I frequently find myself in the middle of debates about the direction the Pokemon franchise is taking. On one side, the franchise's ardent defenders, staunchly adopting the "if it ain't broke" stance and loving every minute of each Pokemon game they play. On the other side, the relentless progressives, who want to throw everything Pokemon stands for away and completely reinvent the wheel. I've argued for both sides in the past; it's healthy to play devil's advocate, as a wider understanding of the issue can usually be reached by understanding both viewpoints.
This article is one in a series we’re calling the Year of Pokemon, which celebrates the beloved pocket monsters and their many games.
Debatably, though, we've already arrived at the solution: spin-offs. Spin-off titles allow holders of intellectual properties to explore new and interesting avenues for their respective universes, all while still maintaining the credibility and consistency of the main series. We've seen this with countless AAA franchises: Final Fantasy, Mario, Halo ... and, of course, Pokemon, which may be one of the most spun-off (?) franchises of all. From Pokemon Ranger to the Mystery Dungeon series, a huge range of different stories have been explored in the spin-offs of Pokemon.
It could be argued, though, that none of these spin-offs were as idiosyncratic, or as deserving of a sequel, as Pokémon Snap. Starting life as a generic photography game, Pokemon Snap was originally planned for the 64DD, a doomed Nintendo 64 addon that would augment the console's cartridge-based medium with a disc drive. When the 64DD rather predictably failed, Nintendo didn't give up hope, switching development of their photography game to the vanilla N64 and slapping a Pokemon licence on it to help drive sales. What resulted was arguably one of the most compelling and original spin-off ideas in gaming, albeit one with a few teething problems.
Pokemon Snap puts players in the shoes of Todd Snap (presumably from the same Viking root as Snipe or Snape), who is summoned by Professor Oak to Pokemon Island in order to help the professor catalog his research. Todd must journey to a series of themed locales, snapping pictures of the Pokemon he finds there and picking the best ones to show to Oak. There isn't much narrative meat here, it's true, but Pokemon isn't a series that has ever excelled in terms of storytelling, preferring instead to focus itself around addictive gameplay.
The core game mechanics of Pokemon Snap might be totally different to the turn-based RPGs of the main Pokemon series, but "addictive" really is still the watchword. The game's a sort of weird mix of rail shooter and photography sim; shooting takes place with a camera rather than a weapon, but the player is still closely guided through each level, so the emphasis is taken away from exploration and placed more on observation. It's possible to look around your buggy in a 360-degree arc, and you'll need to if you want to get the best pictures.
Pokemon Snap consists of seven levels (six, really, but there is a hidden seventh), themed around the diverse geography of Pokemon Island. Different Pokemon appear in each area according to the climate; for example, players might find a Charmander in the Volcano stage, or they might come across a Poliwag in the River level. Some Pokemon are clearly visible from the get-go, while others require interaction with the environment to reveal. In the Beach stage, for example, players can observe something moving through long grass; tossing an item into the grass at just the right moment reveals a Scyther for the player to quickly photograph. It's an endlessly engaging system that requires constant observation from the player, as well as quick reflexes; fail to take that picture and it's gone until the next time you run that stage.
Of course, this works against the game as well as for it. If you're replaying a stage simply to get that one elusive shot, and a single pass-through doesn't yield the shot you're looking for, then it's back to the beginning of the level for you. This can be especially frustrating if your shot is near the conclusion of the stage, and since Pokemon present themselves in unique ways throughout each level, it's entirely possible that this could happen to you. There aren't many stages, so it's not too arduous to replay each one, but when you're reaching the end of your album and that Dragonite just isn't playing ball, it can be extremely annoying.
If you do manage to nail those perfect shots, though, the game's scoring system is innovative. Players can take a maximum of 60 photos per stage, six of which must be selected to show to Oak at the end of the stage. Oak will grade the photos based on several factors: staging, framing, whether there are multiple Pokemon in the shot, and more. Occasionally, his criteria for doing so can be a bit squiffy (count the number of times you scream "come on, Oak, it's right there, can't you see it?"), but for the most part he's a fair judge, offering more points for well-framed shots and interesting staging. It's always worth revisiting levels just to see if you can nail that shot of the Doduo that you missed the first time round; impressing Oak isn't just its own reward, after all.
At certain point thresholds, players will unlock items that will help them discover new Pokemon, both in old stages and new ones. Here Pokemon Snap gets a little bit Metroidvania; players are encouraged to go back to older stages in order to find ways to use their new items. The "Pester Ball," for example, will agitate certain Pokemon, which might get you a better shot, or cause others to emerge from hiding places. The Poke Flute will wake sleeping Pokemon, which might lead to interesting new interactions between them and their cohabitants. This all adds up to a satisfyingly holistic ecosystem that encourages players to explore the environment around them using their camera; although free movement isn't possible, the camera acts as a more than satisfactory exploration tool.
All in all, Pokemon Snap is a game well worth revisiting. The visuals haven't aged well, as is the case with many N64 games, but there's a blocky, irresistible charm to the basically-rendered Pokemon characters you see on-screen, which means that the spirit of the franchise, its essence, is captured. Pokemon Snap harks back to an age when a more sedate, more thoughtful style of gameplay could be considered for a major series spin-off. It's rare to see this kind of attitude applied to major tentpole franchises these days; something like last year's Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is as close as today's Nintendo gets to taking serious risks in terms of spinoffs.
Every new Nintendo console seems like incredibly fertile ground for a new Pokemon Snap game, but it doesn't seem like Nintendo is interested, sadly. The Wii's pointer controls, the Wii U's second screen, and now the Switch's portability all lend themselves brilliantly to the formula. Most importantly, though, Pokemon Snap is just a great game. It puts a new slant on its central characters and mechanics, and forces us to look at Pokemon as more than just battle fodder; they're living, breathing creatures, and Todd's camera captures them in repose, at play and interacting with one another in unique and exciting ways.
All screenshots courtesy of MobyGames.