Sunday, 26 July 2015

Retro Review - Pokemon Snap (Nintendo 64)

Gotta Snap 'Em All

Pokemon.. Ah, Pokemon. Gotta catch 'em all etc. etc. Yep, you guessed it, I am not a fan. As a lifelong loather of all things anime, I found Pokemon about as appealing as a final demand letter from a debt collection agency. But I am clearly in the minority as it's a worldwide phenomenon that shows no signs of going away. Kudos to the creators, though, for finding a way to fleece kids the world over for 20 years now, as they attempt to acquire every one of the ever-expanding bestiary of irritating critters. Anyway, I recently found myself in possession of a Nintendo 64, and in between games of Goldeneye and Wave Race 64, I decided to try out Pokemon Snap (purely to check it worked, honestly). I never thought I would end up inexplicable hooked to the damn thing, playing it for days on end - even starting a new game so I could watch my girlfriend do her own play through.

At it's heart, Pokemon Snap is an on-rails shooter, only without any real shooting. Instead, you are armed with a camera and tasked with snapping the cute pests as they roam around the landscape you are traversing in, what appears to be, the world's slowest rollercoaster (and later, hovercraft and jetpod). When you reach the end of the stage, you choose your favourite photo of each monster snapped so that Professor Oak can rate your efforts and give you a score. His criteria for scoring consists of three factors; the closeness of your subject matter, their pose, and the position in the frame. Each is rated out of 1000 and the score is then tallied up, with the prof kindly doubling your score if the Pokemon is dead centre in the photo. 

Special points are awarded when you capture a beast doing something interesting, exciting or funny and this is where the game really becomes engaging and challenging. Once you reach certain point milestones, or photograph enough Pokemon (which are entered into your PKMN report for later viewing) you are awarded special items which assist your hunt for the perfect pic. These items include apple-like foods, 'pester balls' and flutes. The food comes in infinite supply and can be hurled at the animals to feed them, at which point they will jump for joy or perform a merry jig. You can even whack them in the noggin with the chuckable nosh, causing hilarious pratfalls or knocking them into environmental hazards - both of which lead to fantastic photo opportunities. Pester Balls are equally useful, coaxing hidden vermin out of their hidey-holes so they can be immortalised on celluloid.

Starting on a scenic beach, you will find yourself traversing sandy valleys, rivers, strange tunnels and spooky caves in your hunt for the perfect pics of the elusive little sods. The visuals are colourful and appealing, and the Pokemon are cute and full of individual character, as you would expect. The music is also rather relaxing and catchy, in an 'background musak' kind of way. It all adds up to a serene and pleasant experience which feels rather laid back - the perfect rainy Sunday afternoon game. It's a joy to discover new Pokemon in the environments and it also requires a degree of thought (and quick reflexes) to successfully coerce the little buggers into performing their signature moves and taking a great shot. It keeps you coming back to each stage in order to locate new monsters and get better pics, as well as discovering secret exits to new stages.

I suppose the only downside to the experience is that there are only six main stages and one bonus stage. You can easily see everything the game has to offer in a weekend. The levels, though lovely, are rather short, and there are not as many of the collectible beasts as one would expect. There are just enough tricky Pokemon to find to keep to coming back again and again, plus the game introduces an extra objective of locating hidden shapes that resemble Pokemon. There are only six of these 'signs' to discover, but they can be quite tricky to spot. Besides, the core gameplay is so enjoyable that you don't mind coming back to try and obtain the best possible score for each Pokemon.

I never thought I would find myself so deeply engaged in a game based on a nonsense Japanese cartoon, but this wonderful title has been a pleasant surprise and, God forbid, has even helped me possibly understand why the whole Pokemon phenomenon is so popular - well, maybe not, but there characters have grown on me. I may even give a few of the other titles in the franchise a spin. Though if I become horribly addicted to it and start collecting the bloody things, you have my permission to call an intervention.

If you are a fan of Nintendo's 64-bit console then I highly recommend Pokemon Snap, even if, like me, you are not a fan of the i.p. It may verge on 'casual gaming' but it doesn't matter as it's just so much fun to play. Looking into it, there also appears to be very little else out there like it (with the exception of Africa on PS3 - which has been panned by critics), so grab this unique slice of gaming history and prepare to be addicted - at least for a few days, anyway. Plus, the sedate gameplay is the perfect antidote to all the infuriatingly hard platform games that seem to take centre stage in retro and modern indie gaming.

As a final note - while Pokemon Snap can be played on PC via the excellent Project64 emulator, it features some graphical glitches that stop you from finishing the game (the signs you have to snap near the end of the game are simply not recognised), so I strongly suggest you play this on the original hardware or via the Wii's Virtual Console.

Title : Pokemon Snap
Developer : HAL Laboratories 
Publisher : Nintendo
Year : 1999
System : Nintendo 64
Other Systems : Wii (Virtual Console)
Genre : Photo-em-up
Expect To Pay : £10 cart, £20 complete