It’s a good thing no one had a camera on me during my first playthrough of New Pokémon Snap, because I probably looked and sounded like a total dingus. Without fail, each time I played a new course a Pokémon would appear out of nowhere, or do something cute, or react to something I did in a surprising way, and I (this is not an exaggeration) would sit up on the couch, point at the screen, and go “Aaah!” in delight.
I love the way The Pokémon Company has, in recent years, begun letting more companies outside Game Freak (think Niantic with Pokémon Go, or Legendary Pictures with Detective Pikachu) make media that shows off Pokémon not as collectibles or as static RPG party members but as lovable, intelligent creatures. After successfully digging into their combat prowess in Pokken Tournament, Bandai Namco has been handed the far more peaceful reigns of an on-rails nature photography game and charged with portraying Pokémon as wild creatures in living ecosystems to be observed, befriended, and only “captured” via camera. Given the timbre of my happy yells every time a Wooper said “Woooh!” at me, if my neighbors had known what I was doing they’d probably agree that New Pokémon Snap is a delightful success on this front.
Despite its flaws, I was a big fan of the original Pokémon Snap on Nintendo 64 back in 1999. The classic on-rails photography game had a very fun premise, sending you on a nature safari to try and get the best photos possible of Pokémon living and interacting in their natural habitats. Though the idea was sound and many of Pokémon Snap’s best moments are still memorable to this day (the Jigglypuff concert! Charizard popping out of the lava pool! Surfing Pikachu!), it was painfully short, with only just over 60 Pokémon available across seven courses that were precisely the same every single time. Even with the meat of trying to solve a few puzzles to line up some rarer shots, 1999’s Pokémon Snap inevitably left me wishing for so much more.
22 years later, I had a real fear that New Pokémon Snap would end up similarly repetitive or limited in either sheer Pokémon numbers or in course availability. But I am happy to report this was a non-issue: If “Pokémon Snap, but more” were the baseline for New Pokémon Snap being any good, it would handily clear that simple bar with far more courses, available Pokémon, and possible photos than its decades-old parent managed. It even has more (in a sense) of what made old-school Pokémon Snap’s final course, Rainbow Cloud, so special – though I can’t say more about it here due to Nintendo being overly precious about that part.
New Pokémon Snap also has far more story to drive it along, with a Pokémon professor named Mirror and his crew of research assistants trying to solve yet another Pokémon mystery, though overall it’s a fairly forgettable progression tool. You’ll visit a sparkling beach, a dense jungle, a desert, underwater caverns, and several more locations, all of which look better than I’ve seen any Pokémon game look yet – beauty which comes at the cost of some occasional frustrating framerate dips when it pushes the Switch beyond its comfort zone. These are most noticeable in one stage in particular, when an absolutely massive Wailord slowly breaches the ocean surface and briefly slows everything to a crawl.
Most of the Pokémon manage to look very good without melting your Switch in your hands though, and for the most part will react in interesting ways to just about anything you (literally or figuratively) throw at them, be it fruit, glowing Illumina Orbs, or a catchy tune. It’s easy to view being on-rails as a limitation, but in New Pokémon Snap it’s apparent that keeping your own interactions with the world a bit more limited than in something like a typical Pokémon RPG has freed Bandai Namco up to make the many different things the Pokémon themselves do far more varied, detailed, and enjoyable to watch.
New Pokémon Snap gracefully avoids Pokémon Snap’s problem of repeating the exact same courses ad infinitum in several ways. Most courses get both day and night versions, with each variation including more than enough distinct Pokémon and interactions to merit the duplication. Many courses also hide branching pathways, some obvious and some hidden, that let you get better views on certain monsters or discover new ones entirely.
Most interesting though are the multiple “Research Levels” that govern how comfortable the creatures on any given course are with you, and thus how varied their interactions with you and one another will be. For example, there’s a brief (albeit hard to miss) appearance by a Grookey and a Pichu at the very start of the first stage you visit. They run into the middle of the road, spot you – a human being in a big ol’ technology pod – and immediately bolt. You’ll catch glimpses of them here and there throughout the rest of that nature park level, but they’re shy and elusive to start. You have to be quick and accurate to get a good photo of them early on, which is where the challenge offered by New Pokémon Snap often lies.
