Nintendo – perhaps unlike any other games company – understands the connection between video gaming and the physical world. That might sound like a rather silly statement to make as every firm involved in the making of interactive entertainment has to consider how the player will interact physically with the game itself, but with Nintendo, it feels like there's this extra layer of comprehension; a result, perhaps, of the company's origins as a creator of toys and games long before Mario and company came along. Whether it's the gloriously tactile nature of the classic Game Boy handheld or the immersive qualities of peripherals like the iconic Donkey Konga Bongos, Nintendo has always embraced every opportunity to link its players with its software in new and lucrative ways (amiibo, we're looking at you) and the Pokémon series is no exception.
The original Game Boy games resurrected the ageing monochrome handheld and finally gave people a reason to crack out those long-forgotten link cables, while later on, Nintendo would come up with the even more compact Pokémon Mini and the Pokéwalker accessory. The natural evolution of the latter was, of course, the Pokémon GO Plus, a companion device for the smartphone game which allowed players to catch monsters, spin Pokéstops and contribute to their distance totals in the game itself without having to remove their phone from the safety of their pocket.
Nintendo has returned to this concept with a new accessory, and it's perhaps the most perfect realisation of any Pokémon-based device the company has ever produced. The Poké Ball Plus really does make you feel like a trainer; not only can it be used to control Pokémon Let's Go on Switch – complete with a throwing motion to hurl Poké Balls in the virtual world – it can also act like a standard Pokémon GO Plus for use with the mobile game.
In terms of design, the Poké Ball Plus is a dead ringer for the real thing, and will surely fulfil all those dreams you had of becoming Ash Ketchum when you were a kid. The outer casing is made from a kind of soft-touch plastic, so while it's sturdy enough to withstand punishment, it feels grippy in the hand. Outside of the status LED and internal speaker, there are two physical inputs – the analog stick (which can be clicked down for your 'A' button command) and a button on the top which acts as 'B'. With these elements, you can fully control Pokémon Let's Go, although some quick-menu commands won't be accessible due to the lack of the X and Y buttons, so you'll need to spend a little more time navigating menus to accomplish some tasks.
For the most part, controlling the game exclusively using the Poké Ball Plus is perfectly agreeable; the stick is stubby but precise and the B button is easy to press, as long as you're holding the device exactly the right way (the red section of the ball should always be facing upwards). Problems occur when pressing the analog stick down to accept on-screen prompts and make selections; it's too easy to accidentally push a direction when pushing down and therefore pick the wrong option. With careful use and a spot of willpower you can overcome this problem, but it's still irksome all the same.
The second issue relates to what should be the Poké Ball Plus' key selling point – its motion-sensing ability which allows you to mimic the famous throwing action seen in the games, TV show and movies. When you face off against a monster in the game, you're presented with a screen not entirely dissimilar to the one seen in Pokémon GO; a constantly shrinking ring is shown over the 'mon, with its colour denoting the difficulty of the upcoming capture attempt (green is easy, red is hard – you know the drill). The objective is to get your ball inside the ring, with a bonus being dished out if the ring is at its smallest point. To do this, you have to perform a throwing gesture with the Poké Ball Plus (which of course explains why the unit comes with a strap that not only attaches to your wrist but also to your finger as well), a move which is initially jolly good fun but soon becomes too much like trial and error for comfort. There's often a delay between your motion and the game responding, which isn't ideal when you're trying to get a perfect shot. The other problem is that the device isn't totally accurate, and there are times when a straight-arm hurl turns into a sideways curler, and vice versa.
To be fair, criticisms of this gesture-based system can also be levelled at the Joy-Con, which is utilised in a similar fashion. What makes the Poké Ball Plus less enjoyable to use is the fact that, as a round object, it doesn't give the user an easy indication of which way is 'up' and this can make directing your throws harder than it should to be. With the Joy-Con, it's immediately obvious which way is up and you can adjust your gesture accordingly to ensnare 'mon which are moving around the screen; even then, it's hardly an exact science and this is what led us to conclude in our review that playing in handheld mode with the Joy-Con attached to the console is the best way to experience the game.
The Poké Ball Plus does have a few more tricks up its sleeve, however; buying one is the only way of unlocking Mew in the game (the monster is 'trapped' within the ball and has to be transferred to the main game – a neat touch) and you can also take one of your captured monsters for a stroll with you and unlock rewards such as experience points and bonus candy. When you're out and about, a long-press on the A button will cause the Poké Ball Plus' LED to turn yellow, and shaking the device will trigger a sound clip of the Pokémon contained within. The force-feedback motor also gives a rumble, which will convince younger players than there really is a wee beast caged within.
The Poké Ball Plus' internal battery lasts about as long as the one contained inside a Joy-Con, although you may find it drains faster if you choose to use it as a Pokémon GO Plus and take it out of the house with you on a daily basis. The unit is charged via a USB Type-C connection; a flap lifts up to reveal the port and thankfully a cable has been included in the box.
Poké Ball Plus: The Verdict
In so many ways, the Poké Ball Plus is the perfect accessory for Pokémon fans. It looks the part, makes you feel like a real trainer and hides plenty of cool secrets – triggering the cry of the Pokémon contained inside is a surefire way of bringing a smile to someone's face – but the fact remains that it presents possibly the least enjoyable means of interacting with Pokémon Let's Go currently available. Handheld mode – which uses both Joy-Con and allows you to aim and throw using a combination of gyro controls and physical buttons – is far superior, and even a single Joy-Con feels more precise than this. What saves the Poké Ball Plus from being a complete write-off is the fact that it can interact with Pokémon GO and it offers a means of earning in-game rewards even when you're not playing – oh, and getting access to Mew from day one is a nice bonus, of course, but locking this legendary 'mon behind a £45 paywall is perhaps a bit mean-spirited of Nintendo.
As such, this is one accessory which is far from essential, but we can't imagine that will stop avid Pokémon fans snapping one up regardless; sometimes, the dreams of your youth are enough to totally override common sense.
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