Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 74, Pokémon Snap
One of the earliest Pokémon spinoff titles is also a memorable on-rails shooter. No, you don't need guns for this to be a shooter. Click.
I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Pokémon wasn’t a world-dominating franchise and pillar of Nintendo sales, with each release a long-awaited boon for whichever handheld (and now console) it would appear on next. No, back in the summer of 1999, there had only been one generation of Pokémon to that point, the original 151, which debuted in Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue the previous fall. Those games were tremendous successes, but they were also just one successful entry in the franchise: Pokémon’s success being a given was not a thing yet.
It was in this arena that Pokémon Snap released for the Nintendo 64 in 1999. Red and Blue were massive hits, sure, but how would a spinoff in a completely unrelated genre do? No longer would you capture the little pocket monsters on a Game Boy in an RPG, but instead, you would take photographs of them in an on-rails “shooter” setup, so that Professor Oak could rate your skills. It’s still gotta catch them all, but this time, the capturing happens on camera.
From a sales perspective, Snap did wonderfully: 3.63 million copies sold put it just behind Banjo-Kazooie (number 10) and Star Fox 64 (number nine) on the N64 lifetime sales list, and just ahead of Majora’s Mask. From a critical perspective, it received more like average reviews overall, but some outlets felt much more strongly about it, with the main complaint mostly being that it didn’t have enough of the original 151 involved. And still, despite this, it was enjoyable, vastly different from anything out at that point, and now, we know, has lingered on in the memories of fans long enough that news of a sequel more than 20 years later had people absolutely thrilled.
It’s actually a bit of a shock that there wasn’t word of a Pokémon Snap sequel or even a spinoff of the spinoff much earlier, considering that Nintendo has had the technology to make a vastly different one than the original for some time now. When the Nintendo DSi was first introduced and came with a camera, it felt like the perfect opportunity to project Pokémon into a real space to find them in a Snap-like sequel (I’d show you my receipts from over a decade ago on this, but alas, all of my pre-2018 tweets are deleted). This became even more true when the 3DS introduced AR capabilities into the mix, and we would eventually get some form of AR and real-world Pokèmon searching with the mobile game (and major success), Pokémon Go. Snap, though, remained a one-off until the recent announcement of a sequel for the Switch. And really, that’s fine, too, since the original remains fun to this day. Enough so that it finds itself on this list.
Here’s the premise: Professor Oak is on an island full of Pokémon, and wants you to take photographs of them in their natural environment rather than capturing them in Pokéballs. You get more points for better photographs — center the Pokémon in the image, make sure the subject of your photograph is large, maybe catch it in the middle of some kind of action like dancing or violence directed at you or another Pokémon. And more points can mean more items at your disposal, which in turn means more Pokémon for you to catch. There’s a whistle, which can wake Pokémon up from a deep sleep, or cause them to dance. There are Pokéballs filled with gas to throw at Pokémon to draw them out of hiding, or cause them to evolve into another Pokémon, which you will then need to take a photo of while you can. There is fruit to throw to draw Pokémon closer to you, or just to whack them in the head to get their attention. There are Pokémon hiding in the background that you need to take photos of so that they will appear again later in a level, for a better shot where you can actually identify them.
The game is full of secrets, and it’s discovering these secrets that makes the games seven stages last a lot longer than you imagine seven on-rails stages to be. Finding all of those secrets will take some trial and error, some luck, and the ability for you to throw items and then quickly react with your camera to what happens in response. You have some control over where you’re going — you can eventually speed up your cart on the track, so levels don’t have to take the initial run time if you managed to accomplish what you needed on a replay or just want to move it along to the next region of a particular map — but for the most part, you’re reacting to what’s happening around you as the game moves you along.
You also need to experiment with the environment itself, and not just to coax Pokèmon out of hiding. Doing so might also open up alternate paths, too, which will in turn lead you to some new Pokèmon you need to catch, or bring you to an alternate pathway that will bring you to an entrance to a brand new level. Otherwise, levels are unlocked by completing the previous one and having captured enough Pokémon on film that Oak feels it’s time for you to gain access to a new stage.
Once you’ve completed all of the levels and found the environmental secrets you need to unlock the hidden last stage and access to the legendary Pokémon Mew, there is still more to do. For one, you need to catch them all. This is Pokémon, you know, even if it’s an on-rails one. While, regrettably, there aren’t 151 of them to find, there are still 63, and it’ll take you plenty of replays to find them all. While searching for all 63, you can also improve on the photographs you’ve already taken of the other Pokémon in order to score additional points. While you will be past the point of unlocking new items by the time you’ve found Mew and snapped a few pics, there are still high scores to consider. And these are a real challenge that will require you basically play perfect runs of the seven stages.
Just taking photos of the Pokémon in a stage won’t be enough: you’ll need to basically take the perfect photo of each type in a given level in order to achieve the high score. Whatever pose is possible to coax out of a given Pokémon, you’ll need to cause it to happen and then capture it on film. Any hidden Pokémon in a level, you’ll need to un-hide them. Photos with multiple Pokémon that boost points are a help, too: these high scores will basically look impossible to achieve when you first see what they are. But with practice, you’ll get there.
There are certainly better on-rails games for the Nintendo 64 than Pokémon Snap, and you’ll eventually be reading about them in this space. There is something that stands out about Snap, though, that makes it continue to live on as more than just a curiosity, as a better game than it was recognized as when it first released. SyFy Wire discussed this a bit a couple of years ago with their case for Pokémon Snap as “the Instagram of video games,” but there is more to it than just the world being more ready for a photography-based title in 2020 than they were in 1999 thanks to the prevalence of camera phones.
The video game community is not without its problems and prejudices these days, of course, but I do think that maybe there’s a little less cynicism in certain areas these days than there used to be. At the time of Snap’s release, there was a real focus on the violence in video games, and “maturing” gamers who craved realism and grit and blood from their pastime. Snap, obviously, as an adorable game where you take photographs of adorable creatures for no reason other than that it might be fun to do so, was looked down upon a bit at the time as something meant for children, even with the popularity of Pokémon with various audiences across age ranges, including the bloodthirsty ones. It obviously didn’t hinder its sales to the point that they were poor, but it is maybe fair to wonder how Snap would have been critically and commercially received had the concept first emerged in an environment more like today’s.
I guess we will see, when Nintendo eventually releases its long-awaited sequel on what is, as of this writing, the second-most purchased home console in their long and stored history, but even then, Snap’s sequel will be entering an environment that Snap itself helped to cultivate, so it won’t be a perfect 1:1 comparison. Regardless of how its sequel reviews or performs on the market, the original Pokémon Snap is a legitimate classic, one you can find a copy for on ebay without breaking the bank if you still have an N64 to play it on, or if you’re one of the 12 people with a Wii U, it’s available on that system’s Virtual Console for $10. It’s money well spent, the kind you’d have no problem tossing at a weird concept indie title available on a digital shop. Snap certainly fits in with those kinds of games, spiritually speaking.
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