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A passionate case for Pokémon Snap, the Instagram of video games

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Aug 21, 2018, 1:44 PM EDT (Updated)

The reason why '90 kids memories are hazy dreamlands of nostalgia is that memories are all they have. There aren't countless Facebook albums of or a camera roll full of photographs to refer to. Cell phone cameras — let alone the iPhone's snappy portrait mode — were hardly ubiquitous, and kids didn't typically shove a disposable camera in the pocket of their JNCO jeans every day. But there was one place where a generation developed a photographer's eye that would serve them so well in the Instagram era: a little island off the coast of Kanto.

Pokémon Snap, released for the Nintendo 64 in 1999, offered would-be Pokémon trainers a different spin on the Red and Blue formula. Instead of Pokéballs, players would capture Pokémon on film, taking pictures as they rode a specialized, on-rails cart around Pokémon Island. There's no fighting, although there are a couple Pokémon that you can nail in the head with an apple fastball or trick into flame-broiling one another.

It's an odd little game, one that feels more like the shorter indie or experimental titles populating today's Nintendo Switch store than the full-fledged console title it was a decade ago. You can't even catch 'em all in Pokémon Snap, since only 63 of the original 151 Pokémon live on the island.

And yet, there's something about the simple, closed nature of Snap that makes it so enduring. Because the player character (Todd) can't steer or stop the cart they're riding on as they glide through a volcano or down a river in search of Pokémon, they have to become very familiar with each of the game's seven levels. It's up to the photographer, using the limited tools at their disposal, to coax and lure Pokémon into interesting positions so that Professor Oak will have some exciting pictures to add to his field book.

Want a picture of Pikachu on a surfboard? Lure him over with a trail of apples then snap away as he hangs ten. Want to stop the cart, which doesn't have a break, so you have more time to shoot in this specific part of the Power Plant level? Throw a ball of knockout gas at an Electabuzz as it crosses the road and use his corpse to stop the cart.

By limiting the control players had over the Pokémon world, Snap really made learning how to explore and exploit every one of the limited variables a necessity if you wanted to get a good picture. The best pictures in Snap, like Pikachu riding on the back of an Articuno like a majestic knight of the sky, were something real. And they could actually be real, because nothing dates Pokémon Snap more than the kiosks at Blockbuster Videos where you could, with some effort, print out physical copies of your digital Pokemon pictures.

Pokémon Snap isn't responsible for Instagram or Snapchat, but the game was likely many '90s kids first real exposure to photography, a skill that would become essential once they all had a camera at their disposal 24/7. (If only you could've turned Pokémon Snap's camera around to take a selfie, then the game would have truly had everything).

This is what makes Nintendo's 19-year refusal to make a sequel to Pokémon Snap so infuriating. The game is both a throwback to an era when a quaint, quirky spin-off could become a beloved tentpole and weirdly precedent, since everybody's a photographer nowadays. Pokémon Sun and Moon, the most recent entries in the main series of Pokémon games, included a photography mode, but it was a far cry from Pokémon Snap's majesty. Sun and Moon had limited photography opportunities, and the mode felt like an afterthought in what was otherwise a traditional battling game.

In a way, maybe Sun and Moon's photography is more true to life than Pokémon Snap. The camera is, after all, just one of many apps on an iPhone, whereas Snap is the video game equivalent of an expensive DSLR and National Geographic portfolio. Still, even though the photography is more complicated, there's a simplicity of purpose to Pokémon Snap that feels due for a revival, especially now that we're all primed to be Pokémon's Ansel Adams.