The hint is in the name: New Pokemon Snap is the long awaited sequel to N64 cult classic and, despite there being 22 years and roughly 700 new Pokemon since the original’s release, the fundamentals of the game haven’t changed much. You’re inside a capsule vehicle that treks along a fixed path, you throw fruit, zoom in with a snazzy camera and take photos of Pokemon for a professor to evaluate. But despite being a sequel, New Pokemon Snap reminded me of a completely different game: Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Like many gamers who flocked to buy New Pokemon Snap on Friday, I played the original on the N64. My heart was excited for New Pokemon Snap, but my brain was weary. I had it all wrong. New Pokemon Snap is a reinvigorating vacation for your brain, one that works because it’s so full of heart.
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Remind you of anything?
Like Animal Crossing, the appeal of New Pokemon Snap cannot be explained with words alone. Like Animal Crossing, New Pokemon Snap is more satisfying than it should be. Like Animal Crossing, New Pokemon Snap is just nice.
Since its announcement last June, New Pokemon Snap has been subject to consternation among Pokemon fans. In 2021 the Pokemon Snap concept, viable as a full-priced game in 1999, feels like it would be more appropriate as a free-to-play iOS/Android title. How would developers Namco Bandai pad the game out enough to make it feel substantial, without stretching the concept thin?
Watching Pokemon eat, sleep and play (or fight) is one of New Pokemon Snap’s consistent pleasures.
Snap ’em all
New Pokemon Snap is not a complicated game.
Your vehicle’s movement is fixed, so your only job is to look around and take photos. At the beginning Professor Mirror — for there is always a Pokemon professor — gives you a Photodex, which you’ll fill by taking photos of Pokemon. Mirror will evaluate your photos at the end of each level, giving you points based on factors like how large the Pokemon is and how centrally it’s focused.
The Photodex categorizes shots on a four-star scale. Each star represents different action: A photo of Pikachu sitting quietly may be one star, eating fruit may be two stars, letting off a thunderbolt three stars, playing with a Pokemon friend four stars. Different actions, different star rankings. To that end, you’re given a variety of tools — throwable fruit, lumination orbs, a scanner and a music box — to capture Pokemon in different actions and from different angles.
All of this tomfoolery is just a pretext to get you paying attention to details. And it mostly works well: Replaying the same levels looking for different angles of the same Pokemon or trying to elicit different reactions has an addictive quality.
The star rating divides different actions into different categories — it’s running in the one-star photo, listening in the two-star photo and so on. To complete the Photodex, you need to capture all Pokemon in four different states.
Sometimes the difference can feel arbitrary. All four photos of Grookey are similar, yet all were classified differently by the algorithm.
That brings us to the real MVP of New Pokemon Snap: level design. It’s fantastic. Each stage is an intricately designed set piece. It’s not just that the game is often beautiful, it’s also effective at guiding your attention. Big, irresistible Pokemon shepherd your gaze from one area to the next, but the screen is often filled with multiple moments worthy of capture. On your third or fourth playthrough of a level, you’ll find that the same Pokemon you gawked at the first few times was merely a diversion and that an even better shot was to the side or behind you the whole time.
To keep gameplay fresh, the level designs often change. All the points Professor Mirror gives you for capturing shots count toward leveling up each stage, and each new level-up brings new elements. That can be new Pokemon, the same Pokemon behaving differently or slightly different routes opening up. These changes sound small but, like changing the piece shapes on the same puzzle set, drastically change strategy.
It’s not flawless. Systems don’t work perfectly, particularly the algorithms that determine points and star categories. The star rankings are specific to each Pokemon, so I often found what would be two-star activity for one species would be ranked differently for another. What’s more, I’d take several photos of the same Pokemon within the space of a second or two only to find that nearly identical shots would fall into different star categories. Meanwhile, the points system prioritizes the size of the Pokemon in the shot. That results in you getting more points for boring closeups than for fun shots taken from a slight distance: Sometimes it feels like your creativity is being stifled by the man — Professor Mirror, in this case. But these are technical imperfections that cause minor annoyance, not major frustration.
The game’s level design is outstanding. Great, impressive Pokemon steal your attention, but shootable moments are everywhere.
There are two types of Pokemon fan: Those who religiously play every mainline title, and those who only remember the original 151. Those in the former group probably already have plans to play New Pokemon Snap this weekend, but less hardcore fans shouldn’t write off New Pokemon Snap.
Make no mistake, the game is principally fan service. There’s a satisfying, daydream quality to seeing your favorite Pokemon eat, sleep and just generally vibe in the idyllic worlds within New Pokemon Snap. But you don’t need to be able to list all 893 Pokemon to enjoy that. You don’t really even need to have played a Pokemon game to enjoy it. New Pokemon Snap is like a safari adventure, a getaway that you can dive into for 20 minutes at a time.
But though it can be enjoyed in bites, I was perhaps most surprised at just how substantial New Pokemon Snap is. Thanks to outstanding level design and a deluge of Pokemon to capture, Namco Bandai has succeeded in making New Pokemon Snap charming for the dozen-hour duration of the main story. Even better, having seen the credits I have the feeling I’ve snapped only a fraction of everything there is to snap. In an era of 50-hour-long open-world RPGs, it shows that more isn’t always more.
New Pokemon Snap is a relaxing game about photographing anime creatures. It’s not epic, and it’s not trying to be a landmark moment in gaming, but it keeps you smiling. Last year, Animal Crossing proved that can be more than enough.