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Words: Stacey Henley
Let's go back to 1999. Prince's song is about to become out of date; SpongeBob SquarePants, Family Guy and Futurama have just made their debuts; and I'm a seven-year-old kid obsessed with Pokémon. I've Rare Candy-cheated Pokémon Blue so much the graphics are wonky, and I'm sure my copy of Pokémon Yellow is broken because I can't move the truck by the SS Anne to find Mew. Then I get Pokémon Snap on the N64, and the way it lets me take pictures of Pokémon in their natural habitat makes me feel like I'm truly part of their world.
For everyone who shrieked with delight at New Pokémon Snap's recent reveal for the Nintendo Switch, this is a familiar story. Sure, ages might alter by a few years, and you can swap out Blue for Red, but it's the same basic deal. We played Pokémon Snap as a kid. We loved it. And we can't wait for the new one. There's just one problem with that: kids are idiots.
I'm not here to trash the original Pokémon Snap. I adored it myself, and I loathe people who grow up and immediately tear down everything they loved when they were small, as if to make themselves feel big. But let's be real. The original Pokémon Snap was four hours long and was on rails. In 1999, especially with the effortlessly adorable Pokémon attached, it was a solid game. But in 2020, it simply won't fly.
Pokémon has the sort of fans who immediately rush to brush their teeth in the middle of the day just so they can wear a virtual Pikachu head. I know, I'm one of them. We'll support New Pokémon Snap regardless, so dripping in nostalgia and coated in loveable creatures is it. But in order to be a great game with enough staying power to rival its predecessor from the last century, it needs to learn from other games which utilise the power of photography so much better.
Obviously, a lot of these improvements to in-game photography have come courtesy of the inexorable march of technology. In 1999, games consoles were a lot more limited than they are today, and developers had to figure their way around obstacles. Now, there's an ever-growing sense of the power being unleashed by these machines. An incredible example: the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy for the original PlayStation has fewer polygons in it, in total, than Nathan Drake's face in Uncharted 4.
One of the best ways that power has manifested itself - aside from the general 'better graphics' - has been the implementation of photo modes. I know a lot of people might disagree, but I genuinely think it's one of the biggest advancements gaming has made in the past decade.
I'm not talking about simply taking higher-quality screenshots, but instead the endlessly customisable photo modes provided to you in the likes of Marvel's Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption 2, Horizon Zero Dawn and The Last Of Us Part II. These games don't just let you take a picture - they allow you to take a photograph.
In RDR2, for example, the free orbit camera lets you position your virtual photographer wherever you want, toy with the lens, contrast, filter and effects however you want, then click away to your heart's content. A wide-angle shot of Arthur on a cliff edge, draped in moonlight? Or a hyper close-up of the blood spray as he shoots someone in the face? RDR2 offered both, and everything in between.
It's something sports sims like FIFA have done for years, letting you place the camera wherever you want when replaying your goals. But since then, single-player experiences have picked up the technology and ran with it. New Pokémon Snap needs to have moved on from just letting us click a picture of the 'mon and rewarding us for having it in the centre of the frame. It needs to give us the full wildlife photographer experience. The original game was just four hours long - but get this one right and people will spend four hours tweaking the perfect Pikachu shot alone.
This advancement in technology since 1999 also allows for photography to be used in more of a narrative capacity. In Marvel's Spider-Man, the fluid movement of Spidey's web slinging offers tons of photography opportunities, but perhaps the best part is the personality that its photo mode injects. There's a selfie option, which doesn't simply mean Spidey will be in the picture, but you'll instead get a cheeky peace sign thrown up by Peter Parker as he swings through the air or hangs off a New York City building. Horizon Zero Dawn, meanwhile, lets you customise Aloy's facial expression within photo mode, so you can always build exactly the kind of photograph you want.
For what it's worth, I don't feel either of these particular features should be included in New Pokémon Snap. The selfie feature takes away from the natural environment feel of the original; and posing the creatures like Aloy leans too heavily in that direction, too. But looking at how well Marvel's Spider-Man included Spidey's nature into its own photo mode, New Pokémon Snap needs to bring the essence of these creatures to the surface. It needs to move the photography action away from being basic "tick each Pokémon off the list"-style gameplay, and into an experience which makes you feel like you've captured a brief, true moment in the life of a wild Sylveon.
There's also the wonderful indie game Umurangi Generation - a "first-person photography game in the sh*tty future", to quote its Steam page - which not only has endless customisation and editing options for its photography, but manages to fold photography into its narrative, using it to tell a story. Whether New Pokémon Snap will have - or even needs - a fully-fledged narrative remains to be seen, but at the very least it needs to take you on a journey.
Pokémon Snap remains a childhood favourite to many, but its crude mechanics have been surpassed by dozens of in-game photography options since, including ones which feel more like an afterthought to the base game they're in. If New Pokémon Snap wants to claim a similar place in our hearts to the original, it needs to have been taking notes. These days, just having some pretty Pokémon to point and click at won't be enough.
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