New Pokémon Snap takes one of the oldest, most bizarre, yet surprisingly brilliant offshoots of the Pokémon franchise and updates it for the current generation, 22 years after the launch of the original game back in 1999 on the N64. It’s a polished update to the original formula that deepens and expands the experience in many ways while preserving the core idea that made the first game so brilliant in the first place. Developers Bandai Namco did a fantastic job here, and for fans of the original like me, it’s a treat to head back out into the wild, camera in hand.
The key to both the original and New Pokémon Snap’s success is the on-rails gameplay, which ironically opens up a litany of creative avenues for the developers to riff on. You sit in a roving pod called the Neo One, which pilots you down a (mostly) predetermined route through a lush environment while you try to take aesthetically pleasing photographs of Pokémon in their natural habitat.
Photos are scored at the end of each expedition by several criteria, including how centered the Pokémon is in the frame, how large they are in the frame, the direction they’re facing, etc. Racking up big scores gives you points toward the “research level” of that specific environment, which gives you a reason to return to areas you’ve already played. Every time an environment’s research level increases, the expedition changes in different ways, with the Pokémon’s behaviors, positioning, and movement paths changing, giving you new opportunities for better photos.
As you do more research across the Lental region’s different biomes, you’ll receive new items to use in the field to draw out Pokémon and elicit reactions. Fluffruit can be thrown to get a Pokémon’s attention and capture photos of them enjoying a tasty snack. There’s the scanner, which analyzes anomalies and uncovers alternate roots, and also has the bonus effect of attracting the attention of certain Pokémon when activated. And then there are Illumina Balls, which cause Pokémon to glow and can change their behavior on occasion, and a little song you can play, which wakes sleeping Pokémon and causes others to dance.
The main objective of the game is to fill up your Photodex—each Pokémon has four star-ranked poses to capture, and it’s challenging to figure out how to elicit all four poses from each species. It becomes a bit of a puzzle game of sorts as you try to capture your perfect Pokémon pics. Because your movement is restricted, you’re forced to bring the Pokémon in close and influence their behavior by using a variety of items and tools. Being that the Neo One moves ever forward, you’ve only got a few moments to make your moves and position the Pokémon where you need them to be for your snaps.
Watching the Pokémon move around the environments, interact with each other, and essentially do what they do in their natural environments is incredibly entertaining to watch, particularly on your first few runs through a level. Whether it’s two Charmander chatting with each other across a magma river, a family of Onix catching some Z’s under the night sky, or a Magikarp awkwardly flailing in the air, lunging at a thrown Fluffruit, the animations and scripted scenarios look fantastic.
The artists and engineers at Bandai Namco nail the presentation, and all of the levels are absolutely teeming with life, which adds to the sense of immersion. Cruising through the reefs and beaches of the oceanic levels is wonderfully serene, and the roiling lava streams and rising embers of the volcanic areas are a sight to behold. The environments can stale a bit on multiple playthroughs, but there are day and night variations of most levels, and raising the research levels adds variety as well.
Overall, the game looks pretty slick, with relatively well-detailed character models and environments that pop with color and personality. The game would’ve likely benefited from a more robust lighting system (there are some environments, like the misty forests, that would look absolutely spectacular with more atmospheric and dynamic effects), but the visuals are eye-catching all the same. Some of the larger Pokémon are downright majestic to behold when you get up close, and to that point, the sense of scale is something that the mainline games are sorely missing.
The sound design is solid, too—you can hear Pokémon outside of your field of vision, which comes in handy if you’re an active listener. It’s still a wonder why a company as profitable as Nintendo can’t afford to provide full voice acting in a game like this, which isn’t exactly brimming with dialogue in the first place. But still, the human characters at the lab provide a nice break from all the cacophony of Pokémon sounds you’ll hear on your excursions.
The story is thin but cute and totally appropriate: You’re a research assistant for Dr. Mirror in the Lental region, where you’re gathering photographic data on not just different Pokémon species, but a phenomena called “illumina,” which involves mysterious flowers that cause Pokémon to glow and alters their behavior. If nothing else, the human cast of characters’ excitement toward the Pokémon and your pictures adds to the fun and reminds you how cool it is to see the cute critters and towering beasts so close-up.
For fans of the franchise, New Pokémon Snap should be a delight to play, if for no other reason than it’s a ton of fun to see the Pokémon up close and personal, interacting with each other in adorable, hilarious ways. But there are also achievements to collect, the Photodex to fill in and read, and a photo album that you can customize and share with others online. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the game’s community thrive for a very, very long time.
There’s really no other game quite like New Pokémon Snap. It’s a nature-photography arcade game whose gameplay feels pure and simple and yet is wholly unique at the same time. There’s maybe no better way to immerse yourself in the wild world of Pokémon—the lovable creatures have never looked so good. And the game is damn fun to play, to boot. In fact, when you take the battling and stats of the main games out of the equation, the true beauty of Pokémon shines through—these characters are cute as hell, and all we want to do is admire how gloriously awesome they are.