clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
a cartoon pikachu sits next to a toothbrush cup
Why am I so bad at this game???
Image: The Pokémon Company

Filed under:

I thought I knew how to brush my teeth until I played Pokémon Smile

A journey in accepting failure

If a game is targeted at kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be easy, but the fact that I’ve been brushing my teeth for my whole life should have made Pokémon Smile a cinch. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

When the game was announced, it seemed like an easy slam dunk. It would be a way to make sure I was taking the proper amount of time to brush my teeth, let me take cute selfies with virtual Pokémon hats in the meanwhile, and provide an incentive to keep it up by ending each successful brush with a new Pokémon to catch. On paper, the game is simple. While using your phone’s front-facing camera, you brush your teeth. The camera tracks your brushing movements, and at the bottom part of the screen, a row of cartoon teeth and a Pokémon covered in purple clouds slowly become cleaner and cleaner as you brush. At the end of the allotted time, the player is given a Poké Ball to throw. If the Pokémon has been fully cleaned, it’s caught.

A child brushes his teeth while using the front-facing camera of a phone to play Pokémon Smile Image: The Pokémon Company

The day Pokémon Smile debuted, I immediately downloaded it and tried it out when brushing my teeth before going to bed. While busting plaque, I also caught a Pidgey, drawn in the adorable style of the artist Kanahei. It was a perfect game! Or so I thought until the next morning, when I cracked open the game again.

The next several times I tried to play Pokémon Smile, my efforts were an abject failure. Despite doing exactly the same things that I had the first time I played, the interface kept telling me that I either wasn’t brushing fast enough or that my toothbrush wasn’t in view. After a few minutes of reproach, it invited me to throw a Poké Ball, only to have the Poké Ball bounce off and the game tell me to try again next time. Was I doing something wrong? Maybe I just hadn’t brushed properly, this time. So I tried again. And again. And got the same result each time.

Baffled and frustrated, I went online and searched to see if there might be some non-me-related reason that I wasn’t catching any Pokémon. But the answers I found — that a brightly-colored toothbrush and well-lit space ought to solve the problem — weren’t satisfactory. My bathroom was bright, and the toothbrush I was using, in addition to being the same toothbrush I’d used in my one successful attempt, was a loud purple. Was the problem … me?

a cartoon pikachu Image: The Pokémon Company

The prospect of facing that fact was nothing if not depressing. Had I been brushing my teeth wrong my whole life? Was I invisible? Was this incredibly cute game going to be the rock to my Sisyphus? Over and over, I kept trying to get the game to recognize my efforts, experimenting with different poses, different distances from my phone camera, and even different rooms in my apartment to see if a change in lighting or background might do the trick. Alas, nothing worked.

Ultimately, I’ve chosen to give up on Pokémon Smile. Failing time and time again at what I thought would be the simplest game I’ve ever played — based on an activity I regularly perform twice every day — was sending me into an existential crisis, one that seemed unnecessary to have, given my lack of cavities. The grief wasn’t worth the Pokémon hat selfies, despite how much I loved them. Maybe someday I’ll pick the game back up and it’ll magically recognize me once more, but for now, like Ash letting Butterfree rejoin its fellows, it’s time to let go.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon