By Sarah Haase and Gene Axton, Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Venonat was caught near Public Square and Zubat was caught inside the YMCA.
No, they aren’t criminals, they’re Pokémon. They’re all over Wilkes-Barre, and they can be captured by using iOS or Android enabled devices.
On July 6, Nintendo brought 133 of the original 151 Pokémon — called Pocket Monsters in their native Japan — to smartphones in the new game Pokémon GO. Pokémon are creatures that star in the video game series of the same name. The first pocket monsters debuted in 1996 on Nintendo’s GameBoy handheld.
The free-to-play app, reached the top of App Store charts soon after its release. It puts players in the shoes of a Pokémon trainer and asks them to explore their towns to find wild Pokémon and free in-game items that can help catch them.
At press time the app was experiencing sporadic server reliability, but Nanticoke resident Ashley Nichols was undaunted in her quest to become the very best.
“It’s like a great big scavenger hunt,” said Nichols, a Kings College student who started playing Pokémon GO on her iPhone the night it hit the U.S. App Store. “You don’t know what you’re going to run into.”
Nichols was on her second lap around Wilkes University visiting campus locations such as E.S. Farley Library, each designated by the game as PokéStops; locations that give players free items like PokéBalls (used to catch Pokémon) and eggs (which hatch into Pokémon).
PokéStops are marked on the map with blue diamonds; they can be activated when players walk near. The diamonds turn into large PokéBall-shaped icons and when tapped, the icon can be spun (swiped in either direction) to yield items, including PokéBalls and eggs.
“That’s what I’ve been doing this morning,” she said, noting that she was waiting for her husband, Eric Warner, to get out of work. “We have different strengths. I like to catch them, he likes to battle.”
But they both do so with items that can also be purchased through an in-app store. Nichols said she hasn’t purchased anything with real money yet.
“Me, my husband and sister-in-law all went out last night and drove around looking for Pokémon,” she said. “We used to collect the cards and we’d mostly play with the handheld games.”
She’s not the only one searching late into the night.
Brian Cruz, an incoming freshman at Luzerne Community College, played the app late into the night on release day and planned to do it again July 8.
“I’m meeting some people down here later,” he said just a short walk away from Public Square. “We’re going to just walk around and try to find Pokémon.”
Cruz said the app has made him more aware of his surroundings. He’s paying more attention to the artwork on the sides of downtown buildings like Bell Furniture and Marquee Art & Frame (both PokéStops).
“There’s a lot of art places around here,” Cruz said. “It’s pretty cool, actually.”
Nichols said the game has forced her to take a closer look at downtown Wilkes-Barre, and she hopes the game does the same for other local landmarks.
“Those blue historical markers are stops too. You see them all over the place but no one really ever stops to read them,” Nichols said. “Hopefully people will now.”
A healthy family activity
The Wilkes-Barre YMCA is one of dozens of PokéStops in the downtown area.
Joan Angeli, an employee at the health center said she’s familiar with the game; after a brief conversation about the app, her son Gerard’s Facebook posts from the day before made sense.
“My son used to play it when he was a kid. He’s 29 now and has been posting on Facebook about it,” she said. “I’ve been saying, ‘he should be working. He should be cutting the grass. Now he’s playing Pokémon?’ Well, I’m a mom.”
Linda Reilly, community health director for the YMCA, was familiar with the Pokémon franchise but was surprised to hear the health facility was integrated into its latest entry.
“I think it’s great. It sounds like a great way to keep people active,” she said. “It seems like a really engaging thing, especially if families do it together. It could be a good bonding experience between family members — parents against the kids, competing as you go along.”
Parents and children, friends, husbands and wives, they can work together as part of a team. Players level up by visiting PokéStops and catching new Pokemon. At level five, players can choose to join one of three teams themed after the first Pokémon series’ three legendary birds: Zapdos (yellow), Moltres (red) or Articuno (blue).
Teams then work together to capture and hold gyms, real-world locations that act as battle hubs in Pokémon GO. Gyms in downtown Wilkes-Barre include Boscov’s on South Main Street, Wilkes-Barre Fire Department on East Ross Street and the Times Leader building on North Main Street.
Battles in core Pokémon games are turn-based; the player chooses their move and the opponent chooses their’s, then each Pokémon acts. Battles in Pokémon GO involve tapping on enemy Pokémon to perform normal attacks (and fill the blue meter under a Pokémon’s health bar) and holding to perform special attacks (which drain the blue meter). Once a Pokémon loses all its health it faints; once a trainer is out of Pokémon to use, the battle is over.
Play it safe
The game uses GPS and cell phone cameras to integrate reality into a virtual experience (a practice in gaming known as augmented reality), but it’s not free of real-life dangers.
The game forces players to keep their head down and follow a map that indicates where PokéStops, Pokémon and gyms are. There is a warning at the game’s start reminding players to be aware of their surroundings. It’s built to be played while walking, so it advises players to be alert when walking around busy streets and private property.
The app can also tempt players who are in the driver’s seat.
Nichols admitted she’s checked to see if any Pokémon were around while stopped at a red light. She also said if she does want to interact, she’ll pull over to the side of the road, but even that isn’t without danger.
“I pulled over in Plymouth and I got a nail in my tire, so I have to take care of that now,” Nichols said.
Pokémon GO trainers of the Wyoming Valley have a long road ahead if they want to catch ‘em all and tackle every gym, but there’s no huge Pokémon named Snorlax blocking their path like in the video game; the downtown Wilkes-Barre streets have more PokéStops and Pocket Monsters than original series starting point, Pallet Town, and they can be uncovered through exploration — and a little bit of luck.