An incredibly charming and breezy safari through the world of Pokemon.
In an era where photo modes are an expected part of every major release, having a major release be nothing but a photo mode seems like a bold decision. But New Pokemon Snap is the follow up to a far older game, more than two decades older in fact, and one of the most beloved and successful Pokemon spin-off releases ever. Pokemon Snap on the Nintendo 64 was beloved by Pokemon fans around the world, for the deeper look into the Pokemon world that it provided, and for giving us the rare chance to see our favorite pocket monsters in three dimensions, interacting with the world around them in ways that simply wouldn’t be possible on the Gameboy systems of that era that played host to the mainline entries. Its appeal came from that, in fact. While it was a fairly well designed on rails shooter with a lovely pacifist twist, on the whole, the game’s appeal came down singularly to its window into the world of Pokemon that we otherwise had such little insight into.
So in light of the fact that modern Pokemon games have gotten substantially better at showing the world of Pokemon, and how the eponymous creatures that inhabit it interact with it, as well as the fact that, as mentioned, photo modes are dime a dozen these days – would a new Pokemon Snap even make sense? Sure, the original was beloved. But it was beloved in context of the time of its release. Would there be any market for a full priced on rails shooter with the primary conceit being photography on the market?
New Pokemon Snap makes a convincing case for its existence, in spite of the many factors mounted against it, and it also makes the argument that it, at least, can stand up on the merits of its own core design, without necessarily needing the charm of the Pokemon license for its success. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have the charm, to be clear – in fact it has that by the oodles. It has so much of it that, once again, it far outstrips any other game on the market in giving us a window into the world of Pokemon, in spite of the modern Pokemon games being no slouches by themselves on that front. But being able to observe these Pokemon in their natural habitats, and see how they interact with one another, and with their environments, seeing how these creatures, that otherwise can often be reduced to nothing but stats in your PC box, or two line entries in your Pokedex, are brought to life as fully realized and full-fledged creatures that feel believable and authentic is enough to, once again, buoy this game far beyond the reach of its own (already fairly great) core design.
"Being able to observe these Pokemon in their natural habitats, and see how they interact with one another, and with their environments, seeing how these creatures, that otherwise can often be reduced to nothing but stats in your PC box, or two line entries in your Pokedex, are brought to life as fully realized and full-fledged creatures that feel believable and authentic is enough to, once again, buoy this game far beyond the reach of its own (already fairly great) core design."
So, the setup – that’s the same as it was before. You’re a Pokemon Professor’s assistant, helping research Pokemon by photographing them in their natural habitat in the wild. That’s the simple conceit – there is a story here (regarding a mysterious phenomenon that the professor is experiencing that causes the Pokemon on the Lental region the game takes place on to purportedly glow), and a surprising amount of characters and chatter, but the setup is: go out into the wild, take pictures of Pokemon. It’s simple and flexible, and provides all the contextualization needed for what the game asks you to do.
You’ll be running on short on-rails courses, photographing the various Pokemon that show up there. The range of photographs you can capture is surprisingly varied. It depends not just on the photography basics, such as positioning, zooming, number of subjects, framing, and such, but also on several game specific considerations. So, there are different Pokemon that show up on different courses, they have a variety of different behaviour patterns they can exhibit, they have different ways of interacting with the environment, and with the other Pokemon they share their habitats with, their behaviour can differ based on the time of day, and whether or not they notice your presence can make a complete difference as to what they are doing. Additionally, you can catch their attention and get them to act in a certain way too, whether it be by throwing food for them to nibble at, or playing a jingle for them to dance to. And finally, the more you get familiar with a course (represented by you “levelling up” your mastery in-game), the more number of Pokemon, and their behaviours and interactions, you are likely to see on them.
These, combined with the game’s premise, can lead to an endlessly entertaining line of objectives, prescribed and self-determined alike. For instance, you can be asked for something simple, such as taking a picture of a Pidgeot eating, or a dangling Metapod; or you can be asked to take a picture of two Pokemon interacting, which in turn can only happen on a specific course where you know both will appear, at a time you know both are active, in an area you know both are together, which can be a much harder picture to construct. The challenge comes from the familiarity with the courses that you build up over time, as well as your growing familiarity with its inhabitants. The game’s great victory here is that even if you’re not familiar with any of the newer Pokemon, or really, any Pokemon at all, it still makes them stand out such that you can get to know them intimately well just by repeatedly observing their behaviour. Just playing the game can tell you that Hoothoot are nocturnal, that Pikachu are extremely curious, that Slaking sleep a lot, that Scorbunny is mischievous, that Magikarp flounders a lot, that Grookey can be skittish, and that Pidgeot likes to keep its distance. Slowly learning the courses, and slowly learning the Pokemon, and in turn being better able to take great pictures, can keep you engaged with the game for a surprisingly long period of time.
