Game Description: Have you ever wanted to see Pikachu in its natural habitat? With the groundbreaking game Pokémon Snap, you will capture lots Pokémon found in the wild—not with a Poke Ball but with a camera! Some shots are easy, like snapping Pikachu relaxing on the beach, but others are much more difficult, such as taking the picture of Pikachu riding on the back of a rare, flying Pokémon! In Pokémon Snap, you're on assignment from Professor Oak, the world-famous Pokémon professor. He needs lots of photos taken on Pokémon Island, where you'll cross six fascinating environments in search of all the Pokémon you can find. Pidgey will soar over your shoulder on the Beach. Diglett will pop up in the Tunnel. A group of Charmander will run by in the Volcano. And that's only in the first three environments!
Fair criticism usually benefits from having extensive experience in the particular subject leading to a more knowledgeable (and less emotional) perspective. But every now and then, something like Pokémon Snap comes along that so defies normal conventions (of the videogame world) that it leaves critics baffled as to how to justifiably critique it. Comparing such a game to the likes of violence-riddled, first-person shooters or management-intensive, real-time strategy games is much like the unenlightening experience of comparing proverbial apples to proverbial oranges. I could try harder and describe Pokémon Snap as something like a light-gun shooter equipped with a camera rather than a firearm, except that such a statement doesn't delve into the game's distinct mechanics. So rather than trying to put Pokémon Snap in a lineup with all the usual suspects, Dale and I searched elsewhere for new and more appropriate criteria by which to judge the game. Now where does one go to find an experience comparable to Pokémon Snap, whose premise revolves around shooting and collecting photographs of Pokémon in the wild? Well, here in New York City, the only place that's got more animals than the streets is the Bronx Zoo. So with each of us armed with a trusty 35mm camera and a roll of film, we took at trip to the zoo, "snapping" shots of all kinds of animals. All in hope of gaining better insight and giving the game a more fair review.
So how does a virtual trip to Pokémon Island stack up against a real trip to the Bronx Zoo? Quite well actually. Make no mistake, the developers of Pokémon Snap have tapped into a very unique National Geographic, safari-type experience with a journalistic focus on the photography portion of the game. Pokémon Snap soars higher than a bald eagle in the presentation department. Despite being restricted to a set path of movement, the explored environments feel wondrously expansive and retain a good sense of the surrounding natural elements. Pokémon littered throughout the stages are modeled beautifully and animate smoothly; conveying an appropriately organic feel. I was quick to notice that the Pokémon tended to be far more lively and exaggerated in their actions than their real, living animal brethren (who were usually sedate and lazily lounging about) were. The Bronx Zoo monorail was also nowhere near as sweet a ride as Pokémon Snap's Zero-One transportation unit! Pokémon Snap does tend to feel like amusement park-like ride at times, but neither this nor any of the aforementioned larger-than-life videogame antics detract from the overall ambience and serenity that comes naturally comes from photographing, whether the subjects are Pokémon or animals.
One thing that Pokémon Snap does capture remarkably well is the sense of wonderment and excitement one gets from shooting photos and not being able to examine the results until later. The satisfaction of finally seeing prints is far more immediate in Pokémon Snap, and therefore less gratifying and magical than in actuality, where one has to take the time to either develop the film oneself or walk it over to the local photo lab. Still, that feeling has never before been explored by a videogame in a meaningful way and Pokémon Snap deserves much credit for being able to capture a fraction of what makes photography so joyful. The developers were also wise to focus on a more journalistic (not artistic) approach to photography. Because although Professor Oak's simulated photo-critiquing standards are fine for a newspaper or scientific style of composition, they are far too stringent for artistic aesthetics.
Trekking through the Bronx Zoo, all of the above-mentioned things became apparent, but nothing stood out more than this: Pokémon-mania has captured the hearts of children and the attention of parents (at least in NYC). The presence of Pokémon was so apparent that it seemed as if the Bronx Zoo had a promotional tie-in (in actuality, there wasn't) with Nintendo Game Boys with Pokémon carts inserted could be spotted with pubescent teens, while younger kids paraded around, proudly brandishing their Pokémon T-shirts. It was simply amazing the amount of conversations overheard about Pokémon and not only with kids, but surprisingly also with parents. I even overheard how a mother got her child to come to the zoo by telling him he'd see real-life Pokémon there!
