Ever since Pokémon saw the light of day in 1996, the colorful monsters have appeared on almost every conceivable product in the world and all sorts of video game concepts. Few consoles have demonstrated this better than the good old Nintendo 64. Though the console never received a mainline Pokémon game on the same level as Pokémon Sword/Shield on the Switch, owners of the console could still enjoy creative and experimental titles such as Pokémon Stadium 1 and 2, Pokémon Puzzle League, and Hey You, Pikachu! The most memorable title from my own childhood is still Pokémon Snap, where the slogan "Gotta catch 'em all" was rephrased to "Gotta snap 'em all" and you had to capture the Pokémon on film instead of using Pokéballs. The game wasn't particularly long, but the concept of driving around on a photo safari taking pictures of Pokémon in their natural habitat was a delightful twist on the traditional formula. When I revisited the game last fall, I found that despite its technical limitations the game and its concept still hold up today.
Even though the original was released in Europe in 2000, we haven't received any sequels to this unique and creative title. That is, until now. To celebrate Pokémon's 25th anniversary, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company have finally brought the old concept out of storage and brought us New Pokémon Snap for the Switch. On the production side we find Bandai Namco Studios, who did a good job creating another alternative Pokémon title, Pokkén Tournament, back in 2016.
The player assumes the role of a young photographer who is sent to help Professor Mirror and his assistant Rita learning more about the Pokémon in the Lental region and how they behave in their wild and natural habitats. The Professor hopes to fill a Photodex with many pictures of each Pokémon from the different areas in Lental, but he also wants to delve deeper into the mystery of the mythical Illumina Pokémon, which according to myth saved the Lental region from a natural disaster more than 2,000 years ago.
The story doesn't really matter in New Pokémon Snap, although there are a couple of fun cameos along the way. What you are here for is not the story but the opportunity to take pictures of Pokémon, and it doesn't take long before you hit that shutter button and snap hundreds of pictures. The fun thing about the game concept is that it's basically a first-person rail shooter, a genre we mostly associate with arcade games from the 90s like Virtua Cop or House of the Dead, or even Wii titles like Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles. In rail shooters, the player is brought forward along a preset trajectory and doesn't have to worry about movement. The player's job is to aim and fire - but unlike most rail shooters, this game lets you take pictures instead of firing lasers or bullets.
The main concept is still the same as the original on Nintendo 64, and it turns out it's still as much fun and cheerful to play as it was twenty years ago. Driving around and observing Pokémon in nature where they run around to play with or chase each other feels a lot more believable and realistic than the behavioral patterns we usually observe in the main titles of the franchise. When you see Grookey and Pichu run joyfully next to each other, a Wingull fly away with a freshly-caught Pyukumuku in its beak, or a Wailord breach the surface of the ocean in its enormous majesty, you can't help but feel you're in a nature documentary or on an actual photo safari in a living and plausible Pokémon universe. It really wouldn't be out of place to have an audio commentary by David Attenborough in this game, but that might be too much to ask for.
The visual presentation doesn't hurt the experience. Each area is colorful, detailed and full of content, and aside from a boring desert area void of fun and variation, all areas are fun to visit and explore. The game comes with a day-and-night cycle which makes the replayability even greater, as each Pokémon will behave differently depending on the time of day. After exploring the area, you will also increase your research level, which in turn opens alternative traversal routes and different Pokémon behavioral patterns. All these factors will make sure you visit each area more than once in search of the best pictures possible.
Though the game looks great most of the time, the technical performance is not perfect. Like several recent Switch titles, New Pokémon Snap struggles to deliver a stable frame rate and smooth texture loading. These issues don't occur often enough to be considered a problem or make the game unplayable in any way, but it's a shame to see the beautiful experience disturbed by bushes and flowers popping into the frame two or three second later than they were supposed to. On the audio side, the game presents smooth music and harmonious sounds, but some players will probably react to the strange fact that most Pokémon (besides Pikachu) make rather generic animal sounds and not distinct cries.
While the original game was rather short and limited when it came to possibilities and available actions, New Pokémon Snap offer a lot more tools for the player. Simple things like adjustable camera rotation speed and gyro aim may not be revolutionary in 2021, but they certainly make the experience much better. Like its predecessor, this game allows you to throw fruit at the Pokémon to lure or distract them, and you can also play a melody which will wake them up from slumber or make them dance or react in other ways. The new tools include a sonar to scan the environment for objects of interest, and Illumina Orbs, which serve as balls of light you may throw at crystal-like flowers or at the monsters themselves. Different Pokémon may respond differently to all these tools, so experimentation is key here.
The different tools will come in handy when taking pictures of the monsters, since Professor Mirror would like for you to take several pictures of them. When you return to the laboratory, the Professor will ask you to present one picture per Pokémon (the game will automatically sort the pictures you have taken into folders), and the picture you choose to present will be ranked from one to four stars according to how unique the Pokémon's behavior is. After you have received the star ranking, the picture will be scored according to size, pose, background, other Pokémon in the picture and so on. The goal of the game is to have four pictures per Pokémon, ranging from one to four stars, and your quest for the best pictures possible will keep you coming back to the game's different areas again and again.
In addition to the pictures you choose to present to Professor Mirror, you can save other pictures you have taken in an album which is kept at the laboratory. Here you may also use the Re-Snap function, which allows you to edit each picture in different ways. You can change angle, size and effects to name a few, and having such handy tools available for a photo mode in a game that is basically a giant photo mode in itself can result in some beautiful pictures. If you are really happy with the picture you have taken and edited, you can choose to share it on the internet and let other players see and like them (in Japan you can even visit the local convenient store chain Lawson to print your pictures, but we probably won't see anything similar here in Europe).
To give the game even more replayability, the developers have included some requests from the Professor and his friends which will appear after completing an area once. Here you will be asked to capture a specific moment on film. The description they give you for the specific scenario, however, can be quite vague and thus difficult to figure out exactly when and where to take the picture they're looking for, which can prove quite frustrating. Fortunately, these requests are completely voluntary, so there's no need to do any of them unless you are striving for a complete run-through of the game.
New Pokémon Snap takes a twenty years old concept and brings it back to life with just the right amount of polish and new content to make it exciting for current players. It's a thoroughly relaxing and pleasant experience which is fun and cheerful to play, and despite its minor technical issues, it's still a game which will keep players entertained for a long time. This is a game that both old and new fans will enjoy, and it's hard not to be charmed by the cutest critters the game has to offer.