More than any other medium, videogames possess the ability to immerse people in worlds, of giving them a sense of place, one that can be populated, filled out and come alive before our eyes. But great worlds contain memorable characters with their own personalities- Pokémon has long had one of those worlds. Pokémon Snap is built around this singular idea- it puts would-be photographers on a Safari in a Pokémon nature preserve and equips us with a camera to witness, interact and record.
That world is photographed from the confines of your ZERO-ONE a multi-terrain vehicle that proceeds down a very restricted course in every level. From it you’ll see dozens of Pokémon from the roster of the original set of Game Boy games, including Pikachu, Squirtle and Meowth, playing, fighting and living. Each and every one will be actively engaged in their own set of behaviors, everything from an Evee chasing a Chancey to a Scyther hiding in a thicket of brush. That’s really a testament to the character designs and animations. They may be incredibly scripted, but these interactions truly make you feel as if you’re watching a living, breathing world as shot by Animal Planet. These are animals in their natural habitats.
Using the ‘Z’ button to zoom and ‘A’ to snap a photo, the game records up to sixty pictures per visit and you can submit your favorite for each species to Professor Oak at the end. Points are awarded based on the size of the subject, the pose you catch them in and the technique you used to frame the shot. Bonus points are given if you can get them into special poses including the adorable ‘Surfing Pikachu’, where the electric rodent is, you guessed it, riding on a surfboard. The points are tallied up, saved in your PKMN Report and added to your running score that opens up new courses and items that can further interact with the Pokémon you find.
The items are simple but give you some nice options. When thrown near, or, much better, directly at, Pokémon, the Pokémon Food will cause them to stop what they’re doing and stay in place while the Pester Ball will draw their attention or agitate them enough to change their behavior. While superficially simple, these tools add great depth to the game once you realize it’s all about solving simple puzzles. Only evolving Pokémon into others or by figuring out how to flip a switch and open a new path will you be able to proceed through the game.
You’ll only get seven courses total, but, while standard videogame themes, they are diverse and feature Pokémon mostly exclusive to them. You’ll travel along a sunny beach, explore the depths of a cave under the island and chart among the stars, all in the attempt to get the perfect shot. These locations are all cheery and happy, but there is a certain, implacable mystery to them, littered with the artifacts of civilization and technology that’s never explained.
And you’ll be playing through these levels a lot, using the new items and info you get to find even more secrets. They’ve made this backtracking a necessity to make up for the short list of locales and the fact that they only take a few minutes to go through. That’s the most unfortunate part of the entire adventure- it doesn’t last very long. Everything can be completed within a few hours and then that’s it.
Pokémon Snap offers an experience that you rarely get in videogames, but it’s one that is difficult to recommend to any one type of person in particular. Even if you love the franchise, you might be turned off by the methodical pace and regular backtracking, but that very gameplay might be alluring to people who actively hate the little critters. Regardless, it’s worth trying just to find out.
DEVELOPER: Hal Laboratories
PLATFORMS: Nintendo 64, Virtual Console