Prior to the launch of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, Nintendo announced the development of a magnetic drive peripheral for the console dubbed the 64DD. The 64 references the console to which it was intended to attach along with its sixty-four megabyte magnetic disks and DD stood for “disk drive” or dynamic drive”. The peripheral as was to have features such as the ability to connect to the internet, a real-time clock, and rewritable data storage. Nintendo themselves touted the machine as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console”. Because even a peripheral console wouldn’t amount to much without a library of games, Nintendo turned to their various development teams to create original titles for the 64DD.
One such company up for the task was HAL Laboratory. Their proposed game was entitled Jack and the Beanstalk. It was named after the famous English fairy tale and inspired by the numerous beanstalks Mario could climb throughout his series. The development team itself was dubbed “Jack and Beans”. The project’s existence was revealed in 1995, but no screenshots or videos were publicly released. There was much speculation as to how the game would have played with some fans suspecting certain elements found their way to Earthbound 64 – another title intended for the 64DD. This is because in an interview with Benimaru Itoh, one of the art designers for Earthbound 64, he revealed players could plant seeds that grew in real time using the 64DD’s internal clock. However, the Jack and Beans team wouldn’t have to wait for long before a sudden development caused them to shift gears.
The year 1996 marked the debut of Game Freak’s Pocket Monsters franchise. Although released to a lukewarm response, it had little trouble finding a fanbase. With the Game Boy considered a passing fad by then, the millions of units sold revitalized interest in the aging, portable console. When the game was translated for Western fans under the name Pokémon, it became a hit overseas as well, causing it to become a worldwide phenomenon. This led a plethora of spinoff media, including an anime series, several manga stories, and a collectable card game. Once it was clear that the Jack and the Beanstalk project had made no significant progress, the team eventually proposed turning it into a Pokémon spinoff. From there, the Jack and Beans team had a definite direction, and in 1999, they at last completed the project. The game’s final title was Pokémon Snap. Because 64DD had been delayed countless times, they converted their game to the Nintendo 64 platform whereupon it sold 1.5 million copies. Exactly what kind of experience does this game, released during the height of the Pokémon franchise’s popularity, have to offer?
Analyzing the Experience
One day, Todd Snap, an avid Pokémon photographer, espies a particularly rare species. Unfortunately, by the time he reaches for his camera, it is already gone. Todd is eventually summoned by Professor Oak, a researcher from the Kanto region for an important task. He has been studying these fantastic creatures for his entire life, but there are many mysteries behind them that have yet to be solved. To help unravel some of them, the two of them travel to Pokémon Island – a landform boasting various climates where these creatures live undisturbed by humans. Professor Oak needs quality photographs to supplement his findings, and he knows that Todd is the right person for the job. In a vehicle given to him by the professor named the Zero-One, Todd ventures forth into the island.
HAL Laboratory employee Satoru Iwata, who helped produce Pokémon Snap, explained in an interview that their game was always to revolve around taking photographs. However, the team had difficulties lifting the concept off the ground when they realized they weren’t giving their audience a clear motivation for doing so. Anybody could go out and take photographs of set pieces assuming the game had such a feature. However, unless the game gave players an actual goal, they wouldn’t know how to go about doing so. What to do in an action game is obvious: defeat all of the bad guys. Anyone can intuit how to play a platforming game: reach the end of the stage. How one goes about winning a racing game is something anyone can figure out: finish in first place. Exactly what one should do to win a game that involves taking photographs of wildlife is less obvious due to unclear genre conventions.
Even if what to do in such a situation isn’t immediately obvious, Pokémon Snap did have precedents in the form of Gekibo: Gekisha Boy and Pilotwings 64. In Gekibo, players assumed the role of David Goldman, an amateur photographer who was tasked with taking eight photos in order to graduate from his school. Similarly, Pilotwings 64 occasionally had missions in which players needed to photograph certain set pieces while hang-gliding. In both cases, what the player needed to photograph was made clear before the levels began, which is important when handing them gameplay most would consider unusual. Between the two games, Gekibo bears the most number of similarities to Pokémon Snap. Both are games in which their respective protagonists move independent of the player’s actions, and the goal is to photograph whatever you may find interesting during your tour. However, while Gekibo molded its gameplay after 2D platformers, Pokémon Snap is presented from a first-person perspective.
Despite its unique gameplay, the goal of Pokémon Snap is simple enough. Todd is placed in a stage riding the Zero-One and his goal is to photograph the wildlife. It’s a lot like your typical nature hike – if the wildlife in question could breathe fire, generate electricity, or sing lullabies, that is. The Zero-One moves by itself, so you can photograph the Pokémon with worrying about navigating the vehicle – not that there’s any danger of getting injured in the first place. Depending on the stage, the Zero-One travels down roads, floats on water, or soars through the sky. The stage ends either when you reach the exit or expend all of your film.
Photographing the Pokémon you see on your tour grants you a certain number of points. These photographs are judged based on five different parameters. To begin with, it matters how close you are to your target. It would defeat the purpose of photographing a rare Pokémon if it’s barely visible. However, by that same token, extreme close-ups would be considered equally unhelpful and thus should be avoided as well. The general idea is to make sure the Pokémon you’re attempting to photograph is as large as possible while getting their entire body in the shot. Secondly, it also matters how the Pokémon appear in the photos. Taking a picture of their backs will yield minimal points. If they’re in the middle of a unique activity such as singing, dancing, or eating, you will get more points. However, some Pokémon lack these special reactions. In these cases, a standard picture will suffice.
