Beyond inspiring the modern Photo Mode and satisfying the desire of every young Pokémon Master to see the original 151 ‘mons in their native habitats, Pokémon Snap was, simply put, an excellent game. It’s the 20th anniversary of the title’s Japanese debut—years before we all became hopelessly addicted to Instagram—and after two decades of trying to land the most immaculate shot of Mew possible, we’re still thinking about it today.
Despite the fact that Pokémon Snap is technically a rail shooter, it perfected a formula that was still very much in its infancy. Sure, there were photo-centric titles before it, like Mindscape’s 1996 Dinosaur Safari, but the Nintendo 64 classic showed developers how much fun taking pictures in-game could be. That helped bring about the cavalcade of snapshot modes available in games today, like God of War and Final Fantasy XV. Simply put, if you love collecting photos of your Grand Theft Auto exploits, thank Pokémon Snap.
The fact that Snap is a great game helps keep its legacy alive too, though. This was our first real taste of a Poké-world that we had previously only explored through the confines of Game Boy battles. Pokémon Stadium wouldn’t appear until the next month, so this was all fans had. But it was glorious.
As Todd Snap, an actual Pokémon photographer who made his debut in the anime series, you were tasked by Professor Oak to compile a “PKMN Report” by traversing Pokémon Island and collecting the best photos possible. And you didn’t just have a camera at your disposal; you also had special “Pester Balls” and apples to toss at the Pokémon surrounding you, as well as other items when you unlocked them. Basically, you were cruising into Pokémon habitats and smacking Pidgeys and Eevees in the head to get their attention for the camera.
Maybe it wasn’t the most ethical form of nature photography, but it could elicit various poses and reactions that made for some great shots. For example, you could throw an apple at an Electrode to get it to explode, or play the Poké Flute near the legendary bird Zapdos and get it to power up a generator with a bolt of lightning. You don’t just toss things willy-nilly. There’s certainly some strategy to it if you want to squeeze every single point out of each photo you take.
At the end of your journey, your shots were graded by Professor Oak himself. If you thoughtlessly snapped away, your score would suffer. On the other hand, getting multiple ‘mons in one shot or capturing cute or amazing moments helped you rack up the points like crazy. And you wanted to get those quality shots, because back then you could take your game cartridge to Blockbuster and cop actual printouts of your best work for a nominal fee. It was, perhaps, the coolest part of Pokémon Snap aside from actually sitting down and playing it.
Even though only 63 of the original 151 Pokémon were represented in-game, the added bonus of real-world photos and the sense of possibility that came with the wide array of scripted events seemed boundless. It truly felt like you were going on your own real-world Pokémon odyssey.
But things could have gone much differently. Snap was originally planned as a Nintendo 64DD title, and it began life as Jack and the Beanstalk. However, due to the massive delays related to the 64DD (which never made it to the States), development was simply swapped to the N64, and the game became a Pokémon title at the insistence of the late Nintendo president and Snap producer Satoru Iwata. (The words “Jack and Bean” can still be seen in the game’s opening credits today as you watch Todd Snap make his way to Pokémon Island.)
Bizarrely, the game never earned a sequel. The next Nintendo 64 installment brought challenging Pokémon battles to television screens in full 3D environments, and the next wave of core games came blazing in. But Snap has heavily influenced even today’s AR mobile title Pokémon Go, which lets you “find” Pokémon with your phone and even take photos with them. Catching a Butterfree at your office isn’t the same as exploring Pokémon Island, but it’s close.
For those of us who ate Pokémon cereal for breakfast and counted their steps with the Pikachu virtual pet, Pokémon Snap was a fantasy that helped bridge the gap between the real world and the Pocket Monsters we loved to interact with. And 20 years later, it’s still one of the most whimsical adventures the Nintendo 64 ever took us on–and the reason I’m thinking about driving three states over to pick up a vintage Pokémon Snap Station from Blockbuster to set up in my home. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.