|Developer||Bandai Namco Studios|
|Genre||On-Rails Shooter, Photography, Simulation|
|Release Date||April 30, 2021|
The Pokémon series is renowned for many things: its creative creature designs, the relationship between those creatures and their trainers, and of course, battling. So when Pokémon Snap released for the Nintendo 64 in 1999 and took away those last two aspects, replacing them with every kid’s dream job of nature photography, I can imagine that fans of the still-infantile franchise were surprised, to say the least. It was an experimental release, to be sure, and Nintendo isn’t exactly known for straying too far from the beaten path with their releases. But recently, that trend has been on a bit of a downturn, with titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey taking some fresh turns from series staple mechanics. Even the Pokémon franchise itself decided to venture off into some new waters with the most recent releases, Pokémon Sword and Shield. So while I found myself shocked that Pokémon Snap was getting a sequel almost twenty-two years later, perhaps I shouldn’t have been.
Spiritual Content: The game’s “boss levels” feature special Illumina Pokémon, which are large Pokémon that glow with special light patterns. The story centers around these Pokémon’s relationship with the ancient people of the Lental region, and several carvings and ruins suggest a somewhat mystical quality to these special Pokémon. They’re never referred to as god-like or deified in any way, but there is nonetheless an air of mysticism about them, especially near the end of the game.
Other Positive Elements: The game is incredibly nature-focused, and demonstrates a variety of creatures interacting in ways that mimic the real world’s diversity of plants and animals. Though there’s no environmental message explicitly stated, the game encourages exploring nature and appreciating the beauty of creation in non-destructive ways.
If you, like me, have never played the original 1999 Pokémon Snap, you’re probably asking, “how fun could taking pictures of Pokémon possibly be?” I’d heard people praise the original for its creative environmental puzzles, as well as for being one of the first games to actually bring Pokémon to life in 3D. But it’s now twenty-two years later, and we’ve seen Pokémon animated for years. What could New Pokémon Snap bring to the table to set itself apart from its older brother?
The game starts with you choosing your name and character and traveling to the Lental region to meet Professor Mirror (whose name I hope does not mark a departure from the traditionally arboreal names of Pokémon professors past). His goal is to study all of the Pokémon of the Lental region, as well as solve a mystery originally investigated by Captain Vince, an explorer who documented some strange discoveries in this region long ago. And so, armed with a trusty digital camera and a fancy all-terrain vehicle called the NEO-ONE, you set off to…take a whole lot of pictures.
The gameplay centers around traveling through pre-set courses and snapping as many photos of as many different Pokémon as you can manage. The NEO-ONE moves automatically, so the game is almost a rail shooter of sorts, except instead of killing anything that crosses your path, your quest is to catch Pokémon doing…whatever it is they do when they’re not being toted around by 12 year-olds to beat up other small animals on the roadside.
During the level, you’re given a couple of tools to help you get the best photos you can. You have, of course, your camera, but you’re also equipped with a scan function, which displays the names of all Pokémon currently onscreen and points out areas of interest on your route. In addition, some species of Pokémon are sensitive to the electrical signal of the scan and will look straight at you when you use it, turning it into a sort of “say cheese” feature. You’re also equipped with an unlimited supply of fluffruit, useful for luring Pokémon closer to you for a better shot. Later on in the game, you unlock a melody player, which has different effects depending on which Pokémon hear the tune. And finally, you’re equipped with special Illumina orbs. These orbs induce what’s called the Illumina state on any Pokémon you’re able to hit with them, giving them a beautiful glow and sometimes triggering special behaviors for you to document.
After every level, you return to the lab and choose one photo of each Pokémon you captured for Professor Mirror to evaluate and give you a score. This score is based on a variety of criteria, including how centered the Pokémon is in the frame, how large it appears, and if it’s looking at you. Your score will net you a ranking from bronze to diamond.
In addition to your score, every species of Pokémon has four different star rankings. This star ranking has nothing to do with the quality of your photo, and instead is based on how rare or interesting the behavior the photo captures is. If you snap a photo of a Pikachu chilling in a field, you’ll net a 1-star photo. If, however, you manage to get a photo of Pikachu thunder-shocking a fruit you’d just thrown at it, you’ll have a 3- or even 4-star photo.
Oftentimes, these higher-rated photos can only be achieved by fulfilling specific requests given to you by the other researchers on your team. These requests usually involve manipulating Pokémon into doing specific actions. For instance, one request involved me getting a photo of Hoothoot’s elusive second leg. Once I chucked a fluffruit at its head to knock it off balance, voila, the mystery leg was revealed.
Your adventure starts off in Florio Nature Park, but eventually you’ll move on to a deep jungle area, a beautiful oceanside area, and a foreboding volcanic island. The variety in level themes is much appreciated, and it really makes me feel like I’m exploring an entire region, rather than just passively trucking through a park. Even though you’re still just roving along taking photos, every environment is filled with different Pokémon, and every time you play a level, you’re likely to catch a Pokémon doing something you missed on your first go-around.
