It was the summer of 1999, and I was finishing up my last year of elementary school. Bill Clinton recently survived an impeachment, Metallica’s music was freely downloaded on Napster, and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was in theaters. As a kid, I loved that movie. Yes, there were a lot of boring parts (Hey, let’s include trade negotiations in a space adventure film marketed to children!), but there were enough action set pieces, wacky characters, and cool toys to win me over. It wasn’t until I watched the movie years later that the flaws became self-evident. The computer-generated effects no longer seeming so special, and without being bribed by cool toys, I could finally see the movie for what it was: a singular, but flawed vision of an aging artist trying to relive past glories. But Star Wars wasn’t the only thing consuming the minds of children that summer. The Pokémon craze was taking over. After the successful launch of Pokémon Red & Blue, as well as the hit anime TV series, Nintendo began experimenting with spinoffs. In June of 1999, just as the school year was ending and summer fun time was beginning, Nintendo launched Pokémon Snap in America. Now that it’s on the Wii U Virtual Console, how does it compare playing it as an adult in in 2017 versus as a child in 1999?
Developed by HAL Laboratory, the developers behind the Kirby and Earthbound series, this game takes the mechanics of an arcade rail shooter and makes it family-friendly by replacing a gun with a camera, bullets with film, and grenades with apples and “pester balls”. The premise of the game has you going on trails shooting photos of Pokémon (and Pokémon-like structures) for Professor Oak to review. He grades based on how close to the Pokémon you get, how good of a pose they are providing, and whether or not your subject is in center-frame. Bonus points are awarded if more than one of the same type of pocket monster are in the frame or if you capture a Pokémon in a special pose, such as getting Jigglypuff to sing.
When I was a kid, I never owned this game. N64 cartridges were expensive when new, and I was a kid with no money. Aside from birthdays and Christmas, it was a rare occurrence when I could convince my parents to buy me a game—especially an N64 game. (Gameboy games were much cheaper, and thus, much easier to present a case for.) I did, however, frequently rent the game from various video rental stores.
Since the save data saved to the game cartridge itself, I would frequently get the game in various stages of completion. Sometimes I would start fresh, others I would start where others had left off. The latter option was, in many ways, more entertaining. The score of my photos were now being compared to that of other players’ in a world where online gaming didn’t really exist. (There were a few online games that existed at this time, but it was far from mainstream.) It was a new, and exciting experience, both in terms of gameplay and seeing 3D-rendered Pokémon existing in their natural environments. Prior to this, Pokémon existed as either 8-bit, monochrome Gameboy sprites with very limited animations, or as cartoons. We hadn’t truly seen how much 3D space a Snorlax takes up!
Playing the game on the Wii U is an entirely different experience, though. While the core gameplay remains fun, you can’t help but notice how much has changed in gaming, especially if, like me, you played the game using the Wii U Gamepad. After spending many hours playing Splatoon, it’s hard not to think about how much easier it would be to aim the camera by using the Gamepad’s gyro controls—a feature that Game Freak included in Pokémon Sun & Moon’s photography segments. Instead, since this game is a direct emulation of the N64 original, the game is still controlled by using the analog stick. Unlike back in 1999, though, the controls no longer feel tight and easy to use. Analog stick technology has greatly improved since the N64’s hard plastic stick. Since the GameCube, sticks are now much more smooth and fluid, allowing for more subtle movements. Although the Wii U’s analog sticks are of the modern design, the Virtual Console release doesn’t take advantage of this. That leads to aiming feeling like a clunky mess. Subtle movements of the stick translate to jerky movements in the game. Holding down a button to aim the camera causes enough of a delay that getting that split-second perfect shot of a Pokémon feels needlessly tedious.
Visually, seeing 3D renders of Pokémon in their natural environments no longer feels as exciting now that we’ve been spoiled by the higher quality renders in Pokémon Go, Pokkén Tournament, and 3DS Pokémon titles. That’s not to say that this game lacks polish. Quite the opposite, actually. The dated graphics are filled with enough style and personality that the game still looks good, just not good enough to “wow” anymore.
|Meowth resents that remark.|
This brings us back to The Phantom Menace. That movie worked as a kid in 1999, but fails on nearly every level as an adult in 2017. Behind its veneer of shiny graphics and neat toys was an incredibly dull movie with no compelling characters to be found. Playing Pokémon Snap on the Wii U grinds away its outer shell, but reveals that underneath the “wow” is still a fun game, even if you can’t but help but wonder how much better it could be.