Pokemon Unite
The Pokemon Company Nintendo | TiMi Studios

‘Pokemon Unite’ Goes All Out for Its First Anniversary Event

'Pokemon Unite' is celebrating its first anniversary. Has the game aged well in its first year, or has it slipped deeper into free-to-play excess? Fans are divided on the popular MOBA title.
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When Nintendo announced the mobile-focused title Pokemon Unite, fans were extremely excited to see what The Pokemon Company had in store. The studio drummed up considerable hype for the game, which it told fans was going to be a major facet of the franchise going forward. The game even got its own standalone announcement stream.

However, when the stream revealed Unite, a mobile game clearly designed for a different audience than the mainline series, viewers were initially confused. That confusion boiled over into outright hostility, and the reveal trailer for Unite quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of dislikes on YouTube. Due to an “editing error,” this initial upload was deleted and replaced with a new one–notably without as many dislikes. Fans cried foul and said The Pokemon Company was trying to bury the backlash. 

All said, it was an ugly scene. The game received a full launch on mobile devices and the Nintendo Switch system in July 2021, and it garnered mostly positive reviews. Many critics felt it did a great job simplifying the notoriously complicated MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) genre and offered a fun new gameplay experience for Pokemon fans.

A year later, the game is celebrating its first anniversary with a huge digital celebration event. Let’s look back at the past year and see how Unite has aged and whether players have softened their stance on the “overhyped” MOBA in the intervening months. 

The Game Is Good

Despite the initial backlash against the mobile-focused, free-to-play nature of Unite, it’s a solid MOBA. The gameplay loop is fast-paced and rewarding in a way that you don’t see in most similar titles, like the glacially-slow League of Legends and Dota 2. While those games are popular and feature robust esports communities, they’re also intimidating for new players and unforgiving of even minor mistakes.

Where a League of Legends match is an hourlong endurance test in which each player has to stay on their A-game through distinct phases of a prolonged siege, Unite matches are breezy, ten-minute confrontations. It helps that the fantasy heroes of League of Legends have been traded out for cuddly Pokemon, but the low-stakes, no-pressure attitude seeps into every corner of the design. The game is more laid-back and friendly than some others in its genre.

Rather than battling endless waves of enemy minions across three lanes, players in Unite can face stationary “wild Pokemon” to earn points. They can score those points by slam-dunking into their opponent’s goals, which can also wear down the opposing team’s defenses and get you closer to victory. It’s a compelling gameplay loop that keeps you coming back for more, evolving your partner pokemon throughout short arena-based matches.

A Lighter Experience

Unite battles always last exactly ten minutes. This makes them ideal for younger players, more casual MOBA fans, or those who want a quick match on their mobile devices. Players’ knowledge of the world of Pokemon can also help them decide which of the colorful characters they’d like to play. In a standard MOBA, you might need to do hours of research before you decide on a favorite character. In Unite, you just pick your favorite Pokemon.

Many fans are partial to Pikachu, the adorable yellow mouse Pokemon who serves as the series mascot. Some longtime fans prefer the original starter creatures, like Charizard or Venusaur. No matter which era of Pokemon you grew up with, you’re certain to find a character you’ll enjoy playing.

When you get into the game, you’ll also find it’s a bit more straightforward than the average MOBA. The mechanics are just simplified enough to make them easy to learn, but just deep enough to keep you playing for weeks (or months) so you can learn the intricacies of each character. It’s the perfect amount of tactical depth for a competitive, team-based game that appeals to young players and veteran gamers alike.

What Fans Still Dislike

While the gameplay is great, some fans still have reservations about Unite’s monetization approach. It follows a similar path as free-to-play titles like Fortnite, employing a cosmetic store and a season pass that exists to continually extract money from players. This makes it distinct from the usual approach that developer Game Freak takes with the mainline Pokemon franchise, where players pay up-front and access all of the content in the game.

In Unite, you don’t start with the ability to use most of the game’s Pokemon in Unite Battles. You need to unlock “Unite Licenses” to take them into a match, which you can do with in-game currency or real-world money. Likewise, the game offers plentiful outfits for your Pokemon, allowing you to customize them to your heart’s content. Well, as long as you’re willing to shell out real money to deck them out in cute hats and fun sportswear. 

That’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with free-to-play titles. Many players can extract hours of fun from a free-to-play game without spending a dime. However, some players worry that exposing young gamers to a constant barrage of advertisements, enticing them to spend money on in-game cosmetics, is sketchy. It’s one thing for an adult to laugh off these constant pleas for more money, but children might be more susceptible to marketing tricks–and more willing to fork over (their parents’) money. 

First Anniversary Event

Unite’s first-anniversary event will start on July 21, a full year after its initial launch on Switch. Players will be able to unlock a slew of new Pokemon for use in-game for free, which makes this event a perfect jumping-on point for newcomers. Each day that players log in, they’ll be treated to a new Pokemon and a cosmetic item for them (called Holowear). On the off chance that a player already has that Pokemon’s license or the Holowear, they’ll instead be rewarded with in-game currency to spend on other goodies.

On the first day, Unite will hand out a Pikachu license to each player who logs in. The second day features a free Lucario, while Blastoise, Snorlax, and Sylveon will be giveaways on the following days. These are all massively popular Pokemon. This event will help new players round out a solid collection of Pokemon, get up to speed with the game, and try out a handful of different playstyles.

In addition, Unite will be adding a new Pokemon to its roster on July 21 to mark the start of the event. The adorable ice-type Eevee evolution Glaceon will make its debut the same day that Unite’s birthday event begins. In addition, developer TiMi Studio announced that the anniversary event would also see the introduction of a new gameplay mode: a Boss Rush, during which players team up to take down “power bosses” for massive rewards. The event-specific gameplay mode will only be available during the celebration, so make sure to log in and check it out. 

The Future Is Bright for Unite

Pokemon Unite has defied fan expectations to become an extremely popular game. It helps that Pokemon is the most popular media franchise on the planet, but the game is also extremely fun on its own merits. The future is also quite bright for the game–TiMi plans to add many new features and Pokemon to the game in the upcoming months. They’ve already announced a few of the planned new Pokemon, like the hilariously-named muscular Bug-type creature Buzzwole

Buzzwole is one of the Ultra Beasts introduced in Pokemon Sun and Moon and is a fan favorite among players who started during the Seventh Generation of the long-running franchise. The buff bug himself will hit Unite on August 3 of this year. Another crowd-pleasing addition will join the battle later in August: Tyranatar, the Armor Pokemon. Tyranatar was first introduced in the Second Generation of the series and is one of the most popular creatures from that era. 

TiMi clearly plans to continue supporting the game for the foreseeable future, which speaks to the game’s enduring popularity even a year after its contentious launch. The game has enjoyed an influx of players on mobile devices due to its free-to-play business model and the presence of beloved Pokemon like Pikachu and Charizard. Diehard Pokemon fans looking for a fun diversion to keep them entertained until Pokemon Violet and Scarlet come out in November should hop in and check out the Anniversary Event. Conveniently enough, the event will run through October–just before Violet and Scarlet hit store shelves.

You can download Pokemon Unite for free from the Nintendo Switch eShop or your favorite mobile app store. We’ll see you in the arena!