Like the ever-present puzzle genre, pinball games are a natural for the Game Boy. You don't have to squint at tiny scenes or get blurry-eyed at out of focus backgrounds. Plus, the position of the controls adequately simulates the left and right flipper buttons. Pokemon Pinball comes from the same folks who have done the two other really good GB pinball games - Revenge of the Gator and Kirby's Pinball Land - and Pokemon Pinball has learned how to top them.
Brewed from the imported tanks of kids franchise juggernaut Pokemon, this game has two standard looking pinball boards. The boards are two screens high each and (on the Color unit) call themselves Red and Blue. The object is to capture all the Pokemon... just like every other Pokemon-based game, except that Pokemon Pinball is the first one to include all 150 pocket monsters within the same cart (without the necessity of trading with other gamers to get them). The complete collection is divided between the two boards.
You'll also travel across the familiar Pokemon world, visiting Viridian City, Mt. Moon and all the other venues from the RPG-styled Blue, Red and Yellow games. Once you've caught some of the lowlier pokemon, you can evolve them into cooler versions. The game automatically saves your Pokedex progress each time you play.
And how does all of this happen? Just by banging that ball through the right set of bumpers and tracks at the right time. Easy to talk about, harder to do. Since pinball games rely on AI-built gravity and momentum effects, it can take a lot of flipper-bashing to point the ball in the proper direction. There's no exact science to it, no clever cheats, and no way to give advice. You just have to play pinball well. So if you're not a pinball fan, you're likely to find this game just as irritating as other pinball games, both real and simulated.
In order to catch a pokemon, you have to send the ball up the right hand ramp at least twice. (Three times for snag a rarer beast.) Once you've done that, you have to sink the ball into a specific ball trap... then a shadowed pokemon will appear on the lower half of the board. Smacking the bumpers on the upper half six times will fully reveal the little dude. Once it's out of the shell, so to speak, you have to clobber it with the ball three times... and a fourth to catch it.
Now repeat that 150 times.
Actually, you have to perform a completely different sequence to evolve and catch the second and third generation pokemon. It is similarly long. Plus, certain pokemon can only be found in certain locations, and travelling between the cities requires another weird chain of events. Expect a lot of games.
Happily, Pokemon Pinball is very free with ball saves, bonus balls, tilting and other methods of keeping the game going. And there's a nice assortment of bonus screens, power ups and slot machine goodies. Pokemon's celebrity Pikachu plays a key role as a do-it-yourself ball rebounder. When your pokeball slips into one of the out-ramps, a fully charged Pikachu will shock the escapee back up into the field.
Pokemon Pinball is also the first Game Boy cartridge to have the Rumble feature... a miniature engine inside the cart's extended frame that vibrates the Game Boy. Sometimes it's suitably rumbly; other times - like during Pikachu's ball-saving thunderjolt - it sounds like a broken hair dryer. With the infrared beamer on your Game Boy Color model, you can even trade high scores with another player... but I don't know why you'd want to do that.
Pokemon Pinball doesn't have to be enjoyed as a do-or-die catch 'em all game; it is merely pinball after all. The random physics of pinball keep it (and any pinball sim, in my opinion) from being a true classic. But it is a nice addition to the top-notch Pokemon library of games.
I guess I was just destined to get into Pokemon. The Pokemon franchise has swallowed up every single one of my hobbies within the past year: video games, comic books, cartoons, toys and trading card games. In fact, the exclusivity of Pokemon Snap to the Nintendo 64 was the sole reason I bought the console, just as the special Pikachu edition was the only reason I bought a Game Boy Color.
Yes, I'm a sucker. That has been well established throughout DredPage. But once you strip away all the wide-eyed merchandise (awww... cute!), the kids putting gaming cards in collector albums (make a deck and play, dammit!), and the parents claiming Pokemon leads to gambling (and temporary tattoos lead to real ones)... Pokemon Snap still stands out as a great game.
I'm always willing to front a game a better rating if it is wholly unique. That's why PaRappa the Rapper impresses me. I love games that deliver an entirely different gaming concept. Pokemon Snap sends you out on a first-person safari hunt, where your job is to take pictures of the various pokemon hiding out along your trail. It's very simple, completely addictive, and one of the most engaging games I've played in a long time.
Walk with me now to mysterious Pokemon Island. Those violent Pokemon Trainers aren't allowed here, because this island is truely a wonder. All kinds of pokemon live here in relative peace... both common and rare. Any trainer who could get to the island would surely despoil it by capturing the beasts and forcing them to become professional wrestlers. That's why Professor Oak has selected you, a world-class photographer, to travel the island and snap pictures of the pokemon in their natural habitats.
Pokemon Snap is a trip to the zoo... the pokemon eat, sleep, cavort, chase each other, hide and laze about while you drift through with your camera. At the end of each journey, Professor Oak looks over your best pics and rates them. Oak values action shots, big figures, centering... plus the rarity of the pose or amount of like pokemon in the same picture. You get to save over one hundred photos to the cartridge's memory, so you can always look back over your work. (But once you've started an ongoing game, don't ever select New Game, unless you want to start completely over and erase all saved pics. I think that is a major flub... you can't have multiple players with multiple games on the same cart.)
You goal is to catch them all... but Snap maxes out at just over 60 different pokemon. Which is not even close to the number of "real" pokemon flooding US shores, which runs over 150 (with more on the way.) As you get more and more pictures, Oak gives you trinkets to attract even more pokemon... food to coax them closer to your shutter, pester balls to scare them out of hiding or knock them sensless, the poke flute to play some music for them, and the dash engine to speed up your travels.
It's relatively easy to grab 40 to 50 different ones without much work; the last 10 to 20 require clever chain-reaction effects or special randomized circumstances. Getting really top-notch photos is where the game's replay value comes in. You'll want to keep repeating levels in search of high-scoring photos.
Even so, the game runs short. A more serious version should have two to three times the levels and contain all 150+ in one form or another. But as the first major league Pokemon video game release, I'm sure Snap was subject to some downsizing to make the game easier for children. Here's hoping the fad continues long enough to generate Snap 2.
For a limited time, Snappers can print out stickers of their best shots by taking the cart to a local Blockbuster Video and using the Pokemon Snap Station. For $3.00 you can walk out with a tiny sticker sheet of your proudest photos. This Pokemon thing sure is making somebody rich.
Pokemon Snap is also a great game for parents who are leery of the trend's more questionable aspects... the animal fighting, the card trading and the general panicked feeling when the store is out of cards. Snap brings you into the world of these little deformed monsters without any sort of meaningful violence at all. The most aggressive you can be is to chuck apples at a group of collected Charmander and watch the fruit ricochet from one orange head to another. And there's no overly leggy teen girls, cross dressing or pompous badge boasting (like you find in the cartoon.) The majority of the included creatures are of the cute-and-cuddly variety, not the scary-and-snakelike kinds. This game is entirely suitable for ANY age and ANY demeanor. Unless you hate going to the zoo. The toughest hurdle for younger players will be the controls, but an enterprising parent could always just control the camera movement and put the toddler in charge of hitting the shutter button.
The game also shows off the N64 rather well. Since there's nothing particularly taxing going on, the processor is free to generate some nice landscape vistas, waterways, and other placid scenes. The characters themselves are polygonal but not distractingly so, and they all animate in convincing, "natural" ways. When you get your first close-up of Pikachu, you won't see a 3D dot to dot diagram... but rather a lively photograph of a pikachu in the wild.