Since my first playthrough of Pokémon Blue back in 1998, I’ve had a bit of an on-again, off-again relationship with Game Freak’s monster-collecting magnum opus. I certainly consider myself to be a fan, but I haven’t finished a main game since SoulSilver, and a 2016 summer spent scouring the countryside for Kanto critters in Pokémon GO is the most time I’ve spent with the series in years. Perhaps that’s why I was so intrigued when Nintendo announced the seemingly back-to-basics Pokémon Let’s Go: Pikachu and Eevee ahead of E3, and why these twin titles were the games I was most eager to get my hands on during our booth tour at this year’s show. I mean that especially literally, too, because of how excited I was to try out the games’ bespoke controller, the Poké Ball Plus.
Once at Nintendo’s booth, our demo time with Let’s Go: Pikachu found us traipsing through a recognisably familiar Viridian Forest; laid out just as I remember it from the Game Boy days, the presentation popped with a smooth, stylised look and a scale that felt comfortably anchored in the series’ 8-bit beginnings. As I watched the rest of the Nintendo Life crew play, I thought that Let’s Go looked pleasant, if a bit safe, but that initial evaluation changed entirely when our Nintendo rep asked if I wanted to give it a try, and handed me the Poké Ball Plus.
About the size of a satsuma, with a healthy heft and a lovely matte finish, the Poké Ball Plus acts as an optional all-in-one control method for Pokémon Let’s Go, and it feels absolutely fantastic to hold and use. The Poké Ball’s iconic front ‘button’ has been reimagined here as a short, clickable analogue stick, while the smooth top of the sphere hides a second button. Inside, the Poké Ball contains an assortment of impressive features put to creative in-game use, including a speaker, HD rumble and a gyroscopic sensor.
Controlling Let’s Go with this powered-up Poké Ball is a joy. On-field, the stick moves your trainer, while pushing it in serves as an ‘A’ button-equivalent, and the button on top acts as a ‘cancel’ command; those few inputs are really all you need for a turn-based adventure, and it was wonderful to be able to just relax my arm and navigate the world via Poké Ball. It felt natural to rest my thumb on the stick and my index finger on the top button, and the setup happily reminded me of the one-handed controllers made for JRPGs that had a brief boom in the PSOne era. The analogue stick also has a surprisingly comfortable range of travel, and it clicks in softly, so that it feels more like pressing a DS Lite button than clicking the sticks on a Switch Joy Con or Pro Controller; selecting moves, using items, and navigating menus all felt effortless and easy with the Poké Ball Plus.
Of course, the Poké Ball Plus goes above and beyond earlier one-handed controllers thanks to all that added tech inside, and that became readily apparent in our demo as soon as I encountered my first wild Pokémon. Once your trainer runs into a Pokémon in its natural habitat (tall grass, of course), the view switches to a Pokémon GO-style capture sequence. Instead of fighting to whittle down the wild Pokémon’s health, Let’s Go takes a much more humane approach to taming based on the mobile hit: you simply throw Poké Balls at the circular target surrounding the Pokémon, which closes in on itself continuously. Green circles indicate that a Pokémon will be easier to catch than red circles — you can butter them up with berries to affect this, as in Pokémon GO — and the smaller the circle, the better the catch.
Instead of flicking the screen or hitting a button, however, using the Poké Ball Plus means you’ll actually wind up and ‘throw’ the ball at your new friend, and that tactile experience felt fantastic. While the wrist-strap our Nintendo rep insisted we wear prevented the ball from physically flying at the on-screen Pokémon, it really did feel like an actual toss — overhand, underhand, and spectacularly off-target swings were all transferred faithfully to the screen, and the smooth motion controls made aiming for the Pokémon an enjoyable act in and of itself.
Running around via Poké-nub and throwing the ball to catch both felt great, but what really sold me was the sound. After I caught my first Pokémon — a Metapod — and felt the pleasant ‘1, 2, click!’ of a successful catch in the Poké Ball’s HD Rumble, our Nintendo rep suggested that I hold it up to my ear and shake it. I did, and even in the noisy chaos of the E3 showfloor, I heard the unmistakable call of my new Bug-type echoing sweetly from within the ball. It’s hard to overstate just how magical that felt in the moment, and I spent the next several minutes obsessed, capturing different Pokémon to hear their unique calls in ‘real-life’ from the palm of my hand.
Rather than a mind-blowing, jaw-dropping reinvention of the franchise, Pokémon Let’s Go feels like a retelling, filled in and fleshed out with all the little details I was imagining while playing Pokémon Blue on my Game Boy Pocket in 1998. The fact that it can be controlled purely by Poké Ball makes that even more amazing, and that tangible connection — from the satisfying swing of the toss to the absolute magic of hearing a newly-caught Pokémon inside — is something I couldn’t have even imagined back then. Nintendo’s captured something special with Let’s Go and the Poké Ball Plus, and I can’t wait to set off on the full adventure, Poké Ball in hand.