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How Pokemon Snap became one of the franchise's biggest cult hits

Old-school Pokemon fans have been clamoring for a new Pokemon Snap for many years. Now they're finally getting one! But what led to such a demand for a sequel? Let's take a look back at what made Pokemon Snap the cult hit that it is today.

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This morning saw The Pokemon Company make a number of exciting announcements. Players went in expecting to hear more about Pokemon Sword & Shield: The Isle of Armor and they certainly did. That's out right now. But what many weren't expecting was to hear that Pokemon Snap is finally getting a sequel.

This was a day that many never thought would come. For decades, people have expressed their love for Pokemon Snap, developed by Kirby creators HAL Laboratory. When social first dawned years after its release, people were still expressing their admiration for the Nintendo 64 cult classic. People rejoiced when it came to the Wii Virtual Console in 2007 and the Wii U Virtual Console back in 2017. And even on a day where Pokemon released a full-blown expansion to a mainline Pokemon game, the first one on Nintendo Switch, much of the excitement was still towards this new Pokemon Snap.

So how did we get here? What is it about Pokemon Snap that's led to players continuing to sing its praises over 20 years after its initial release? That's what we're here to discuss today, so let's talk about how Pokemon Snap became the cult classic that it is today.

Pokemon Safari

For 1999, Pokemon Snap's very premise was inspired. Players head to an island to embark on an on-rails safari, with a cart slowly moving down a set path. Pokemon are in their natural habitat, just going about their business. Sure, there's a Pikachu or two that'll mug for the camera, but the rest of the island's denizens are just living out their daily routine.

For video games, this was a truly novel concept. In 2020, we're used to smaller developers and solo indie creators taking chances and diving into ideas that a AAA studio would never even consider. We're used to smaller developers going experimental. But the video game landscape was much more insulated in 1999 and ideas like Pokemon Snap just didn't happen back then. In a world filled with platformers, RPGs, fighting games, sports games, and the occasional shooter (that genre hadn't been diluted yet, but that's another story), there wasn't anything like a game where the central premise was still goal-driven, yet the atmosphere was centered around relaxation.

"Unlike other Pokemon titles, Pokemon Snap gave us the rare opportunity to immerse ourselves in the world of Pokemon like we never had before," What's Good Games' Pokemon Snap superfan Brittany Brombacher told Shacknews. "We weren't there to battle, capture or train – our purpose was simply to observe, document and photograph Pokémon in their natural habitat. (Suuure, sometimes we would fling balls of noxious fumes at Pokémon to get them to do what we wanted, but hey, I'm sure it was harmless.) Each of the seven unique levels had clever secrets to uncover, hidden Pokémon to find and endless photograph possibilities."

"As a lifelong gamer and a games industry host for over a decade, I've tried and enjoyed a lot of games," said esports hostess Rachel "Seltzer" Quirico. "To me, Pokémon Snap however has always stood apart as an unparalleled masterpiece, and an outlier even in its own universe. In a game world where I was constantly encouraged to train and fight with these adorable creatures, Pokemon Snap gave me an opportunity to just watch the little dudes enjoy their own lives."

Pokemon Snap wasn't presented with the same "Gotta catch 'em all" mindset or "I wanna be the very best" mentality of the mainline games. It was presented as a vacation. And what do vacation-goers like to do? They like to take pictures! Yes, Professor Oak was passing judgment on the quality of the photos, but the main idea was to have fun and observe these creatures as they wander around their habitats. You weren't there to interfere... too much.

Interactive Petting Zoo

As novel as it was to watch Pokemon as they went about their day, there was a lot more fun in lightly poking at them with an array of tools. Heck, just the name "Pester Ball" implied that the idea was to bug any poor Pokemon just trying to do its thing. (Not recommended for actual safaris, of course.) It added a more video game feel to the proceedings, allowing players to either bonk Pokemon with Pester Balls or go the full petting zoo route and feed them snacks.

Where Pokemon Snap truly shined was where players had a hand in creating their own shot. Sometimes, it was as simple as leaving some Pokemon food out for a nearby Pikachu to start snacking on, leading to an adorable snapshot. Other times, it was aiming just a little bit high and knocking the poor Pikachu unconscious, which also led to some amazing photos.

