Fair criticism usually benefits from having extensive experience in the particular subject leading to a more knowledgeable (and less emotional) perspective. But every now and then, something like Pokémon Snap comes along that so defies normal conventions (of the videogame world) that it leaves critics baffled as to how to justifiably critique it. Comparing such a game to the likes of violence-riddled, first-person shooters or management-intensive, real-time strategy games is much like the unenlightening experience of comparing proverbial apples to proverbial oranges. I could try harder and describe Pokémon Snap as something like a light-gun shooter equipped with a camera rather than a firearm, except that such a statement doesn't delve into the game's distinct mechanics. So rather than trying to put Pokémon Snap in a lineup with all the usual suspects, Dale and I searched elsewhere for new and more appropriate criteria by which to judge the game. Now where does one go to find an experience comparable to Pokémon Snap, whose premise revolves around shooting and collecting photographs of Pokémon in the wild? Well, here in New York City, the only place that's got more animals than the streets is the Bronx Zoo. So with each of us armed with a trusty 35mm camera and a roll of film, we took at trip to the zoo, "snapping" shots of all kinds of animals. All in hope of gaining better insight and giving the game a more fair review.
So how does a virtual trip to Pokémon Island stack up against a real trip to the Bronx Zoo? Quite well actually. Make no mistake, the developers of Pokémon Snap have tapped into a very unique National Geographic, safari-type experience with a journalistic focus on the photography portion of the game. Pokémon Snap soars higher than a bald eagle in the presentation department. Despite being restricted to a set path of movement, the explored environments feel wondrously expansive and retain a good sense of the surrounding natural elements. Pokémon littered throughout the stages are modeled beautifully and animate smoothly; conveying an appropriately organic feel. I was quick to notice that the Pokémon tended to be far more lively and exaggerated in their actions than their real, living animal brethren (who were usually sedate and lazily lounging about) were. The Bronx Zoo monorail was also nowhere near as sweet a ride as Pokémon Snap's Zero-One transportation unit! Pokémon Snap does tend to feel like amusement park-like ride at times, but neither this nor any of the aforementioned larger-than-life videogame antics detract from the overall ambience and serenity that comes naturally comes from photographing, whether the subjects are Pokémon or animals.
One thing that Pokémon Snap does capture remarkably well is the sense of wonderment and excitement one gets from shooting photos and not being able to examine the results until later. The satisfaction of finally seeing prints is far more immediate in Pokémon Snap, and therefore less gratifying and magical than in actuality, where one has to take the time to either develop the film oneself or walk it over to the local photo lab. Still, that feeling has never before been explored by a videogame in a meaningful way and Pokémon Snap deserves much credit for being able to capture a fraction of what makes photography so joyful. The developers were also wise to focus on a more journalistic (not artistic) approach to photography. Because although Professor Oak's simulated photo-critiquing standards are fine for a newspaper or scientific style of composition, they are far too stringent for artistic aesthetics.
Trekking through the Bronx Zoo, all of the above-mentioned things became apparent, but nothing stood out more than this: Pokémon-mania has captured the hearts of children and the attention of parents (at least in NYC). The presence of Pokémon was so apparent that it seemed as if the Bronx Zoo had a promotional tie-in (in actuality, there wasn't) with Nintendo Game Boys with Pokémon carts inserted could be spotted with pubescent teens, while younger kids paraded around, proudly brandishing their Pokémon T-shirts. It was simply amazing the amount of conversations overheard about Pokémon and not only with kids, but surprisingly also with parents. I even overheard how a mother got her child to come to the zoo by telling him he'd see real-life Pokémon there!
That last image sticks in my mind because despite videogames being the most popular form of entertainment among children, I still saw plenty of kids having fun at the zoo. And even if they were "tricked" into going to the zoo, they nonetheless had fun once there and it serves as a reminder to me that there were ways for kids to amuse themselves long before videogames came into our collective conscious. We have fun and are entertained because physical, real-world experiences can evoke pleasant feelings and emotions about ourselves, and Pokémon Snap serves as a reminder that videogames aren't necessarily fun onto themselves, but fun because they virtually simulate some of those real-world experiences. So playing Pokémon Snap is good, but if it inspires you to take up photography, visit a zoo, or go on a real wild safari (not that phony Disney stuff), the experience would be far richer.