But after repeated visits to the park and numerous well-scored photos, trust is earned and your Research Level increases. Eventually, rather than scurry off any time you appear, Grookey and Pichu will greet you the moment they see you, waiting around and cheering at you long enough for you to snap adorable photos of the pair at a more leisurely pace. They’ll chase you playfully through the level, introduce you to their buddy Scorbunny, and pose repeatedly so you can get a really good shot for your Photodex.
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This gradual storytelling that occurred as I visited courses over and over again is the greatest unexpected joy of New Pokémon Snap. It allows Bandai Namco to tell little visual stories and pepper them throughout each level, such as a colony of Bidoof slowly building a dam I can eventually cross in my little photo-taking pod, or solving the mystery of what Pokémon keeps leaving charred fruit sitting around. Good as all this was, by the end of New Pokémon Snap – which I reached after about 15 hours – I greedily wanted there to be even more to these observable plotlines and was disappointed when grinding to finish Research Level 3 didn’t magically throw me into a course overflowing with exciting new Pokémon and interactions. All I got was an achievement.
A somewhat clunky sidequest system helps you reach the resolutions of the more puzzling of these staged stories by having NPCs request you look into certain locations or Pokémon for rare or hidden photo opps. The hints themselves were useful and helped me discover a number of genuinely cool shots I may have otherwise missed. But actually finishing the quests could be annoyingly precise – I’d often feel confident I had gotten the photo it was asking for but didn’t receive credit because the timing was slightly off of what some unspecified rule demanded. The rewards are hit or miss too; sometimes you’ll get cool new photo editing tools like filters, stickers, or frames, but other times you’ll get nothing beyond the satisfaction of completion.
It’s in a handful of photo-taking-adjacent systems like these that New Pokémon Snap trips over itself a bit. One example is in its tutorials, which serve to over-explain simple mechanics and progression early on, while a notable segment later fails to give an essential detail about what the player ought to be doing next. Another irritating example is the “star” rating included in photo scoring, which both serves to indicate how rare the moment you snapped a photo of actually was, while also providing four slots per Pokémon to fill in the PhotoDex. But there’s sometimes no apparent rhyme or reason to which photos get “unique” four-star ratings and which don’t.
Somewhat frequently, I would discover what I believed to be an amazing, exciting interaction in a level and managed to get a photo I was proud of, only to find that jerk Professor Mirror didn’t recognize what I’d snapped as anything different than the Pokémon’s everyday, default activity. Meanwhile, I have multiple Pokémon PhotoDex pages filled with photos that, to my eye, are almost indistinguishable, yet they all have different star ratings. It’s ultimately not a massive issue, as I can still save any cool shots I get to my album and show off my discoveries, but Mirror’s lack of recognition and unclear standards often deflated my excitement a bit at finding something I thought was rare.
Where New Pokémon Snap gets its addendums right is how it takes cues from modern photography and photo editing (remember, the original came out before digital photography was really a thing). There are plenty of unlockable filters, frames, and stickers to turn cool photo moments into silly, shareable snaps. Turns out, it is very fun to put silly hats and glasses and bow ties on Pokémon!
The Re-Snap feature in particular is a great addition that lets you go back and adjust a shot in the moment, in case you were just a little bit off or out of focus. It’s not a perfect do-over button (which is probably for the best), but rather a way to make small adjustments to the second a photo was taken so you’re not left frustrated that something wasn’t just so. Also, while the online features were only just enabled yesterday, their mere existence is an essential function and I’m already enjoying some of the cool snaps my fellow reviewers have shared while decking out my own profile with my favorites.
Fun as these are, the most memorable bits of New Pokémon Snap lie squarely in its photo-taking core. This is especially true of the best moments with Pokémon who do not often get the spotlight in other games, like the Bouffalant I saw wearing a flower crown, or the horrifying time Pinsir’s teeth stuck out of its mouth, or when I learned exactly how a Stunfisk eats a piece of fruit. Even right now as I’m writing this, I’m puzzling in my head over how to interact with a particular area in one of the later stages that surely, surely must hide some very cool moment, if I could only tease out the right combination of fruit and orbs and music and Pokémon and timing to find it. Having told myself when I started that I wouldn’t try too hard to fill my entire PhotoDex if it didn’t happen organically, New Pokémon Snap has me feeling a bit like a kid again – eager to catch ’em all.