"The game’s great victory here is that even if you’re not familiar with any of the newer Pokemon, or really, any Pokemon at all, it still makes them stand out such that you can get to know them intimately well just by repeatedly observing their behaviour."
The game goes out of its way to gamify these diegetic concepts too. As mentioned, your mastery over the course can be levelled up, incentivizing you to run the same courses multiple times, over and over, and in turn unlocking more Pokemon species and interactions. Your photos are rated by Professor Mirror in a variety of categories, encouraging you to go back and take more ones to get higher points – not to mention an entirely separate rating system where your photos are graded based on the rarity of Pokemon behaviour they’ve captured, inducing you to go back and try to photograph Pokemon in all four possible behaviour rarity interactions. And, since this is a photography based game in 2021, you can upload those photos online to get Likes (Medals in this game) from other players around the world, which of course means you’re likelier to keep going back and get the best photo possible for that online cred. And, finally, there is also a global leaderboard that ranks you on the cumulative total of points you have received from Professor Mirror, meaning that, very simply, the more you play, the higher on it you’ll be.
None of this, of course, would work if the game simply wasn’t good at delivering on its premise. As mentioned previously, this is a game that can only work if the window into the world of Pokemon that it provides is meaningfully fleshed out. New Pokemon Snap does that with aplomb, aided in large part by its surprisingly great presentation. No one will ever mistake it for a PS5 game, nor is it even necessarily among the best looking games on its own system. But a very strong art style, and a lot of loving care put into the animations and models for the Pokemon, means that it looks extremely charming and really pretty – as well as, almost by default, better than any other Pokemon game to date (though that’s more an indictment of how poor the games in the series have looked so far when they have had no reason to). There are blemishes to be sure – thumbnails of the photos you take can look decidedly and shockingly low resolution, the lack of anti aliasing can be physically painful at times, and there are, shockingly, frame rate drops on loading screens (but only on loading screens in my experience). But for what it’s worth, these never once actually happen during the core loop of the game, which is when you’re out in the wild, photographing Pokemon.
New Pokemon Snap is also the first Pokemon game ever to be voiced, which is something the series will hopefully retain going forward. While the quality of the voice work in this game isn’t spectacular, it’s solid, and more than anything else, it does the important job of ensuring this game remains accessible to younger players who may not know how to read on at least a fundamental level (not all lines are voiced, so a lot of the game is presumably still going to require the help of their parents for them to get). The soundtrack is similarly nothing great, especially next to how fantastic the music in the mainline games has always been, but it’s pleasant and charming, and does the job done.
"No one will ever mistake New Pokemon Snap for a PS5 game, nor is it even necessarily among the best looking games on its own system. But a very strong art style, and a lot of loving care put into the animations and models for the Pokemon, means that it looks extremely charming and really pretty."
New Pokemon Snap is also surprisingly customizable. Unlike so many Nintendo titles, it gives its players a lot of options, from the ability to tweak controls to restricting just how much online interactions the game pushes on you, to toggling the voice acting, and more. Given Nintendo games typically tend to be delivered as a whole, with very little in the way of meaningful options provided to players, hopefully this marks the start of a new trend for them – even though, yes, I know that Pokemon is largely independent of Nintendo and not necessarily indicative of their broader development philosophy (and this is a Pokemon spin-off to boot, so presumably even more disconnected).
How much value you get from New Pokemon Snap will come down to how much you take to its core conceit. It’s incredibly fleshed out and full featured, and feels like an appropriately next-next-next-next generation evolution and follow up of the original. There’s a surprising amount of content here, far beyond the original game, so you’re not spending full price money on something you can be done with in a few hours. And it’s far more interactive than you’d expect, too. But it’s still a rail shooter, it’s still about taking photos repeatedly, and that’s all there is to it – everything else is a variation on that core idea. If the idea of an entire game based on taking pictures of Pokemon doesn’t appeal to you, then New Pokemon Snap can’t change your mind, as great as it is at what it does. But if you’re down for what it offers, then you’re in for an incredibly charming, heart warming, and extremely breezy and heart warming ride through the Lental region that will show you the world of Pokemon in a way you have never seen before.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
Extremely charming and really relaxing; an incredible look into the world of Pokemon that makes those creatures come alive in a way never seen before; lots of content and functionality, with a lot of variations and mechanics on its theme to keep players engaged; robust online features; good presentation, with best-in-series graphics, as well as the inclusion of voice acting
The graphics have several blemishes, from lack of anti-aliasing, shockingly low resolution textures in places, to frame rate drops in loading screens; the story is extremely unremarkable
Ridiculously charming and extremely relaxing, New Pokemon Snap provides the most realized and fleshed out window into the Pokemon world yet, also delivering a robust and entertaining game that makes good on the original title's potential remarkably well in the process.