Although he’s perhaps best remembered for being Nintendo’s affable president until his untimely passing in 2015, the late Satoru Iwata began his career as a highly regarded programmer. During his tenure at HAL Laboratory, he worked closely with Nintendo and had a hand in many of the company’s most celebrated releases, from programming Balloon Fight’s distinctive physics to creating Super Smash Bros. on the side with his then-HAL colleague, Masahiro Sakurai. However, perhaps no series benefited more from Iwata’s touch than Pokemon, and he was particularly instrumental in shaping one of the franchise’s most beloved off-shoots, Nintendo 64’s Pokemon Snap.
At the time of its release, Pokemon Snap was one of the first games spun off from the breakout monster-catching series, but it was not initially envisioned as a Pokemon title. When HAL first began development, the project was known as Jack and the Beanstalk–a “normal game in which you took photos,” as Iwata described it in a 2010 Iwata Asks interview. Nintendo’s legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto was also involved in the project, helping to develop its photo-taking element, but progress stalled because the game lacked a compelling direction–until Iwata made a proposal.
“I was working to make the photo-taking aspect more robust, but Iwata stressed that while a game where you take photos was a decent start, what really mattered was what you could photograph,” Miyamoto recalled in Ask Iwata. “Then, at one point, he told me, ‘Miyamoto, I think it’s Pokemon. That’s what the people really want to photograph.’ I thought this was a great idea, and this became the guiding principle for the game. In summary, Iwata contributed the idea that what everybody wanted to photograph was Pokemon, while it was my job to construct an interesting system for taking all these photographs, making this one of our closest collaborations.”
Not everyone was initially thrilled by the decision to convert Jack and the Beanstalk into a Pokemon game. As HAL’s Masanobu Yamamoto recalled, “I was involved as a designer, so when characters other than the ones we had designed were used, I had a slightly negative reaction to it.” Despite this reticence, however, Yamamoto came around to the idea. “That time, adopting the Pokemon world clarified what we should do and the direction we should head, and I came to like Pokemon, so I felt like that had saved us,” he said.
Pokemon Snap eventually released in 1999 and became a big hit for the Nintendo 64, moving more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. The game would later be re-released for the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console, further cementing its legacy, although it would take more than 20 years for it to receive a proper follow-up in the aptly named New Pokemon Snap, which releases on Nintendo Switch this week. But while Bandai Namco handled development duties for the sequel in place of HAL, it’s a testament to the original’s appeal that the studio chose to stick closely to the N64 game’s formula, which wouldn’t have taken shape had it not been for Iwata.
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