Feature: The New Dimensions of Pokémon

Snap and Dream Radar change the perspective

Trading cards and anime episodes aside, the Pokémon series is known for a long-lasting line of handheld RPGs. You've almost certainly played one or two of them — and we suspect that quite a few of you are already getting into Pokémon Black & White 2 — most likely followed by an obsessed state of tracking down that one Pokémon you absolutely had to catch no matter the cost. These adventures are sprawling and filled to the brim with colourful places to go and people to meet, but the dream of reaching beyond the 2D sprites never really goes away.

When Pokémon Snap landed on Nintendo 64 in 1999, the perspective changed. No longer tied to a Delibird's eye view, players were plopped into a first-person land of polygons. Thirteen years later we come to recent 2012 release Pokémon Dream Radar, a 3DS app that populates real-life surroundings with Pokémon courtesy of augmented reality. Conceptually similar, both titles invite us to explore new dimensions and fulfil that dream of hobnobbing with pocket monsters, but they take radically different — even opposite — approaches. Pokémon Snap transports us to the world of Pokémon; Dream Radar brings the Pokémon to us.

Two members of the Nintendo Life team give their own perspectives on the successes and failures of each title, why these games mattered to them as fans and what could come next.

Video games were a rarity in my house growing up, so I devoured the Pokémon Snap strategy guide before ever touching the Nintendo 64 cartridge. It was another way into a world that thoroughly captured my nine-year-old imagination, just like my ever-growing Pokémon card collection and borrowed Game Boy adventures. If your childhood ever included hurling a plastic Pokéball will all your might, hoping against hope that this will be the time a Bulbasaur pops out, you know what a tragic result empty space and a broken hinge can be.

When I finally clicked Pokémon Snap into the console, that Bulbasaur wasn't a paper-based image or a 2D sprite; it waddled around in 3D space and made wonderful Bulbasaur noises. My job wasn't to capture it for battle, but to nab photos of the mythical beast in its natural habitat. As the Zero-One buggy trundled along its set path, Pokémon of all sorts surrounded me from every angle, all of them behaving precisely like I had imaged. Doduo bounded from the underbrush with lanky strides, Psyducks waded through rivers in nervous circles, and Electrodes exploded because there was nothing better to do. The world was alive with the hustle and bustle of Pokémon.

The first-person perspective put me at eye level with these creatures, giving me a front row seat to watch and listen. The lack of direct control wasn't frustrating thanks to host of secrets just waiting to be unearthed, creating an aura of mystery in every level. Something new was always going on just outside my field of vision, often disappearing behind a ridge as I spotted another curiosity. Evolving a Charmeleon with run-of-mill experience points is one thing; discovering how to trip it into a volcano and observing as it bursts through the lava in roaring Charizard form? That's something else.

In the same vein as Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Pokémon Snap was a chance to explore a familiar universe in a brand new dimension: the third one. It was criminally short and totally unrepresentative of the mainstay RPGs, but it captured that mystifying world of Pokémon like no other game has since. Seeing as there still aren't any Bulbasaurs living inside the old plastic Pokéball (believe me, I've checked), this is a pretty cool substitute for living the dream.

While Pokémon Snap was a breathtaking experience that gave us a first-person glimpse into a world where wild Pokémon ran free, the newly released Pokémon Dream Radar for the 3DS system captures none of that whimsy. The selection of Pokémon that can appear is woefully small; it's literally a third of Snap's population.

Rather than taking you into exotic locales with Pocket Monsters running around every which way, Dream Radar instead fills your living room with clouds, some of which contain a glowing orb that only turns into a Pokémon once you've captured it. Dream Radar has the added benefit of allowing you to transfer captured monsters into Black 2 and White 2, the experience as presented is sorely lacking in charm. It's a fun diversion but it's not nearly as good as it should have been.

Dream Radar should have been a way to show what the Pokémon series can do with the technological arsenal of 3DS. What we got instead was a $2.99 version of software that comes free on every 3DS system. While it's not terrible, and it pairs nicely with Black 2 and White 2, it just feels very phoned in and not at all indicative of the imagination and care that usually goes into the franchise.

There's still hope, however; from almost the precise moment that the capabilities of the Wii U's GamePad were shown off for the first time the cries for a new Pokémon Snap began to echo throughout the internet. If Nintendo chooses to go that route, the hypothetical new game could not only bring the excitement of Pokémon Snap to a new generation, but also bring Pokémon into our world the way Dream Radar couldn't.

Despite hitting similar notes, these two games struck entirely different chords for us, but what do you think? Does augmented reality have a lasting potential for the franchise, or should Nintendo throw its money at a new Pokémon Snap on Wii U? Let us know in the comments below.