As any professional photographer will tell you, there is a great amount of technique involved in the practice. In Pokémon Snap, this translates to ensuring that the creature you’re focusing on is in the center of the frame. If it is, the number of points you obtain for the photo will be doubled. Admittedly, this is slightly counterintuitive because realistically, some photos look better when the subject is not in the center, but it does encourage the player to be accurate with their shots. Many Pokémon appear in herds; if you see one, you can bet others will be around. Taking photographs of these herds will get you a bonus based on the number of Pokémon in the frame. Finally, certain Pokémon have special poses that earn you a fixed number of points. As one would expect, these tend to be fairly rare, and often occur in response to specific player actions.
Because Pokémon Snap lacks any kind of life system, the points you earn taking these photographs serve a different purpose: unlocking new items for Todd to use. By obtaining a total of 14,000 points, he will obtain a supply of apples. These can be thrown to a Pokémon for them to eat. Todd can also use the apples to lure Pokémon to a specific set piece by creating trail with the fruit. When you surpass 75,000 points, Todd gains access to Pester Balls. These items, rather than capturing Pokémon, stun them or otherwise cause them to run from the noxious gasses they emit. During Todd’s journey, you may notice a landform or other feature that resembles a Pokémon. By photographing it, Todd obtains the Poké Flute. This has various effects on the wild Pokémon. Some will dance while others simply wake up from their slumber. Amusingly, using it in a singing Jigglypuff’s presence will cause it to get angry at Todd. Lastly, obtaining 175,000 points grants Todd access to the Dash Engine. As one would expect, using it, speeds up the pace of the Zero-One. Although it sounds detrimental to speed up your vehicle you do not have direct control over, it can be used to avoid hitting certain Pokémon and obtain close-ups you normally couldn’t.
All in all, Pokémon Snap sounds like it would provide a unique experience for fans of the series. While I certainly give the game credit for braving largely uncharted territory, it does fall short in a number of ways. As you obtain more items, you’ll realize that you can revisit earlier stages and use them to get unique reactions out of the wildlife. In this regard, there isn’t much of a reason why these items couldn’t be made available from the beginning. It would make sense if only the later stages used them extensively, but all of the items have some use in every stage. Needless to say, revisiting cleared stages and trying every combination of apples and Pester Balls to get unique reactions out of the Pokémon quickly becomes repetitive.
On the other hand, it’s plain to see why the team would force players to replay the same stages over and over, for the game only has seven of them – none of which are particularly long. What’s worse is that the final stage only has one purpose – to obtain a photograph of the legendary Pokémon Mew. This task is a bit harder than it sounds because Mew projects a force field that reflects the light of the camera right back at it. The sequence could be considered the closest thing this game has to a boss fight, but there isn’t much of a reason to dedicate an entire stage to it. Once you have obtained all of the points possible, there’s no reason to ever revisit it.
Admittedly, Pokémon Snap did offer one service to players that made it quite novel back in 1999. The photographs one took during the course of the game were stored in the cartridge’s memory. By plugging the cartridge into a kiosk in Blockbuster Video or Lawson stores in North America and Japan, players could have pictures taken in the game printed onto stickers. For its time, it was a great idea, allowing players to share their unique experiences with each other and decorate their belongings using in-game photographs they themselves took.
Unfortunately, this aspect ties into what I feel to be the game’s greatest weakness: its presentation. Any veteran enthusiast will tell you that graphics do not make the game. This is entirely true, and Pokémon Snap demonstrates why the mantra exists. By relying so heavily on its graphical capabilities as opposed to substantive gameplay, Pokémon Snap deprived itself on a leg to stand on in the grand scheme of things. These set pieces were highly impressive in 1999, but even just a few years later, they looked painfully outdated. Because the whole point of the game is to provide as immersive of a nature ride as possible, its goal is subverted by the now-conspicuously low pixel count.
Drawing a Conclusion
Spinoffs tend to be a difficult proposition. Nintendo themselves proved what a versatile character their mascot Mario was throughout the 1990s by giving him racing games, puzzlers, and RPGs – nearly all of which provided excellent experiences. However, for one reason or another, certain works don’t lend themselves well to spinoffs, and Pokémon Snap seemed to make the case that its own franchise lacked the versatility of Mario. This might be because Pokémon had such a unique, intricate gameplay forming the backbone of the series that any deviation from it was inevitably going to be less unique. To be fair, the Jack and Beans team did try to provide a unique experience and arguably succeeded in the short term. However, at the end of the day, Pokémon Snap is a game that relied nigh-exclusively on its presentation. This is a proposition that never works well in the long term – regardless of the medium. For its time, it looked great, and in light of how much more impressive the Pokémon anime looked compared to the games, playing Pokémon Snap was about the closest one could get to recreating the experience of watching that show in the franchise’s original medium.
Regardless, because of the various factors against it, I can only realistically envision Pokémon fans getting anything out of this game. Even in that group, Pokémon Snap relies heavily on nostalgia of the series’ first-generation games and accompanying anime show, which means it has little to offer newer fans. It’s interesting while it lasts, but even if you find yourself greatly enjoying the gameplay, you will have to contend with the fact that it’s over before you know it. Naturally, this means the game won’t be too much of a time sink if you decide to look into it, but you will wonder if you got your money’s worth out of the investment.
Final Score: 3/10