I have to tell you something. This may shock you, so maybe you need to sit down. Okay, ready? Here goes: Pokemon Go is really popular. I know! Just give that a moment to sink in. Let this fact sink in too: People all over the world, in tandem, have newfound Pokemania. Budding trainers are roaming the streets of London, Tokyo, San Francisco, and countless other locales at the time of this writing. Niantic Labs has certainly made a noble effort to bring Pokemania to every corner of the world. At least, where it is able to.
Countries like China, notorious for its censorship of media, make things very difficult for developers to do something like Niantic Labs is trying to accomplish. The biggest hurdle is the need to sign up with Google before you can create a profile in Pokemon Go. Google famously left China in 2010, and since then, all Google access has been banned in the Mainland. This means Niantic would need to collaborate with China-based tech companies, such as Baidu, to restructure the game. Couple that with China’s review process for games before they can be released, a process that can take upwards of 80 days, and it’s just too complicated to bring Pokemon Go to mainland China. At least for now.
This is met with disappointment from the 517 million Chinese gamers eager to play. Initially, people were buying American and English ID’s through sites like Taobao and playing the game using VPN’s (Virtual Proxy Networks), essentially mapping a different geographic area over a gamer’s location, allowing them to play. Niantic Labs have met this tactic with hard penalties, squashing any chance of a work-around for Chinese fans. So, what’s a Poketrainer from the far East supposed to do?
Well, they have an alternative.
城市精灵GO (City Spirit Go) developed by Tanyu Mobi, is currently sitting at 22 on the Free Apps category in China, previously number 1. While clearly a knockoff, the impressive thing is that it’s not a bad one. Spending some time with the game, it seems like a worthy alternative to Pokemon Go, and in some ways, improves on it’s inspiration.
Booting the game up will take you to a startup screen, giving you the option to create a character. Selecting the option will introduce you to “Dr. Forest”, who is clearly Dr. Willow’s goatee-clad brother. After the obligatory welcome, he gives you the option to choose between three starters: Fire, Water, and a Grass type. Yeah. However, the “Spirits” (let’s just call them Spirits) themselves look quite nice, and would not look out of place among the Gen. 5 – 6 Pokemon.
I decided to pick the dolphin starter, because he was clearly the coolest one. I must say, I appreciated seeing the evolutions on the left-hand side. It is always frustrating picking a cool-looking starter and having it turn into a disappointment. Once that was completed, it was time to jump into the game proper.
Well, after a tutorial of course, which showcases a few key differences between City Spirit Go and Pokemon Go. The battles are automated, which just feels better. For, as smooth and streamlined as Pokemon Go can feel (lagging servers aside), it becomes very awkward the moment you step into battle. City Spirit Go fixes that by just having you sit back and watch. Monsters even show variation in battle tactics, which is preferable over the head-butting contests in Pokemon Go. Not only this, but you’ll also notice that more than two monsters can fight on the field at once.
Upon winning a battle, you gain new items and Spirits to level up and use, making this actually feel closer to a real Pokemon game in augmented reality. In Pokemon Go, you can collect, but there is no option to fight outside of gyms. Not only that, but City Spirit Go allows you to locate, and battle other players. Currently, there is no option to challenge other players in Pokemon Go.
The art style of the game is vibrant, and the spirits themselves are varied and detailed. Also, the map itself has a lot more character, feeling more colorful and fleshed out than Pokemon Go. As it stands, Pokemon Go does little more than show your current location with a green coat of paint. Unfortunately, I never got past the tutorial as the game is only playable in China, but it was enough time to notice some key differences. Some for the better.
So what can Pokemon Go learn from it’s copycat? Well, for one, give us a reason to level up our Pokemon. Not everyone wants to be a temporary gym leader. Let us battle our friends. Give us random battles, and prizes for winning. Automated battles wouldn’t hurt either. Also, make the map more appealing. As it stands, it’s pretty sparse. A little color goes a long way. Niantic Labs has an excellent, and successful concept on its hands, but still needs to craft an actual game around it.
City Spirit Go definitely has that “knockoff feel” at times, but honestly, this is one of the more polished knockoffs that I’ve seen. The success of this title demonstrates just how much interest there is for mainstream games within the country, and the lengths they are willing to go to have the same experiences as the rest of the world. In 2015, China finally lifted its ban on the selling of major consoles within the country, but clearly more work needs to be done before it can truly feel unified.
In the meantime, there will continue to be knockoffs of popular games, and plenty of them. At least for now they are getting good ones.