Pokémon Go in the Valley

Fred McCormick

It's around 3 p.m. July 12 when Chris McHone and Travis Robinette arrive at Charles D. Owen Park in Swannanoa.

They play a quick game of Horse on the basketball courts before they put on Panama hats and begin to look for tiny monsters, like millions of Americans have done in recent weeks.

Robinette introduced his friend McHone to Pokémon Go just a few days after the July 6 release date in the U.S.

“It's fun,” McHone said. “I mean I've been playing it quite a bit since he told me about it.”

The game, created by San Francisco-based software company Niantic, comes in the form of a free app available for iOS and Android devices. But for many, it's a throwback to a childhood favorite.

"I used to play Pokémon all the time when I was a kid," McHone said. "I loved that game."

Chris McHone, right, looks down at his phone in an attempt to locate a nearby Pokémon, while Travis Robinette does the same.

The first Pokémon video game was released in Japan in 1996. The franchise went on to become one of the most popular video games titles in the world. McHone, like more than 200 million others, began playing the game on Game Boy, the hand-held video game device made by Nintendo.

"That's one of the great things about this new one," he said. "I used to play it all of the time when I was a kid, so when Travis told me about this one, it was kind of like picking up where I left off."

One thing that sets  Pokémon Go apart from previous installments of the franchise is the use of augmented reality, which, when viewed through the screen of a smart phone, makes "monsters" appear as though they are directly in front of the user.

"I've caught them all over the place," Robinette said. "Right on Cherry Street in Black Mountain, really anywhere you can think of."

When players are navigating the game's map on their screens, Pokémon monsters can appear virtually anywhere, making it necessary for users to remain aware of their real-world surroundings while playing.

Players are rewarded for their awareness in the form of PokéStops and "gyms," which are often found at landmarks such as the Grey Eagle monument or the post office. Those locations provide players with items like extra Pokéballs, which are used to catch the monsters. Gyms are used to train Pokémon.

A monster known as Bulbazar in the Pokémon franchise is found on the sidewalk near an intersection in Black Mountain.

Much of the allure of the game is the exploration it encourages. But McHone did not have to venture far from home to find his first Pokémon.

"I live near Grovemont, so I went outside and there were a few right there," he said.

Travis Robinette surveys the water in Charles D. Owen Park in an effort to determine where Pokémon may be lurking.

Users quickly learn that different environments attract different Pokémon. The water at Charles D. Owen Park provided an opportunity for McHone and Robinette to search for some of the game's aquatic monsters.

"But I have a feeling we're going to find some good ones on the trail," Robinette said, motioning in the direction of the Warren Wilson College River Trail trailhead. As the duo approached the other end of the park, McHone stopped.

"I think there's one around here," he told Robinette. "Let's walk toward the water."

McHone, home for the summer from college, believes that the need to explore surrounding areas is a key attraction to Pokémon Go.

"Once you start playing it's really easy to see why it's gotten so popular so fast," he said. "It makes you get out and go places that, a lot of times, you haven't been before."