Few Pokémon games escape the scrutiny of your average Nintendo fan, and for good reason– after all, this is a series that manages at best to innovate and at worst to remain with a tried-and-true Awesome Formula (TM). The ones that fans do forget tend to be some of Nintendo’s attempts to cash in on the Pokémon franchise– moreso than usual, that is. Whether it’s Pokémon Dash or Pokémon Trozei, or, heck, even those old Pokémon Mini devices the newly refashioned Nintendo World Store used to sell, quite a few Pokémon games have fallen by the wayside. At present, even the most ardent fans accuse Nintendo of milking the Pokémon franchise without much tying into the main Pokémon series; Pokémon Ranger and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon are probably the only ones that have managed to squeak by without much complaint, likely because they’re a) just about as RPG as a mainstream Pokémon game and b) full of Pokémon-related gameplay, unlike Dash or Trozei.
But back in 1999, Pokémon hadn’t even reached its second generation yet. Pokémon Yellow, the companion game to Red and Blue and the first of the “definitive” third games that would appear in successive generations, had come out only earlier that year in the US and the year before in Japan. So when Pokémon Snap came out, the world at large welcomed it, if not simply to satiate itself until the mysterious Pokémon Gold and Silver came out. Fortunately for the world, Pokémon Snap turned out to be an interesting– if short –game.
When Pikachu Met Diglett.
If you’re unfamiliar with Pokémon Snap, I won’t blame you. After all, the premise is a little odd: you play as Todd Snap, a famous (!) Pokémon photographer, hired by Professor Oak to take a bunch of pictures of a bunch of Pokémon on the creatively-named Pokémon Island. (Apparently Todd Snap, a character who appears in a grand total of six episodes of the Pokémon anime, is so much cooler than Ash Ketchum that he gets his own game– something no other Pokémon character has managed to do thus far, unless you count Pokémon Puzzle League, but that’s more of an ensemble effort.) Todd Snap travels around in a nifty machine that moves continually on rails (unless, of course, it runs into a Pokémon, which is kind of hilarious), and he takes pictures that Professor Oak can critique and reward points for. The benefit or use of these points is never detailed, although considering this is Professor Oak (as well as his original voice actor!) critiquing these pictures and giving Todd points, they’re probably good stuff for Todd Snap’s portfolio for Pokémon Tech.
In any case, since taking pictures of Pokémon seems a lot more boring than catching and forcing them to fight each other, players understandably might’ve been wary of Pokémon Snap— but as it turns out, they kind of liked it a lot. Despite mixed reviews (probably from jealous photographer wannabes– can’t beat Todd Snap, guys), Pokémon Snap sold 1.5 million copies by the end of 1999, and remained a strong rental, probably with no small amount of help from Nintendo’s advertising efforts.
If you were around in 1999 and were nerdy awesome enough to have picked up Pokémon Snap, you probably managed to walk into Blockbuster Video and see a sort-of photo booth next to the Whoppers and popcorn. Players who brought their copies of Pokémon Snap could print out stickers of their favorite pictures, and it just so happens that players were often so proud of their photos that they printed out sticker after sticker, plastering them all over their walls, desks, and faces. (Though that could just have been me.) Meanwhile, Nintendo also managed to throw copies of Pokémon Snap into 86,000 hotels across America, anticipating the safari season (simulated or otherwise), and before anyone realized it, Nintendo learned it could release any game with Pokémon in the title and sell millions of copies.
But again, Pokémon Snap certainly set itself apart from other Pokémon games, mainly because it was first-person and on rails. In fact, some players no doubt felt like they were playing Star Fox instead of Pokémon, except instead of Andross they had Pikachu, and instead of killing great apes they were taking great pictures of Mankeys. (Who just would not die, even if you threw a dozen Pester Balls at them.) In fact, Pokémon Snap was a lot like the first-person shooters that seemed so in vogue back then (and now)– targeting reticule in the center, limited amount of film/ammo, and lots and lots of Pokémon to beat up take pictures of. Even the strategy was there, except instead of outsmarting the computer AI by taking cover and distracting enemies, players had to lead Pokémon to a specific location by throwing apples in a line. (Actually, I don’t think FPS AI was good enough to do anything more than walk straight into walls at that point, but my point stands.)
In fact, though players never seemed to be put in any sort of FPS-style danger (that ZERO-ONE machine Todd’s in seems to keep even the legendary bird at bay), players still had to keep their wits about them. The first stage of Pokémon Snap, for example, seems pretty simple: players get to take pictures of such Pokémon as Pidgey or Pikachu, and some giant blue ball that looks suspiciously like a Snorlax’s rear end. But players won’t get great scores at this point, even armed with Todd’s famous photography skills. The Pokémon are just too far away, or fly/run/swim too quickly. But as players go through the game, and get additional guns weapons tools, such as Pokémon Food, which can be thrown near Pokémon to get them to come closer, or Pester Balls, which serve as balls of knockout gas for Pokémon, players can go back to the first stage and effectively boost their scores by hundreds of percent.
When you save all three Jigglypuff in the Caves, they put on a concert. Sweet deal.
In fact, some of the coolest pictures in Pokémon Snap require a good deal of innovation on the player’s part: a picture of Pikachu waving, for instance, is all well and good, but lead a Pikachu to a surfboard with Pokémon food, and poof! It’s a Surfing Pikachu picture! Meanwhile, Magnemite’s a little hard to take a picture of normally, since the pesky thing magnetizes your camera. Throw Pokémon food near it, though, and, presto, instant picture of a Magnemite! (Alternatively, lead three Magnemite together, and they’ll turn into a Magneton– an evolution only viewable in this game and the anime, considering the mainstream Pokémon games just have a Magnemite evolving directly into a Magneton.) Even the Pokémon Slowpoke’s got a few surprises in for you– if you throw enough Pokémon food so that Slowpoke lumbers near the water (with a conveniently placed Shellder sign nearby), it’ll dip its tail into the water and, of course, evolve into a Slowbro.
Sure, this is a very different kind of strategy than the kind found in first-person shooters, but it’s the kind that got Pokémon Snap the replay value that would otherwise be nonexistent. After all, Pokémon Snap, as different as it was, wasn’t a first-person shooter, at least not with guns. And the only multiplayer existent, really, was comparing your photos to your friends’ and hoping you had the higher score. But when it came to discovering new things, especially if you didn’t check the Internet, or one of those newfangled paperback Player’s Guides, Pokémon Snap was highly enjoyable. Not just because it made players feel like they were actual photographers of actual Pokémon, but also because it made them feel like they were actually exploring the Pokémon world. As far as the mainstream Pokémon games have gone– and as realistic as (gun-based) first-person shooters have been– it’s hard to top the kind of immersion Pokémon Snap provided. It’s a good thing it’s out on the Virtual Console (with Wii Remote control enhancement! –Ed.); new Pokémon fans shouldn’t miss it.