Brushing your teeth is boring. It’s dull when you’re an adult and it’s even worse when you’re a kid, because you’d really rather be playing with your Thunderbirds toys or Cabbage Patch Dolls, or whatever cross-media property young people are into these days (look, we don’t know, we haven’t been kids for a while). Pokémon Smile looks to change all that, by turning the boring act of brushing one’s teeth into a quest to fill a Pokédex.
This mobile app makes use of the front-facing camera on your phone or tablet. You point it at your face and start brushing your teeth, and the app seemingly uses some sort of tracking method to gauge how well you’re doing it. As you do this, a Pokémon is seen at the bottom of the screen, trapped under a big blob of bacteria. If you can successfully brush your teeth to a degree that satisfies the game, you’ll eventually break down the bacteria and free the Pokémon, giving you a chance to catch it when you’re done brushing.
Pokémon Smile includes all 151 first-generation Pokémon, and if you haven’t figured out by now that the aim is to “catch ‘em all”, then we frankly don’t know how you’ve managed to accidentally stumble onto a gaming website. What we haven’t quite figured out yet, though, is what the game is actually looking for to make sure you’re brushing your teeth well enough. It’s clearly tracking something, because it occasionally tells you to brush faster or slower and seems fairly happy when you do that. But it isn’t tracking a toothbrush, because we mimed brushing our teeth without a brush and caught a Pokémon regardless, and we’re not sure it can be properly tracking your hand or mouth if everything’s moving fast.
One argument could be that this doesn’t really matter. After all, trying to dissect the mechanics of a game designed to encourage children to brush their teeth is like trying to break down exactly what Just Dance expects you to do with a Wii Remote: the target audience likely couldn’t care less how accurate it is, as long as they’re having fun. And some elements are certainly fun, such as the comedy hats you can unlock to place on top of your head, in the style of a Snapchat filter, as you brush.
The problem, though, is that this 37-year-old writer played the game for four nights and failed to catch a Pokemon on three of those nights because, despite frantically brushing like Lady Macbeth scrubbing her blood-soaked hands (how's that for a high-brow reference), the game decided that it somehow still wasn't good enough and the Pokémon wasn't freed of its bacterial prison. As adults, we can (just about) get over this, but this is a game aimed at young children, and we can easily imagine there being some tears before bedtime if an eager sprog enthusiastically brushes for a full two minutes and is essentially told they'd done it wrong and they'd failed, through no fault of their own. We wish there was an option to toggle on for younger kids that guarantees a catch no matter what, just for effort.
We did also notice one fairly major issue: it seems that in some situations, the app doesn’t play well with the lighting with some phone cameras. We took a perfectly acceptable selfie with our Pixel 2 XL’s standard camera app, then went straight into Pokémon Smile and the camera was so dark the picture was almost entirely black, meaning the app couldn’t find our face. We don’t know if it’s an issue with certain phones or certain types of light. As a general rule, we found that it only worked during the day when natural daylight was coming in, but when we tried brushing at night, even with bright indoor (LED) lighting, the screen was almost entirely black. We've seen a handful of similar complaints on the app store's reviews, but do bear in mind that they seem to be the tiny exception rather than the rule: the app’s free anyway so you might as well try it out.
Other than the odd camera-darkening problem we experienced – which can hopefully be fixed with an update for those it affects – we definitely like Pokémon Smile. It isn’t going to give Smash Bros. a run for its money or anything like that, but it isn’t trying to: much like the recently released Jump Rope Challenge on Switch, it’s a light-hearted, free way of trying to inject a little fun into an otherwise mundane task. Just bear in mind that it can be a little harsh when it comes to judging your brushing, and so you need to prepare your child for the reality that they won't be catching a Pokémon every time they play.