Thursday, March 10, 2011

When I'm Sixty-Four -- Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Stadium -- The Pokémon Retrospective (2/7)

As a Pokéfan who loved his Nintendo 64, I was absolutely jacked at the thought of what Nintendo could do to my new favorite series on their 64-bit wonder console. Nintendo knew how to manage their franchises, and they eventually released four Pokémon titles on the N64 (two of which we’ll talk about today). Though both weren’t quite what I imagined, they were still fun in their own right, and hold a worth place in my library to this day.

When rumors of Pokémon migrating to home consoles first reached my ears in 1999, I imagined a full-on adventure, exploring the polygonal countryside and visiting expansive, 3D cities. In short, I wanted something like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but with Charizard in lieu of the Master Sword.

Several months later, I remember seeing screenshots of a fully 3D Meowth and Pidgey in my issues of Nintendo Power. My mind raced with the possibilities, and, after pursuing every scrap of knowledge I could about the game, I found out that Pokémon’s debut on my favorite console would be…

A photography game? What?

Pokémon Snap

Yes, dear readers, the first Pokémon title to reach the comforts of the couch was a game where you shoot pictures of Pokémon instead of battling them. Sounds like the perfect recipe for lame sauce, right? You would be bubble-burstingly wrong, and I had a great time with Snap back in the day.

The game stars a young boy named Todd (you may have seen him on the TV show), who is exceptionally good at photographing Pokémon in their natural habitat. Todd is invited by Professor Oak to a small island to take pictures of the Pokémon that live there. On the island, he will travel through six different environments, discovering new Pokémon and doing his darndest to get them to say “cheese.”

Creativity and quick thinking can result in some fun and high-scoring pictures.

Pokémon Snap is basically an on-rails shooter. You travel along a predetermined path, taking pictures of whatever Pokémon you can before reaching a predetermined endpoint. You also have different items to lure Pokémon in from of your lens; food attracts the different ‘mons to where it’s dropped, while Pester Balls drive Pokémon away from where they’re thrown.

The real draw of Snap is its in-depth scoring system. After you get through with a level, you choose which pictures you want Professor Oak to evaluate. Oak scores the picture based on a whole host of criteria: how big the Pokémon is, what sort of pose it’s striking, if the picture is centered, and how many of the certain ‘mon is in the picture. Even though there are only six courses to go through, a heap of replay value comes from going through the stages and attempting to get better and better scoring pictures.

Snap's scoring system is surprisingly robust, and I put away many hours perfecting my high scores.

Of course, it is called Pokémon Snap, and the actual creatures themselves look great. The art style carried over to 3D really well, with the cool monsters looking totally sweet, and the cute monsters looking absolutely adorable. The environments are basic, but project a strong sense of place that makes up for their lack of graphical fidelity.

The only real complaint I have with Snap (apart from only having six environments) is that the game only has 61 different Pokémon. 61. That’s 89 less than there should be. I imagine that the developers ran out of memory to include more environments and all 150 different ‘mons, but it’s still slightly disappointing all the same.

Side note: you could pick your favorite pictures and take your cartridge to Blockbuster Video, where you could print out stickers of the pictures you took at a special station. The feature was a bit frivolous, but fun all the same; we were more of a Hastings family growing up, but I did manage to convince my parents to visit Blockbuster once in order to get my stickers. I frankly don’t remember what I did with them, but the novelty was fun.

The only thing more hilarious than the notion of a kid actually using this, is the kid who actually used it.

Snap was a fun diversion, but the real meat was coming, and faster than I suspected. As usual, Nintendo Power gave me forewarning about the game, and it sounded awesome: this new game allowed for battles between all 150 Pokémon in full 3D.

Of course, it would basically be only battles, but was beside the point.

Pokémon Stadium

Released in February 2000 to much fanfare, Pokémon Stadium let players battle in 3D for the first time. Pokémon Stadium is as true to its name as it could possibly be—instead of an epic, sprawling quest of travelling and filling Pokédex pages, you battle trainers in a stadium. It sounds barebones, and it is in some ways, but Stadium offers a surprising amount of options for a game that with an almost tunnel vision-focus on combat.

