There is finally a Pokémon game on smartphones that fans of the series absolutely have to play. Now on iOS and Android, Magikarp Jump is a smart, cute, endlessly entertaining game that truly gets the spirit of the handheld Pokémon role-playing games — all in one free-to-play, Magikarp-centric package.
Based on premise alone, Magikarp Jump seems like your run-of-the-mill mobile game. Players have a Magikarp on their team ... and it jumps. It doesn’t just jump for its own pleasure; it’s a competitive jumper who takes part in a variety of structured Magikarp jumping leagues. It’s up to players to train their Pokémon to be the very best at jumping that no other Magikarp ever was.
What does any of that have in common with the original Pokémon games? It turns out, a lot. It’s apparent from the very beginning, when Mayor Karp greets the player and introduces them not just to the world of Magikarp Jump, but of Pokémon in general.
Anyone who’s started up a Pokémon RPG will find this instantly familiar. Mayor Karp assumes the role of Pokémon expert here, defining the fantastical world before dropping the player right into it — just like every standard Pokémon adventure.
From there, a player chooses between one of three rods to catch their very own Magikarp. This is their starter Magikarp, if you will — a.k.a. their starter Pokémon, another classic series convention.
Choosing that starter Magikarp feels random, but the relationship that players forge with it is anything but. The whole crux of Magikarp Jump is reliant upon intensive training and bonding time with the Pokémon, so that it can grow bigger, stronger and better. Doing so will empower it to jump its way through all eight leagues, achieving way higher heights than some seemingly infallible Magikarp foes.
Training happens with the help of items, mostly. Other Pokémon also play a part, too; instead of fighting against the hapless Magikarp, Pokémon like Pikachu, Bulbasaur and Piplup cheer on the fish monster with pride. This boosts their self-confidence and helps make for higher jumps.
It’s everything that the traditional Pokémon games are about, in short. The package here is way lighter and simpler than the more granular RPGs, which have a heavier focus on diverse combat, adventuring and puzzle-solving. Magikarp’s jumping battles take seconds, and the only skill they have are their jumping power. These guys don’t have any attacks, although the Magikarp from the main series doesn’t have much to its moveset, either.
But it’s the powerful bond between trainer and Pokémon that makes Magikarp Jump so essential. After a Magikarp reaches its natural jumping power limit, it retires from competition so that a new generation can take over. It’s sad to say goodbye, even if it’s not for good; the old Magikarp lives in the aquarium that serves as a player’s home base, watching over its successors with pride.
It’s especially sad to say goodbye when it happens before Magikarp’s time. Random encounters are common in the game, which often come with benefits. A random traveler may gift the player diamonds, one of the in-game currencies. But sometimes, Magikarp will happen upon a tree with berries that are just a little bit too high up ... making it vulnerable to predators like Pidgeot.
Protecting Magikarp is something the original Pokémon games don’t inspire players to do very often, because it’s a useless monster in true battles. But keeping our favorite Pokémon safe and in good health is important to a good Pokémon trainer, and Magikarp Jump gives the monster the chance to have the spotlight that it’s never had before.
Even after playing Magikarp Jump for half an hour, it’s easy to become attached to its Pokémon stars. It’s one of the series’ special qualities that’s kept it going for the past 21 years, and this game nails it.