One of the most unforgettable sequences is near the third stage, the Volcano. A hungry Charmander is wandering about and players can feed it Pokemon food, which then attracts the attention of a greedy Magmar. The Magmar then attacks the Charmander and knocks it out, thinking it can steal the food, only for the Charmander to suddenly evolve into Charmeleon, knocking out the Magmar. It was moments like that one that replicated the feel of a National Geographic documentary and encouraged greater exploration.

It added a tremendous sense of replay value to what was an admittedly-short adventure. Professor Oak would pass along new tools like the Poke Flute that would influence Pokemon behaviors further and lead to cooler interactions. The only bad thing to say about this is that for a younger player (like a 16-year-old Ozzie Mejia), it made this game that much harder to put down. It then led some players (also like a 16-year-old Ozzie Mejia) to 100% the game before the weekend was even over.

In a lot of ways, Pokemon Snap's short length also led to the two-decade demand for a sequel. Few games ever adopted the adage "Leave them wanting more," quite like this one did. There was a hunger for more opportunities to catch Pokemon going about their daily lives, especially as the franchise got bigger. And get bigger that franchise did.

Poke Time Capsule

This section can also subtitled "You Are Old!" for long-time Pokemon fans.

This is the point where I point out that Pokemon Snap has been out since 1999. Pokemon Snap first released in the Red/Blue/Yellow generation, which means there were only 151 Pokemon out there. Today, there are 896 Pokemon in existence. That's a lot more creatures to take photos of during what would be a much-longer safari.

And speaking of photos, younger players may approach Pokemon Snap and wonder exactly how the photo-taking process works. That's because Pokemon Snap saw players taking Polaroids of the island's various inhabitants. Yes, this game released before smartphones were a thing. The very practice of taking pictures fundamentally changed in the years since this game released. People can take pictures on phones, place filters, add emojis and effects, create gifs, or simply take selfies. Part of the desire for a new Pokemon Snap has come out of a curiosity for how the game's core concept would adapt to modern technology.

Pokemon Snap released back when there was a full Blockbuster Video chain across the country and not just a tourist trap in Oregon. And beyond that, Blockbuster used to house stations to print Pokemon Snap stickers. It was one of the first times anybody had seen anything like this, where players could print physical keepsakes of what they accomplished in a video game. Nobody thinks much of it now, given that we live in a world where 3D printing is a thing, but this was a rarity in 1999. Online shops hadn't really taken off by this point. Of course, now it would be possible to take a Pokemon Snap photo and have it sent off to a website where users can print from the comfort of their own home and share them with friends.

Part of the love for Pokemon Snap is rooted in nostalgia. However, there's a greater part of it that wonders how it would work in a modern world. The premise still holds up. Go and try out the Virtual Console version on Wii U. The graphics might be dated, sure. The presentation is purely N64 era. But the core idea? That still works. Niantic Labs saw it when they added the Pokemon GO Snapshot feature. There's still a desire to take pictures of Pokemon doing Pokemon things.

Next-gen Safari

All of that leads to the excitement for today's New Pokemon Snap announcement. Even if it ends up being "more of the 1999 Pokemon Snap," it's enough to potentially be one of the most exciting games to release in 2021 (or 2022 or whenever the game ends up being finished).

There are so many more Pokemon to interact with today. There are so many more ways to capture their actions than there were in 1999. There are so many more ways to share all of these experiences and share the excitement with friends. For many Pokemon fans who grew up in that original generation, this is a big day. It's what many have clamored almost two decades for.

"To the 10 year old me, it was thrilling to solve the puzzles and take my best possible pictures and HOLY CRAP get them printed out to stick on my binder full of Pokémon cards," Quirico added. "As a gamer later in life, I occasionally feel nostalgic for the nonviolence and celebration of a real life skill in Snap. But more than anything, as the Pokémon universe has expanded and evolved over the past 20+ years, I've longed to look into it again from the viewfinder of Pokémon Snap."

And for the newer generation, you're in for a treat. Because a modern Pokemon Snap game conceptually still works and can still bring a lot of joy in the 2020s. And the world certainly needs more joy right now.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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