Players have two major options to choose from when the first enter Pokémon Stadium. The first is the Stadium itself, where players can compete in four different cups, each with its own rules and restrictions. The cups include the Pika Cup (for Pokémon levels 15 – 20), the Petit Cup (levels 25 – 30, with an additional weight limitation), the Poké Cup (levels 50 – 55), and the Prime Cup (up to level 100; all opponents’ Pokémon are level 100). Each cup consists of eight three-on-three battles, with players choosing which out of their six to send into the fray. In addition, the Poké and Prime cups have four different divisions, each named after a different kind of Pokéball (Pokéball, Great Ball, Ultra Ball, and Master Ball), giving the Stadium mode further legs.

For the first time, players could experience the thrill of victory and agony of defeat in three dimensions of goodness.

The other option is the Gym Leader Castle, where players can challenge Gym Leaders and collect badges, similar to the Game Boy games. In each Gym, players must first defeat three trainers before ultimately challenging the Gym Leader him or herself. This mode has a bit more of a narrative thrust than the Stadium mode, and the different Gyms all look varied and dramatic. Gym Leader Castle is also tough as nails, and took me a rather long time to work through.

This actually goes for the rest of the modes in Stadium as well. Unlike Blue, the trainers in Stadium don’t have any bullcrap, sissy moves like Harden or Tackle. No, they are out for Pokéblood, and will fight you to the very last. Fortunately, the results never feel cheap, and the computer never seems to swing in the AI’s favor; this helps the game feel less like a grind, and asks players to think strategically about their moves.

Stadium is far from a cakewalk, but the feeling of progression is incredible.

The main draw to Stadium is the ability to import Pokémon from a player’s copy of Red and Blue. This is done with the use of the Transfer Pak, an accessory that plugs into the bottom of the N64 controller. Players can insert their copy of Red or Blue into the Transfer Pak and see their team brought to life in full 3D, adding a point of pride to the competition. Players can also play the Game Boy game on their TV sets in an area called the Game Boy Tower (it’s about as straight-forward as it sounds).

With this little accessory, I could see hundreds of hours of my life represented onscreen. It was effing sweet.

There are a few extra modes as well. Players can rent Pokémon and engage in Free Battle, and players with two Transfer Paks and their own copies of Pokémon Red or Blue can enter an Event Battle, which allows for things like custom rule sets. The Gallery option allows Pokémon to be photographed, which can then be printed at the Blockbuster stations mentioned above. Lastly, the Kids Club has a series of nine Mario Party-style mini-games, ranging from watching Rattata race over hurdles on a running track, to a Lickitung version of Hungry Hungry Hippos.

While not quite what I was expecting, I ate up Stadium, and have many fond memories playing it (even writing about it makes me want to go fire it up right now). However, it’s not a game for those unfamiliar with the franchise. The adventure elements that helped make the game popular are absent, and the difficulty curve is steep and craggy. Still, for the already-converted, it is a hell of a good time, and, as Nintendo Power wrote in their review, “it’s super effective.”

The Ones I Missed

There were two other Pokémon games released for the Nintendo 64 that I didn’t buy; by the time they came out, I was thigh-deep in Nintendo Gamecube stuff, and didn’t have time to fiddle faddle with outdated technology. The first was Pokémon Stadium 2, which was similar to the first Pokémon Stadium, but allowed for players to use their copies of Pokémon Gold and Silver (which we’ll cover next time). Stadium 2 also included more cup types, Gym Leaders, mini-games, and a Pokémon Academy where players could bone up on battle strategies. Basic, but adequate for a sequel to Stadium.

The other was an odd, very late-in-the-game title called Hey You, Pikachu. Hey You was comparable to the Dreamcast game Seaman: players used a microphone peripheral to talk to Pikachu in order to cultivate a friendship with it. Unlike Seaman, which featured a sarcastic Leonard Nemoy as the titular pet, Hey You, Pikachu featured, well, everyone’s favorite yellow electric mouse in all of his red-cheeked, er, glory. I can’t even begin to tell you how this game was played, and it sold rather poorly, if I remember correctly.

Concluding Thoughts

It’s easy to kvetch and whine about the lack of a full-length Pokémon RPG for the N64, but a home console version of the game would be missing the point. Pokémon was, at heart, a social game, and the draw of trading and battling friends would have been incredibly stunted if kept confined to the living room. In fact, the only way to effectively duplicate the Pokémon experience on a home console would be to make it a World of Warcraft-style MMORPG, which the Nintendo 64 would not have been capable of. Come to think of it, though, that’s not such a bad idea…

Next up: Gold and Silver

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