In 24 hours of playing “New Pokémon Snap,” the most thrilling moments were when Pokémon surprised me.
One time I looked at the ground and realized that the fallen fruit on the ground were actually not all fruit – one of them was a Pokémon called Applin, who blended in with the ground. Other times, Pokémon were fast asleep in a tucked away corner or behaving in unique ways, like when Pyukumuku hopped into Pelipper’s beak for a free ride. After long sojourns through jungles, beaches, woods and the desert, these small interactions provided a glimmer of joy.
“New Pokémon Snap,” which comes out April 30 on the Nintendo Switch, is a game that’s about taking beautiful photos of over 100 kinds of Pokémon. On that one note, it excels. It gives the player just enough story and intrigue to press on through a grindy midgame focused on revisiting maps.
“New Pokémon Snap” is a 2021 version of a 1999 game originally made for the Nintendo 64. In terms of nostalgia, the game doesn’t disappoint, reminding players that “Pokémon Snap,” unlike other titles from 20 years ago, actually gives players a view of Pokémon in their natural habitats and a chance to witness what shenanigans they get up to in the savannah or wilderness. And compared to the 1999 version, the 2021 graphics are stunning. The settings are well crafted and I’m always turning my camera every which way to ensure I’m seeing every little interaction.
The player is put in the shoes of a young adventurer in the Lental Region traversing all kinds of terrain to bring back pictures of Pokémon for Professor Mirror’s kind evaluation. I say kind because often times the professor will say a photo isn’t a bad shot at all, when in reality, the picture is quite bad and has earned a very low rating.
Playing through “New Pokémon Snap” can feel like craning one’s neck at Disneyland on a children’s ride. The game’s core mechanic is that the player must take photos while riding a self-driving vehicle, the Neo-One, which moves on a predetermined route that can’t be changed. The game’s controls are mostly for the camera, to aim and zoom in on the Pokémon that fly away, stomp across the ground and sometimes make all kinds of efforts not to be photographed.
Motion controls are also offered, but I chose not to use them, opting instead for the Switch Pro Controller, which I found easier to maneuver for quick shots of nooks and crannies, and my Switch connected to a desktop monitor so I could scan my surroundings quickly for hidden critters. This led to much better results than just playing on the Switch handheld, and I saw my photos improve vastly over time as I got the hang of things.
While other Pokémon games focus on catching them all, Pokémon Snap is about taking photos of them all, and instead of a Pokédex, players have a Photodex, where a Pokémon page can be completed by collecting one-star, two-star, three-star and four-star images.
Photos are scored by points – for how large and well-framed a Pokémon is, and whether the backdrop is engaging – and rated by stars. In general, one-star is a Pokémon doing nothing, two-star is usually eating a Fluffruit, three-star can be Pokémon hanging out with friends and four-star is for Pokémon making the rarest reactions. The game also gives little clues – found on the Requests tab – as to how to unlock four-star reactions. The player’s rival (because there usually is one in Pokémon games) is named Phil, and he eggs you on throughout by saying he’s taken better photos. For the most part, you see very little of him.
“New Pokémon Snap” feels like a grind, even though it’s short. And while the grind can be fun in many games, in this one it sometimes feels a little empty, at least until the next map is unlocked. On some visits to maps, I snapped one-star, two-star and even four-star images of a new Pokémon. But I could only select one of those to be included in my Photodex album, meaning if I wanted to work toward completing the page, I would need to return to that map again. And while Professor Mirror is highly complimentary of the photos he reviews, his comments start to feel stale after countless repetition.
Entering a new region, there are a few ways to interact with Pokémon: tossing fruit at them – which can be mean or a nice treat depending on where it’s aimed – playing a melody in hopes of seeing a dance or scanning the area. These skills unlock over time in the early game, and the player starts off with just a scanner, meaning completionists must loop back to the early game with their newfound abilities to see every Pokémon’s reaction. One key feature doesn’t unlock until the player combs the maps of a given region enough times: the Illumina orb which you receive from Professor Mirror that you can then toss on flowers or Pokémon to snap better photos.
In other words, the grind is built into the game and there’s no way around it. Admittedly, I do have completionist tendencies and I did try to revisit various maps, especially the beach, because of how gorgeous the backdrops look and how I knew there was just one more thing to check out. I hit a few low points in the game where I would revisit a map to grab some jaw-dropping shots and then have Mirror tell me the photos I took this time were worth fewer points than the ones I got on a previous trip. After my pride over the accolades that Mirror showered me with had faded, I was left with a strong feeling that I wasn’t having any fun.
But the game also wields Pokémon nostalgia to its advantage. Classic Pokémon, the ones that fans of the 1999 “Pokémon Snap” will surely recognize, are strategically scattered throughout the Lental Region. Pikachu, this entire franchise’s mascot, is of course one of the easiest to see in the tutorial, but returns around the mid-game at the beach as well. Charmander comes slightly later. Seeing each of these reinvigorated my will to keep playing and made replaying maps to complete my Photodex more exciting.
Can nostalgia carry “New Pokémon Snap” players to the finish line? The repetitive nature of the game makes the mid-game a slog, even if photography and Pokémon are one’s passion. After each map, the player is sent back to the main menu, and given the choice to visit yet another map.
At one point I unlocked so many maps, and was so excited for the new rush of content. Soon, I had powered through all these maps and was left to grind them over and over again before the next region could open up.
If “New Pokémon Snap” had added an additional reward to taking great photos, it would’ve probably livened up the grind. Instead, players may have to find their satisfaction outside the game. Nintendo does have a partnership with Fujifilm to sell instant film printouts of photos players take in “New Pokémon Snap,” and there’s always Instagram.
From a professional photography perspective, I found myself wishing I could mess around with the aperture and light settings, especially for an evening photoshoot on the beach and some foggy scenes in the forest. Sometimes what the game calls a quality image is barely visible and certainly not passable for printing in a newspaper, which makes for an amusing contrast. The game does have other key features that photographers may like, including an editing tool that lets you blur out the background and crop images.
“New Pokémon Snap” does have Internet features I didn’t get to try out very much, where photos can be shared with friends. One user uploaded a crystal clear image of Pichu and Grookey just vibing that made me envious. Once those features grow more popular after the game’s launch, it’s possible that could help break up some of the mid-game tedium.
It’s hard to be mad at a game that knows exactly what its purpose is and delivers on its promise – breathtaking, Vogue-worthy shots of Pokémon lit by sunlight or set during festive jungle nights. The one-note nature of the game hearkens back to 1999, and nostalgia is what fans seek. But just like the game expects me to be able to find Pokémon in the dark and to nail all kinds of mechanics for the special four-stars, I expect the game to spring a few more surprises and keep me on my toes.