Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Pokemon Snap
Released: 6.30.1999
System: N64 (Also available for the Wii's Virtual Console)

Developer: HAL Laboratory / PAX Softnica
Publisher: Nintendo

"Pokemon Snap" was a wildly unique game when it released over a decade ago and still manages to be refreshing today. The gameplay itself is completely absorbing, but we are left wanting more from certain limited areas of the game.

(Author's Note: While this is very much a review, you can expect related bouts of video game theory. I am passionate about "Pokemon Snap" and I feel it serves as a wonderful springboard into many pertinent video game-related topics such as "story vs. gameplay." Additionally, you will notice my writing venture into the realms of "what if?" at times. Consider this my attempt at constructive criticism. Among my favorite activities is conceptual design for video games. I have constructed original properties that I am more than willing to share with the right people. Part of that conceptual creativity is bound to show up in my reviews as I imagine how we might make an existing game better.)


It is a welcomed deviation to pick up a console game that does not involve shooting people. "Pokemon Snap" deals with a different type of shooting. Your ammo is a roll of film and your targets are dozens of wild and imaginative creatures. Although, you are free and sometimes even encouraged to throw apples and Pester Balls (both of which you have infinite supply) at anything in the game.

You play as Todd, a young photographer who gets the opportunity of a lifetime to document the wildlife of the not-so-cleverly-named Pokemon Island. You'll never guess what's there! Pokemon. The game is essentially a rail shooter with rich environments that encourage players to search every nook and cranny for untrained, undomesticated, and un-pocketed monsters.


While living in Taiwan, I was charmed to learn that the Pokemon IP was called "shenqi baobei (神奇寶貝)" which literally translates to "mysterious treasure." It could also be taken to mean "precious darlings" and take I will. This game is focused on the original gang: the 151 Pokemon we all came to know and love from "Pokemon Red," "Pokemon Blue," the original anime series and card game. However, only 63 of those are to be found in the game. In my recent play-through I caught (on film) 60 of them.  (Who am I missing? I forgot how to get Dugtrio and Muk. On top of that, I am not sure who the final snapper might be.) The choices of which Pokemon are in the game might seem a little strange at times. Vileplume is present, but neither of its pre-evolved forms (Oddish and Gloom) are to be found. This is particularly unfortunate because Gloom is among my favorite Pokemon. Charmander and his evolved forms get precedence over Squirtle's and Bulbasaur's. How cool would it have been to photograph a Blastoise?! At least all of the legendary birds make an appearance (gotta hatch 'em eggs!).

Like the brilliant Pokemon games on Nintendo's handheld systems, "Pokemon Snap" fills players with a desire to catch them all, but on film instead of within Poke Balls (as TV Tropes points out). On the topic of the "pocket monsters" themselves, it is worth pointing out that they had never looked better prior to this game's release. Graphically "Pokemon Snap" is impressive for its time, though visiting it from the future we now live in is very much a trip down polygon lane. (Speaking of Polygon, he makes an appearance. If you can find him that is.)

Wouldn't it have been grand if all 151 were to be discovered in this game (with added courses)? Today there are 649 different Pokemon. Just think of the possibilities... A new "Pokemon Snap" with even half that number would prove to be an epic undertaking. While being made, if taking the best pages from the original "Pokemon Snap"'s playbook, it could turn out to be a wonderful game.


Professor Oak just might be one of the worst photography critics of all-time. Besides a lack of differing reviews (basically "Wonderful!" or "You were close"), he is so mechanic in his choices. In his defense, I suppose he is just trying to collect an album that showcase the various specimen to be found on Pokemon Island as clearly as possible. Still, he couldn't give a Ratatat's arse about art. Would it hurt to improve your analytic vocabulary Mr. Oak? Either tell me something new or I'm afraid you will have to permanently go back to giving beginning trainers their first Pokemon, meaning no more visits to Pokemon Island. What if there were a panel of judges a la "American Idol"? One might be the more artsy-fartsy of the bunch and would accept any experimental pictures you might have taken that round. Oak could still be around to collect any "proper pictures" for his own purposes. A third judge could be some drunk old man from Pallet Town, liking the worst of each roll and providing some necessary comic relief.


One of my favorite aspects to consider in any game is the level design. There are seven courses for your Pokemon-documenting pleasure. The Zero-One is an incredibly diverse vehicle that can traverse land, water and air. What more could you ask for? As mystifying as the final course, Rainbow Cloud is, there is only one Pokemon to shoot there. Still, considering which Pokemon it is, I suppose I cannot complain.

In many ways "Pokemon Snap" reminds me of a amusement park ride. The Zero-One, awesome as it is, is uncontrollable (unless you count the Dash Engine you unlock later in the game, which only allows you to speed-up). You follow the same route each and every time, the only change in scenery is where you point your eyes. Each level is strictly scripted (e.g. "Here comes the player...  cue the Doduo chased by Meowth!). After playing the same course again and again it can start to feel robotic, much like any return to Disneyland's Jungle Cruise or the Jurassic Park: The Ride at Universal Studios. That said, I do not recommend or endorse chucking apples on those or any other amusement park ride.

Many video games suffer from scripted events so I mustn't be too harsh on "Pokemon Snap." In fact, many games and gamers depend on this mechanic. It might not be right to refer to it as "suffering" if it is what we want. I just long for more "living and breathing" realms for my virtual exploits to take place in. Imagine an open-world where the Zero-One is yours to command. You will personally have to discover certain Pokemon in their natural habitat. As swell as the rail shooting gameplay is utilized herein, I would gladly trade it in for freedom.

Replay value is often a criteria taken into consideration by video game reviewers. In terms of re-playability, "Pokemon Snap" does fall short. I had not played the game for years until earlier this year and for such circumstances is was a welcome reunion. However, in its current state, "Pokemon Snap" is not a game I would gladly return to weekly or monthly. Few titles are that great. It is one I can return to with rose-colored glasses of nostalgia whenever I feel the inner call.


Another facet of games I love to dissect are the little touches. Details. At the end of the Cave you might be treated to Jigglypuff's infamous song (if you saved it from being molested by the ever-obtrusive Koffing earlier on). Turns out you can get up to three Jigglypuffs if you are especially heroic. As my Zero-One came floating by (it floats/hovers in the Cave level) the Jigglypuff's makeshift stage, I began playing the Poke Flute. Clearly upset at the interruption and/or competition, Jigglypuff stopped singing and its face contorted in frustration and malice. Of course, I took a picture of the adorable melodrama. On an earlier level I changed the tune of the Poke Flute and our favorite leviathan Snorlax would offer up a different jig for each melody. Like life, it is small moments like these I particularly remember. "Pokemon Snap" invites and sometimes provides specific hints for players to experiment with the tools at their disposal in their encounters with Pokemon. It is satisfying to discover them and resorting to your camera makes for a novel combo.

The experience does get repetitive and you will start to dread the inevitable meetings with Professor Oak, but "Pokemon Snap" was unlike any game when it arrived (predating the Sierra Online "Safari" games) and still garners deep respect from its admirers, which I most certainly am. It is a highly functioning simulator with plenty of fun surprises and impressive video and audio for its day. Aware of its flaws, I still love this game.


CONTENT: mild cartoon violence

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