That last image sticks in my mind because despite videogames being the most popular form of entertainment among children, I still saw plenty of kids having fun at the zoo. And even if they were "tricked" into going to the zoo, they nonetheless had fun once there and it serves as a reminder to me that there were ways for kids to amuse themselves long before videogames came into our collective conscious. We have fun and are entertained because physical, real-world experiences can evoke pleasant feelings and emotions about ourselves, and Pokémon Snap serves as a reminder that videogames aren't necessarily fun onto themselves, but fun because they virtually simulate some of those real-world experiences. So playing Pokémon Snap is good, but if it inspires you to take up photography, visit a zoo, or go on a real wild safari (not that phony Disney stuff), the experience would be far richer.
To speak of Pokémon Snap's far-reaching appeal, I must mention that the Bronx Zoo angle came to me and Chi separately. I first thought that a photo-journalistic approach (linking the experience to bird watching) was the most fitting comparison. Like bird watching, photographing the Pokémon in their natural environments was key and getting a nice big shot of a rare Pokémon was like finding gold. It was here though that Chi mentioned the idea of a zoo experience. This was a great revelation because the more I played the game the more striking the similarities were and the more I got a kick out of the idea of doing some Pokémon "hunting" of my own.
I hadn't been to the zoo since my freshman year in high school (it was for biology class), but this time around, it was actually quite a different experience than I remember. Previously, going to the zoo served as part of a class assignment; this time, it was purely for fun and adventure. I now realize that I appreciate this latest trip more because of that distinction. So with camera in hand, I really focused in and tried to get caught up in the whole thing; And indeed, there were times when I forgot I was at the zoo and instead thought I was playing a game from my couch. Anticipating the animals' movements as well as factoring in the movement of the monorail was a lot like playing the game. But to be fair, the game was probably more like the real life experience rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, the differences did begin to blur at times.
As I got caught up though I noticed a couple of things. Pokémon Snap is a game and for all its ingenuity, it's simplified a few things that just would not work in the real world. For instance in Pokémon Snap, getting the shot of the Pokémon is key and not the actual well-being of the Pokémon themselves. My character was given gadgets to "encourage" the Pokémon into better poses so I could earn higher scores. Now this works well in a game but as I progressed through the park looking at the far less animated animals, I kept wishing I had a "pester ball" or just a piece of fruit to heave at them. A case in point occurred at the giraffe exhibit. The poor animal must have been hungry or just too shy because it was intent on staying by the gate where the zookeepers were. And sure enough, this other photographer must have been feeling impatient as I was, because out of nowhere came a flying chunk of pizza; right into the pen. It was a surreal moment that became a hysterical one as the giraffe actually moved towards the food (and closer to my camera). Click, click, and I was off to another exhibit. I silently thanked the moron who got the giraffe's attention but I wondered if we were all caught up in getting the shot and caring less about the rules or about simple courtesy to the animals. Maybe Jack Hannah has an opinion on that.
As I was writing this second opinion, I was reminded of when I had to write one for Pokémon Pinball and how I felt that Nintendo was exploiting the franchise; to an extent I feel the same way with this game. It's a shame that the hardcore gamer will probably ignore this game because this is the one that I would recommend most to someone who hasn't yet been caught up in the Pokémon frenzy. It offers so many new videogame elements (some of which are on consoles for the first time), that it should be played by every gamer who considers him or herself a sophisticated player. After all, here is a game that tries to convince gamers that becoming an ace photographer is a worthy goal. All destructive or really harmful elements are gone and we beg you to simply play innocently. I shouldn't have to tell you that a game like this doesn't come along everyday.
Pokémon Snap is truly different from the kind of games that dominate today's market. It's a first-of-its-kind title along the lines of Parappa The Rapper and Carnage Heart.
Thus, hardcore fans of established genres and players looking for more or less the same kinds of gameplay will want to stay clear of this one.
All those interested in photography, Pokémon, distinctive gaming experiences, or anything else related to Pokémon Snap in particular, will find something to be happy about when playing.
Critics of videogame violence and parents looking for less corrupt alternatives will find a wonderful selection in Pokémon Snap. Be warned also that the cart can only save 60 photos at a time with only ONE user account. There's also no conventional means of outputting the photos either besides those kiddy printouts (Pokémon Snap stations are at your local Blockbuster video stores), so be forewarned.