May 15, 2019
How a Nintendo 64 Pokémon Game Helped Set the Stage for ‘Detective Pikachu’
Those maniacs went ahead and did it. They finally made a life-action Pokémon movie that brings the world of Pikachu, Bulbasaur and even the nightmare-inducing Mr. Mime to life. It’s been 21 years since both the first games, Pokémon Red and Blue, and the anime premiered in the US in September 1998. Since then we’ve got more than a thousand episodes of an anime series, 21 animated movies and over 30 video games, but all of those mostly showed the Pokémon as collectable trophies or the combatants in cute dog-fights until Detective Pikachu came along and showed a world where humans and Pokémon exist in harmony.
Except the movie wasn’t the first to try and do something different with the ‘Pocket Monsters’ besides fighting and catching them. Twenty years before Pikachu became addicted to caffeine, a video game showed us what a world actually filled with Pokémon would look like. That game was Pokémon Snap.
A Game Created By Pokémania
Pokémon Snap came out in June 1999 in North America, and it remains the simplest Pokémon game to date. You play as legendary photographer Todd Snap (that’s his actual name), a young man who gets hired by Professor Oak to go to Pokémon Island, a region that doesn’t see a lot of human action, and take pictures of Pokémon in their natural habitat. For the duration of the game, the player sits in an amphibious buggy named Zero-One, and then attempts to take perfect pictures of the various adorable Pokémon that inhabit the island before showing them to Professor Oak. It is basically a rail-shooter (like the arcade games where you can’t move, just shoot at things) but with pictures instead of bullets.
Having such a simple concept is what makes Pokémon Snap so special. By removing the RPG-elements of past and future Pokémon games and instead focusing on the Pokémon doing Pokémon stuff, the game becomes basically a Pokémon safari that shows us that these are living creatures with lives and routines, which makes the world of Pokémon feel lived-in.
It isn’t a stretch to say that Pokémon Snap was made to cash-in on the “Pokémania” of the late ‘90s. An article on the official Nintendo website tells the story of how Pokémon Snap was originally going to be a regular game about taking pictures, but the creators weren’t sure what would motivate players to take pictures, before they “made a somewhat forced switch to taking pictures of Pokémon.” This was one of the first Pokémon game to be released on the Nintendo 64 console, and the first time many of the Pokémon had been rendered in 3D in a game.
Despite the crave for anything Pokémon-related, many fans were disappointed by Pokémon Snap due to it not featuring the now-classic elements of a Pokémon game like fighting and catching the creatures, and because of how short the game is (there are only 63 of the original 151 Pokémon, and seven levels). But it’s fair to say that without the Pokémon aspect, the game would not be as remembered as it is.
A Whole New World
Game producer Satoru Iwata is right when he said that they needed something to motivate players into taking pictures. It is one thing to make a game where the player goes on safari and tries to take good pictures, but it is another thing entirely to be thrown into the colourful world of Pokémon and see a Kangaskhan and its baby roaring at you or an Eevee chasing a Chansey that’s rolling around like a ball.
The game itself is very simple and doesn’t allow much interaction from the player, as you can’t move because your buggy is following a rail, but it is all by design. Because you don’t have freedom of movement, the game relies on repetition – making the player go back and re-do each level in order to take better pictures – and having time to take everything around you in. As soon as your buggy enters the first level set in a beach, you see a flock of Pidgey flying around you (and probably pooping on you as well), then a Pikachu and a Doduo running around it, right before the sound of a snoring Snorlax makes you turn away from taking the Pokémon-version of the famous photo of the Lock Ness Monster, but with a Lapras.
Compare this to Detective Pikachu’s Ryme City, a place where battling is banned and there is no Pokémon catching. The movie instead shows us a utopia where humans and Pokémon live in harmony, where every person has a Pokémon companion and the Pokémon even have jobs. Arguably the best part of the movie is getting to see this interplay, as you catch glimpses of a Machamp directing traffic while a sleeping Snorlax is causing a traffic jam, a Jigglypuff singing at a lounge, a Charmander using its tail flame to cook street food, and more. They are different approaches to the same basic idea, showing Pokémon living in our world and acting naturally. The movie gives us the best representation of what our world would look like if we had fantastical creatures living in it, and it heavily recalls Pokémon Snap.
Interacting With the World
It’s not like we hadn’t seen Pokémon in the wild before. After all, most Pokémon you capture in the games you find within the tall grass, doing their own thing. But Pokémon Snap portrayed this in a vastly different way. Pokémon Red and Blue (and most of the games after that) show the world from a top-down view, which hides the Pokémon in dark corners inside caves, within the tall grass of the numerous forests you come across, or in deep waters. Pokémon Snap goes for a more interactive angle, as Pokémon look and acknowledge you, and in turn you interact with the Pokémon and use elements like food and music to get a better shot.
As you progress in the game, you are given items that you can use to get the Pokémon to react in different ways, such as an apple you can throw at them, repellent to flush out Pokémon, and a flute that can awaken even the mighty Snorlax. These lead to great moments like getting a Magikarp to evolve into a Gyarados if you make it get out of the water or throwing a Squirtle shell to topple a Mankey off a perch.
Even without the player doing much, there is plenty of interplay between the different Pokémon, which leads to delightful and surprising moments that will make you feel like Sir David Attenborough. If you’re lucky, you can catch a group of Jigglypuff singing and dancing, or a Pikachu riding the sand waves on a tiny surfboard, or a Pikachu flying on top on Articuno, or even Pikachu riding on top of a rolling Electrode (Pikachu is the only Pokémon to appear in every level, because of course it is).
It is this interplay, being able to see Pokémon act on their own doing non-battle things, that makes Pokémon Snap special. Hearing the splash of a Magikarp jumping off the sea or seeing a Meowth calmly walking through the foliage before lying down in the shade make you feel like Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park before all the carnage. You’re seeing fantastic creatures in a way you’ve never seen them before – their natural environments. Also, imagine how cool a Jurassic Park-style movie based on this game could be!?
Influencing the Future
Pokémon Snap was a success when it came out, but unlike everything else Pokémon-related, it never got a sequel. Nevertheless, the game’s influence over the industry cannot be denied.
Think of the number of games that now feature a photo mode for some reason. Everything from Spider-Man PS4, to Uncharted, to Red Dead Redemption II allow players to freeze the action and view it from any angle, adjusting saturation, zooming in or out to take the perfect snap. They allow for beautiful moments, but because the feature exists outside of the games’ mechanics, it doesn’t amount to a challenge. Meanwhile, the thrill of strategizing and planning carefully to capture the best moment on camera is the core of Pokémon Snap. Even Pokémon Go introduced Snapshot mode recently, allowing players to position their captured Pokémon in real-world locations and take pictures with them.
Pokémon Snap was not only ahead of its time in terms of other games, but also culture itself. Where the Nintendo 64 game had you agonize over not being able to take the absolute best picture, Instagram and Snapchat now have people spending hours upon hours slaving to take a perfect shot.
Which brings us to Detective Pikachu. Then first live-action Pokémon movie introduces us to a world where humans live side-by-side with Pokémon, in a city that is filled with as diverse a human population as it has a big variety of Pokémon adapting to the city life. With a hat-wearing Pikachu stealing everyone’s attention, let us not forget that 20 years ago a game showed us what a world where Pokémon lived uninterrupted and in their natural habitat looked like.
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