How Pokemon Snap Inspired a Generation of Photographers and Game Developers
Rachel “Seltzer” Quirico still hears Professor Oak’s voice in her mind every time she snaps a photo in real life. The kindly researcher of Pokémon’s Kanto region serves as the judge, jury, and executioner of the beloved 1999 photography game Pokémon Snap. At the end of every virtual safari, he carefully analyzes the framing and fidelity of each of your candid portraits. Did you capture a grinning Slowking who’s slightly off-center? Expect to see your points docked. Catch a Gyrados perfectly peeking out of the water? Enjoy Oak’s high praises. Oak could be demanding in his pursuit of perfection, and as a young, bright-eyed Pokémon kid, Seltzer fully internalized his perspective on the arts.
“Even though I only do hobby photography I can hear Oak saying, ‘Wonderful!’ even now.'” Seltzer said in an interview with IGN. “His voice is iconic. It’s the voice of photography critique to me.”
Seltzer’s Pokemon love runs deep, as a proud owner of a plush Pikachu equipped with a bonesaw, and as a trainer who once trekked across the earth with the Pokémon Go team for the Global Catch Challenge. She, like many others in the community, hoped for a Pokémon Snap sequel for years. At the height of Pokemania, when it felt plausible that Squirtle, Charmander, and Bulbasaur could supplant Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny’s popularity, a bizarre, low-stakes photography game capitalizing on Pokémon popularity made its debut. It’s an odd leap from the core franchise’s battle mechanics and journey to be the best, (like no one ever was,) but for early Pokémon fans, it remains one of the most beloved offshoots.
Pokémon Snap forever changed the way players experienced the universe. Pokemon could be found chilling in their natural environments with no Ash or Misty afoot to disturb their serenity. Suddenly, the Pokémon overworld seemed so much more complex. Fans clamored for a sequel, and other photography games like Afrika and Penko Park entered the market to recreate the vibes of the original, as over the years it became clear that this tiny little photography game inspired both fans and developers.
“I did E3 coverage for Twitch for the last eight years, and every year it’s me going, ‘All I want is a new Pokémon Snap,'” Seltzer said. “It’s the greatest rail shooter ever. It’s non-violent, it’s peaceful, it’s artistic, and it inspired photographers. I love that aspect of it.”
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Seltzer and many others who share that wish are seeing it answered this week. After countless false hopes, New Pokémon Snap is finally being released onto the Nintendo Switch. And as we said in IGN’s New Pokémon Snap review, “it’s a successful modern reinvention of all the best ideas of the original game, with more courses, more Pokémon, and more reasons to revisit familiar spots in pursuit of the perfect shot.” The 2021 version of Snap is still, unapologetically, a photography game, as players venture through levels on rails in the hopes of snapping great photos from a pool of many more Pokémon than in the original. And in an absolutely nostalgic throwback for fans who spent their childhoods visiting Pokémon Snap stations at Blockbuster, Nintendo will also be supporting the Instax printer, which allows players to print out their photographs in real life.
The decades of pent-up nostalgia fostered by the Red/Blue generation may be to thank for Pokémon Snap’s return after a lengthy absence, but it’s not difficult to see why some of such a massive fanbase has been clamoring for the spinoff. Some players want to minmax an airtight rotation of hardened Pokémon to take on all comers at the gym, and some just want to relax after a big weekend, paging through all the Metapod shots they took in a meadow.
“[I loved] discovering and exploring the world of Pokémon in such a vastly unique way, compared to just going on a titular adventure,” Rosemary “Nekkra” Kelley, an esports caster who’s worked some Pokémon events in the past, told IGN. “You really felt like you were getting to know the Pokémon better, how they interact with each other, and what their habits look like.”
Like Seltzer, Kelley explained how her love of Pokémon Snap kickstarted her own interest in photography. She’d take walks with her DSLR, attempting to capture all the little moments she witnessed in real life, much in the same way Oak taught her to focus on a Geodude. “I wish I picked up the hobby more nowadays but I still take lots of pictures of my pets,” she said.
The Games and Devs Inspired by Pokemon Snap
Even as fans waited years for the sequel, Snap’s legacy lived on through other game developers. Tali Faulkner, the creator of last year’s apocalyptic cyberpunk photography adventure Umurangi Generation, made his fascination with cameras a core part of the gameplay experience. Umurangi packs much more of a technical punch than what was capable on the N64, of course. Players have access to multiple filters and a variety of lenses, and Faulkner likes to think of it as a crash course in the basics of photography. But even though the feature set is much more advanced than what Professor Oak offered players in 1999, the overarching sentiment toward the artform is still the same. From the Butterfrees of Kanto region to a polluted sunset over a flooded cityscape, video games have a unique way of turning players into amateur shutterbugs. It’s clear now that New Pokémon Snap isn’t the only result of decades of fandom for the original — a whole subset of photography games can be traced back to trying to land a really great shot of Kangaskhan.
“Video games make you an active participant in a space. You’re role-playing, essentially. You’re saying, ‘I’m the one doing this,'” Faulkner said. “We see that with other games as well. Think of every first-person shooter. Everyone probably knows how to load a gun at this point, after seeing that animation a million times. It’s a really interesting thing games can do.”
Faulkner released DLC for Umurangi Generation last November, and now laughs when he considers how, after such a long, quiet period between high-profile photography games, he happened to release his right around the time Pokémon Snap was coming back into fashion. “It’s weird to be competing with your childhood,” he said.
Faulkner isn’t the only developer interested in players’ relationship with photography. Isobel Shasha is the director of Pupperazzi, a video game out on Steam later this year about taking photos of cute dogs in a calming city. Shasha had their own brushes with Pokémon Snap growing up, and believes photography, as a medium for expression, fits naturally within interactive entertainment.
“Photography is a fascinating artform because it’s so democratic. With your smartphone, you can just point and click. Everyone can understand what they’re doing. I think that transitions into video games,” Shasha said. “It’s not too hard to figure out, ‘Oh, I can just take a photo of something.’ Ultimately, in video games, you’re going to be limited because everyone is taking photos in an artificial world. But even if everyone is taking photos of the same thing, it’s going to feel special to you. You have that ownership.”
That ownership is the crucial element of Pokémon Snap’s magic. It sold more than 1.5 million copies in 1999, making it the sixth best-selling game in the United States that year. But at the end of each run, all that mattered were the photos. When players made it back to Professor Oak in Pokémon Snap, there was your shot of Jigglypuff, that you took with your camera. A whole lineage of photography hobbyists and photography video games can be traced back to that high. In 1999, Professor Oak told us our shots were good but there was still room for improvement, and we’ve been working hard to win his favor ever since.