Progression through those areas does feel a bit weird. It’s certainly not bad, but there were several times in the game where I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to move forward. It’s usually a matter of simply unlocking the next Research Level of the area you’re currently playing. Every area has three Research Levels, and you unlock higher Research Levels by acquiring enough Research Points, which you get by snapping new shots or reaching star levels that you missed before. Unlocking the second level generally isn’t too difficult, and you don’t need to unlock any of the third Research Levels to progress in the story. But I didn’t know that at the time, and so, whenever I got stuck, I found myself replaying levels again and again in a hopeless attempt to grind the unholy number of Research Points needed for the third Research Level.
As it turned out, I was often neglecting some environmental puzzles that I only noticed because of those endless replays. These puzzles aren’t really that difficult or complicated, but they’re easy to miss if you don’t scan at just the right time. So while the level progression isn’t bad, it’s certainly unorthodox, which was enough to frustrate me a bit. But eventually, you’ll figure out how to unlock the final level of every area: the Illumina Spot.
The Illumina Spots are essentially the “boss levels” of the game. You’re not actually fighting anything, but they do feature the largest Pokémon in the game, and they generally involve a level of thought and strategy that’s somewhat lacking from the other levels. You have to find a way to activate the Illumina state in these behemoths, and then figure out how to get the shot you need without cutting off too much of the Pokémon or missing it as it speeds by. These are some of the most visually interesting and engaging levels in the game, and they’re a fitting cap to your experience in any region.
It’s hard to capture the essence of the experience in writing, but New Pokémon Snap manages to weave all of this together with gorgeous visuals to create an experience that is truly joyous. Yes, twenty-two years later, it’s still fun to see a Quagsire belly-flop into a jungle pool or watch a Wailmer yell in an Octillery’s face. It brought a smile to my face like very little media has managed to do.
For being so simple, the mechanics are decently fleshed out. The tools at your disposal affect the environment in some unexpected ways, so you never really know what’s going to happen when you run a scan or throw an Illumina orb. In addition, the star level approach for photos is a nice way of incentivizing experimentation with all of your tools, as sometimes all it takes is a toss of a fluffruit to get a 2- or 3-star photo as opposed to a 1-star. Finally, you’ll need to get all 4-star rankings on every Pokémon in order to 100% the game, meaning there’s a lot of challenge for perfectionists.
However, as joyous as New Pokémon Snap is when you start exploring a new area, it does fall short in one major way: replay value. There are a lot of reasons to keep coming back after you’ve finished the game, but most of that time is going to be spent replaying the same levels over and over again waiting for a Pokémon to do the one specific action you need for a particular star level. I know I said earlier that you’re likely to find something new on every replay, but when you’re focused on capturing one specific moment, it’s harder to enjoy and explore the way the game intends.
I also found it hard to figure out how to trigger certain actions, especially when it came to the requests from other researchers. Sometimes, there’s a whole series of actions you have to perform in just the right order to get the shot you need, and it’s hard to know what to do when. This is made even more frustrating by the fact that some requests can only be fulfilled on one specific Research Level, even if the Pokémon in question is present on other Research Levels. So, when you find yourself unable to get the shot you need, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether you’re just doing the wrong actions, have them in the wrong order, or if you’re on the entirely wrong Research Level.
And while I do enjoy the star level mechanic, I was a little frustrated that you’re only able to select one photo per Pokémon per level. That means, even if you have a really good 4-star photo and a really good 3-star photo on the same run, you can only select one, meaning you’ll have to replay the same level again just to get the other shot. This is especially frustrating in the Illumina Spots, as you’ll be taking a TON of photos of the Illumina Pokémon, often capturing two or three different star levels in one go, but you’re only able to select one. I understand that allowing multiple photos would shorten the overall game time, but when that extra time is comprised of monotonous replays, it feels more like padding than actual gameplay.
This review might sound a little bipolar, and honestly, I felt a little bipolar writing it. There were many moments of frustration and irritation, but there were also many moments of joy and satisfaction when I got JUST the right shot. The one thing I can say for sure about New Pokémon Snap is that it’s NOT for everyone. It hits a very particular niche of perfectionism and strategy that probably won’t appeal to a decent chunk of Switch owners. But even in 2021, it’s still a special treat to see Pokémon interacting with each other in the wild, and the personalities of each Pokémon come out beautifully here. The attention to detail in the animations, sound design, and environments lends the game a life and vibrancy that no other Pokémon game I’ve played has been able to manage.
There were moments I got bored. There were moments I just wanted to play a new level without having to grind those last few Research Points. And there were times I was sick of seeing that stupid Exeggutor grinning at me while I tried to get a snap of the Bellossom dancing behind it. But for any Pokémon fan, New Pokémon Snap is worth a playthrough just to see this world come to life. It’s a refreshing change of pace to focus on interacting with Pokémon in a way that’s not as aggressive as training them to battle, and you’re not going to get this anywhere else.
The Bottom Line
New Pokémon Snap is a beautiful exploration of the world of Pokémon with thoughtful mechanics and puzzle solving, though its tendency towards forced grinding and replays makes some of the charm wear off near the end.