It's been 22 years since Pokemon Snap released on Nintendo 64 and there's now a New version for Switch so let's check it out.
To put this review in perspective, I first played New Pokémon Snap about 5 minutes after beating Dark Souls for the first time ever. After a 3 day grind of having my butt handed to me by that game, I finally beat it and decided I was ready for a Pokémon vacation. So, I dusted off my Switch and entered the world of Pokémon. Of all the gaming transitions I have ever made, this surely caused the most whiplash. Anyway, I expected a pleasant and perhaps even addictive romp through a new region with the freedom to observe and snap as many Pokémon as I saw fit. However, I was met with a disappointing and outdated iteration of a '90s spin-off.
Don't get me wrong; I am a huge Pokémon fan, grew up with the games, and even played the original Pokemon Snap as a kid. It was one of my earliest memories; cramped in my friend's bedroom with both of our brothers all snapping cute pics of fat Pikachu (by the way, I really miss fat Pikachu). Those were good times because who doesn't love watching magical fighting critters roll around in their home turf? This might be Pokémon at its most wholesome and the only time they weren't used as military-grade bioweapons.
The concept of Pokémon Snap is very simple; it's an on-rails photography game where you have a certain amount of film to take photos of Pokémon with. Then, Professor Mirror (bad name) ranks these based on a few categories and you get points to unlock new areas and times of day that you can go shooting. This model may have worked fine in the N64 days but today, it feels ridiculously shallow.
The most glaring issue with New Pokemon Snap is its lack of variety. The typical level takes you through a 5 minute tour of an area where you inspect the terrain for Pokémon exhibiting the most interesting behavior. You can sometimes draw out these behaviors by throwing apples or magical balls of light that are unique to the Lintel region but I found that 60% of the time, this doesn't work. The rails move very slowly and there are long patches in every level where nothing interesting goes on. Sometimes, there are even patches without any Pokémon. The feeling of replaying the same levels with the same slow sections where you simply have to wait for your vehicle to get to a populated region is tedious at best. The fact that every moment of an on-rails Pokémon game is not absolutely filled with interesting and beautiful stuff to take in around every corner is a huge misstep, especially seeing as it's so curated and controlled.
The next issue is that it makes you replay these molasses-like levels many, many times. In order to unlock new areas such as the volcanic islands or ocean floor, you'll have to replay the same park or forest area about 5 times. Since the Pokémon don't change their behaviours in these areas unless you play them enough to unlock a new time of day, progression ends up being exceptionally taxing and dull.
One smaller issue is New Pokemon Snap's story. Obviously, you can ignore the story and play without reading any of the dialogue. Still, I usually find cutscenes to be a relaxing break from a game's structure. However, New Pokemon Snap is inconsistent as to which scenes have full voice acting. There is also no autoplay option to skip through dialogue when it's finished so you are left to manually read and click through the shallowest and most boring Pokemon story ever written. The reason I complain about this is that with such a dull gameplay loop, the forced reading of a bad story feels almost insulting considering this is being marketed as a full gaming experience.
I understand that New Pokemon Snap is targeted towards children and just because adults love and enjoy Pokémon games, it doesn't mean that they have to be made for us. However, that doesn't mean kids should be left with games that are this slow and unvaried. I believe that somewhere inside New Pokemon Snap are the bones for a good game and I wish the devs took their concepts a lot further. When you're in a level for the first time and taking photos of Pokémon, it can feel pretty good but this feeling ends as soon as you reach a slow spot or you've completed that level even once. By simply adding more Pokémon with interesting interactions as well as making their behaviour vary each time you play a level, most of the tedium that plagues New Pokémon Snap would have disappeared.
Another solution might be taking the game off-rails entirely. When I first saw the trailer, I hoped that it would involve exploring areas on foot and taking pictures from different angles. This, coupled with some kind of upgrade system or shop, would have made for a much more fulfilling and modern experience. Instead, it feels more like a remake of a title that hasn't aged well.
I will say that I have a soft spot for the atmosphere and aesthetic of New Pokémon Snap and they really nailed the environments and the Pokémon as well as a lot of the animations. Watching a Cacnea get picked up by a sandstorm and snapping a photo as it sails through the sky is nothing short of adorable. Lining up the perfect shot for the chubby rendition of Bidoof swimming in the river was charming, too. I'll also say that the photo editing and sharing features are a nice touch as they allow you to spruce up your photos for your friends.
Pokémon Snap left me in a worried state for the franchise. Between Pokémon Legends: Arceus and the Gen IV remake coming up, I had high hopes. Now, it feels like the developers have lulled themselves into an outdated and boring pattern of game design. In other words, there is a lot to love in the new generation of Pokémon but unfortunately, there's a lot to be skeptical about as well.
- + Adorable Pokémon and beautifully rendered environments
- + Photo editing and sharing add personality
- + Lovely atmosphere and animations
- - Replaying levels quickly becomes more of a chore than a delight
- - Pacing is exceptionally slow
- - Very little sense of progression