars and so forth–are present in the iPad versions, adds The Pokémon Company International.

I’m not sure when the company plans to bring the game to Android devices, but given how vast the Android-verse is, it stands to reason such a version’s inevitable.

So is this Nintendo (directly or indirectly) reneging on past statements about not putting Nintendo games on non-Nintendo devices?

Not really. Nintendo can plausibly claim The Pokémon Company–“founded and affiliated with Nintendo”–is something rather different from the video game empire its design luminaries (like Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka and Eiji Aonuma) built.

In fact, you could argue Pokémon TCG is just Nintendo president Satoru Iwata (again, directly or indirectly) putting paid to a statement made earlier this year, when he said he wasn’t ruling out the possibility of creating games–even ones that use Nintendo characters–on smart devices, then added, “It is our intention to release some application on smart devices this year that is capable of attracting consumer attention and communicating the value of our entertainment offerings, so I would encourage you to see how our approach yields results.”

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