It may have taken me 25 years, but I think I finally understand Pokémon.
I mean, listen. On an intellectual level, I obviously understand why people like the Pokémon franchise. I’m not that jaded or willfully obtuse. The characters are cute, and collecting is fun, but beyond that, it presents a specific fantasy that many kids (and adults) have of speaking to animals and having them actually understand us. What’s not to like?
But, emotionally, I just didn’t get it. I was 10 when Red and Blue came out and never left home without my Game Boy, so I should have been swallowed whole by the Pocket Monster craze. But I just never played the games and totally skipped the cartoon. I could look at a picture of Pikachu, analyze the different pieces of his character design that made him so beloved (his teddy bear eyes, his rosy cheeks, his distinguishing tail, his rabbity ears, his pleasant yellow hue), and feel nothing. I even played and beat Pokémon Sword—my first Pokémon game—when that came out, but I fell far short of collecting ‘em all, so thorough was my apathy.
And then came New Pokémon Snap.
Now, I’m not saying I’m going to go play every Pokémon game, or even any of them, or buy a bunch of Pokémon merch, or get Squirtle tattooed on my ass, or anything like that. But what I am saying is that New Pokémon Snap is so thoroughly enjoyable and charming that I finally feel the love for Pokémon that hundreds of millions of people have felt for a long time.
New Pokémon Snap barely deviates from the 1999 original, which put players on a rail as Pokémon wildlife photographers. Last time, you rode in a bubble car called the Zero-One; now, you’re in the Neo-One. You’re still throwing fruit at and playing songs for Pokémon in the hopes that their reactions will make for higher-scoring photo ops.
If you think that’s a complaint, it’s not. The last Snap came out 22 years ago, so there’s a good chance that many Pokémon fans never played it. And for those who did, are you really going to fault Bandai Namco (who developed this entry) for hewing closely to the formula that made the original a Blockbuster favorite back in the day?
What is new about New Pokémon Snap is pretty much everything else, including the region where you’ll be capturing your images. As a nameless junior photographer, you’ll travel to the Lental Region, an archipelago of unfathomable ecological diversity, where Professor Mirror and his assistant Rita will task you with taking pictures for research. What they’re researching isn’t just the Pokémon that populate Lental’s beaches, jungles, volcanoes, and icy mountaintops, but also Illumina, a phenomenon that gives Pokémon a strange glow and sometimes affects their behavior, which the professor has noticed is specific to the region. As an excuse to move players from one island to another, the mystery behind Illumina is compelling enough without becoming long-winded and tiresome, and it represents more effort than the last game made to give players a motivation for photographing Pokémon besides the obvious appeal of doing so.
The story also lends itself to the game’s overall structure and progression. Each time you travel to a new island, you basically have two main tasks (other than photographing Pokémon): Find and photograph an Illumina Flower that’s already lit up, and discover Ancient Ruins that are hidden somewhere on the island. Seeing as you’re on rails, you won’t be wandering around trying to find some obscure clue that will lead you to these things. You just need to be paying a little bit of attention. But as easy as these objectives are to accomplish, it’s still satisfying when you complete a course and Professor Mirror tells you he’s got something new to report, which usually leads to a new area, or at least a new variation—such as a nighttime version—of the course you just completed. These variations not only change the behavior of the Pokémon on that course, but they also introduce new Pokémon for you to photograph. And there are a ton of Pokémon to photograph: Even after finishing the story, there are still entries missing from my Photodex catalogue.
But it’s the other form of progression that compels you to keep searching for that perfect shot. Every course in the game has a level that you increase after earning a certain amount of points. The points you earn depend on how good your photographs are, and there are certain criteria that you need to meet to get those high scores, including your Pokémon subject’s pose (basically, whether they’re facing the camera or not), how big they are in the frame without getting cut out, and how close to the center of the frame they are. These criteria might not lead to the most artistically satisfying pictures, but they do keep you on your toes when you’re going through a course, looking for that perfect shot. Then, when you earn enough points on a course, you level it up, which introduces new Pokémon as well as new set pieces that make it possible to get even better, higher-scoring photos. It’s an addictive and satisfying loop, and the new set pieces and characters introduced with each level are fun to discover. As you progress through the story, you unlock more tools that give you more control, such as fluffruit (which replace the previous game’s apples), Illumina balls that you can throw at Pokémon to get them to react, and a boost for the Neo-One that lets you go through the course faster—perhaps fast enough to catch something that you didn’t see before.
New Pokémon Snap’s biggest leap forward, however, is in its presentation. It might seem obvious that a game from 2021 would look better than a game from 1999, but New Pokémon Snap does more than just increase the resolution. The environment and art design is bright and colorful, and the Pokémon are animated with care. Complement the visuals with a melodious but unobtrusive soundtrack and the slow, leisurely pace of the Neo-One, and where most games nowadays feel like second or third jobs, New Pokémon Snap feels like a vacation.
It isn’t a complete honeymoon (though it’s close). The controls are good, but they could be better. Namely, it makes no sense to have the shutter button be anything other than a shoulder button, since that’s where it would be on the camera, but New Pokémon Snap puts it on the A button, which can be kind of annoying when you’re using the right stick to move the frame. Likewise, the highest sensitivity for the right stick is still painfully slow, especially when trying to keep faster-moving Pokémon in the center of your frame. And I used the motion controls (both gyro controls in handheld mode and traditional motion controls with a Pro Controller) for all of five minutes before giving up on them, though that’s mostly due to personal prejudice.
In the end, these are minor complaints for a game that was thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end, and thanks to the course leveling and dozens of assignments for specific photos that the other characters request, I still have a lot of Pokémon to snap. Will I stop playing now that I’ve finished the story, like I did with Pokémon Sword? Probably. The difference is that I’ll happily go back to the Lental Region, even if it’s only for five minutes at a time.
Maybe it’s because I haven’t really gone outside in over a year, let alone spend any quality time in nature, but New Pokémon Snap feels like a genuine respite. When I hear people say that video games help them relax, I honestly have no idea what they’re talking about. Most games I play are stressful and full of burdens like looting and side quests; there’s the constant pressure to keep up with whatever the game wants me to do. And yes, New Pokémon Snap has that kind of stuff, but almost all of it is optional. It doesn’t want you to feel like photographing Pokémon is your job. It wants you to take in the sights and enjoy the ride.
Maybe that’s the secret to “getting” Pokémon games. It isn’t the collecting and the utopian world. It isn’t being swept up in the wave of merchandising and cartoons. It isn’t even the characters whose cuteness is so precise that it seems almost scientifically designed. It’s that while Pokémon games may use tropes from genres that feel like jobs, they don’t ever want to make you feel like you’re working. If this is what it feels like to play games to relax, then give me more games like New Pokémon Snap.
New Pokémon Snap might be one of the most thoroughly pleasant games that’s come out for the Switch, if not ever. While the core gameplay is the same as it was in 1999, everything about the 2021 game is better. The environments are visual delights, the Pokémon are lovingly recreated, and the progression and pacing are just right. If the hobby of gaming has started to feel like a second or third job, then New Pokémon Snap might just be the vacation you need.
E - Everyone
|New Pokémon Snap is available on Nintendo Switch. Primary version played was for Switch. Product was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.