In 1999, Pokemon Snap released on the Nintendo 64, introducing audiences to the most recognizable game in the photography simulation genre. Pokemon Snap was beloved for its unique depiction of Pokemon in nature as they moved around and interacted with their environments like never before. It was beloved for its simple yet creative puzzle-solving mechanics, which required the player to manipulate Pokemon and their environments with the throwable items they carried. At this point, photography simulators were relatively unknown outside of Japan, and Pokemon had never been seen in this way; Pokemon Snap then is in part so cherished by fans because it was something fresh that breathed life into these creatures which we had only seen battle in sprite form until that point. It makes sense then that 22 years later, Nintendo and Bandai Namco would try and recreate the magic for a new generation of gamers on a new generation of hardware where it can push the boundaries of the original and its hardware limitations much farther. This raises the question: how successful is New Pokemon Snap at capturing the same sense of wonder as the 1999 classic?
This is not the traditional Pokemon experience
The moment-to-moment gameplay of New Pokemon Snap is much like the 1999 original, consisting of taking pictures of Pokemon and submitting them to the professor to be scored. This may sound like a complaint or an issue; However, New Pokemon Snap is still fun. The photography simulator genre has not seen a major title in the time between, so it is not like the game is ignoring decades of progress. The player carries snacks and, as a new addition to the series, Illumina Fruit. The Illumina fruit makes the pokemon it hits glow with a bright aura and will occasionally trigger a special animation or event. The player can also trigger a melody to play for the Pokemon, causing them to wake up or dance. The Illumina fruit is an interesting, if not a confusing, addition to the game. The Illumina fruit does not reliably raise the star rating of your photos, and it is often difficult to surmise when it will trigger some sort of special action or event. Because it is an unlimited resource, I found myself using it somewhat mindlessly on most Pokemon since there was no need to use it strategically. While this is a minor issue, it made one of the game’s most advertised additions a little too bland and routine. This feeling of disappointment with the mechanic is compounded by the fact that each major region has a separate Illumina fruit that must be unlocked to progress the story. Simply put, the Illumina fruit frequently feels underwhelming, especially once you are unlocking it for the third or fourth time.
The game’s best feature is the Pokemon and the world they occupy. Whether it be the rain forest, the coast, the desert, or any of the game’s myriad other locales, the courses are always springing with life. Part of what made the original great is it was the first time gamers got to see Pokemon in the wild. New Pokemon Snap recaptures this magic and then some. The Switch, quite obviously, allows for a much greater level of graphical fidelity than the decades-old Nintendo 64. It has been long enough that seeing largely the same gameplay placed into lush high definition environments is enough to constitute something refreshing and different. The pokemon interact with one another and naturally move between environmental setpieces. There are many creatures in the game, with many hidden Pokemon to find on any given route. We have not seen this level of detail in a Pokemon game before, and for long-time fans, it is a joy to behold.
New Pokemon Snap recaptures the magic of the original and then some
One of the other strengths of the environments is their variation and quantity. There are far more levels in New Pokemon Snap than the original, and each of them has multiple variants. Many levels feature a branching alternate route. On top of this, each area has a research-level. When the player levels up the area, the next time they return, they will notice different Pokemon and different behavior from those that were there before. This leveling adds a new layer of depth to the formula, and along with the fact that the player can only submit one photograph of each Pokemon per run through the course, incentivizes if not necessitates replaying each course at least twice. This repetition is a bit of a mixed bag, however. While it adds much more content to the game, it feels artificial. It is entirely possible to trigger multiple interactions with one Pokemon. These interactions are tied to star ratings, of which there are four per Pokemon. To get all four, it would require the player to complete a course four times for a Pokemon unique to a given route, which is most of them. This 4 playthrough minimum is helped along by the fact many of the Pokemon occur across night variations and level states for both the day and night variant. Despite the variation, it is hard to stay engaged when you are running the same course for the third time in a row after having already taken the photo you need but were not able to submit it because you had taken another one. The boredom of this repetition is eased once the player unlocks a high score feature and the ability to accelerate, but these are locked until the late game. Players with a high tolerance for repetition will likely enjoy the added length, but I suspect many will feel a little fatigued like I did.
One of New Pokemon Snap’s better features is the addition of a personal photo album and photo editor. The photo editor allows players to take a photograph and customize it with filters and stickers, alongside other adjustments like cropping and other edits to shot composition. While you can’t submit these edited photos for review, they can be posted to the in-game social feed or shared with friends. This feature can be a lot of fun for getting creative with the photos you take or for saving photographs that are not of Pokemon. While it is possible to go the entire game without touching this feature, those that wish to spend a lot of the time with the game will likely appreciate its addition.
New Pokemon Snap is largely successful in recapturing the magic of the Nintendo 64 original. While the game suffers from excessive repetition and the underwhelming nature of the Illumina mechanic, the game’s stunning graphics, environments, and Pokemon behavior more than make up for its shortcomings. While it will probably not appeal to people who are not already a fan of Pokemon, for fans, New Pokemon Snap is a wonderful piece of fan service and wholly charming.