Nintendo’s revival of Pokémon Snap feels more interested in celebrating its own legacy than evolving or taking any steps forward. Consequently what emerges is fairly harmless, but not especially exciting.
When the original Pokémon Snap came out in 1999 for the Nintendo 64, it felt more like a showcase of current technology than anything else. Until that point, Pokémon had been limited to generic cartoons, flat pixel cut-outs and tableaus frozen on trading cards. No longer, said Pokémon Snap. Now you could properly see them, be in their world from a first-person perspective! It was like you were there! Well, sort of. By the standards of 1999.
So when the follow-up game was announced, I was rather surprised. Why now? Why this? The technological-bragging angle of the original is completely laughable when the Switch barely feels more powerful than a PS3 at the best of times, and the idea of “Pokémon in the real world” is far less sexy these days when people are wandering around with whole generations trapped inside their mobile phone with AR functionality.
Clearly New Pokémon Snap would have to rebuild itself from brass tacks to feel anything like as impactful. It would have to look at its core premise and reimagine it from the ground up, rebuild it in a new vision, to make us fall in love with Pokémon Snap again and to make the critters feel more real than ever. But it didn’t, so it doesn’t, so they don’t. That’s the blinding power of Nintendo nostalgia for you, I suppose.
An Odd Perspective
It baffles me because it seemed like the first step was completely obvious - give us free control to explore as we want. The original game was a rail-shooter that replaced the usual gun with a camera, having you take National Geographic photoshoots instead of gunning things down. Admittedly, it could feel a bit like House of the Dead seen through TF2 Pyrovision, but that was the best anybody could do with the limitations of the late 1990s. But the rail-shooter fixed-path approach is still very much in effect over two decades later, and the results are… difficult to enjoy.
Once you start a mission in New Pokémon Snap, you’re locked into a slow-rolling rollercoaster ride where Pokémon spring up and fall around about you, prancing through fields, jumping through the treetops, the dance of nature in full (and slightly overwhelming) effect. You have no control over your car beyond the occasional choice to take a divergent, equally-predetermined path, so levels can’t really feel explorative. Instead, your role is to swivel in place like an overworked security camera, trying to take photos of all the gurning, cutesy wildlife gambolling about in the undergrowth.
The score you get all depends on the quality of photos… at least in theory. There’s a slightly over-complex, under-explained system where the rarity of subject matter and the composition of the photo are scored entirely differently, but I found it all rather arbitrary and inconsistent. Sometimes I’d get a magnificent shot of a sunset-framed Lapras that would make Jacques Cousteau weep in furious envy, yet the game would just shrug and toss me a participation award. Other times I’d get a blurry shot of Pinsir’s arm and get showered with Pulitzers on my return. This inconsistency is hardly a small issue. The game is pretty much based around this system, so it’s like a racing game where first prize is sometimes handed out at random.
In retrospect, inconsistency really is the problem through and through. For example, you’re given some power to prompt reactions from the wildlife for better results and photo opportunities. Playing music, offering food, zapping them with special orbs, these can sometimes trigger special behaviour from the little critters that makes for a more interesting photograph, as well as being the closest the game gets to standard puzzles. But not enough info is given on how to provoke these reactions, so I don’t feel like I’m doing much in the way of deduction. It just devolves into doing everything at once and seeing which one is the magic button that makes Grookey tap-dance or Bidoof play the kazoo. Some Pokémon will be lured in by fruit or wake up for music, while others just won’t. There’s no consistent logic or way to find out beyond just randomly spamming all the buttons.
But fine, I won’t say there’s nothing fun about playing Pokémon Snap. Entering a new level for the first time can have a certain charm, seeing all the unique reactions and exaggerated life cycles play out around you. Sometimes there’s even nice flickers of humour, like the panicked, flailing expression on a Magikarp beached in shallow water, or the thrill of seeing a vast Wailord rise to the surface and put you briefly in the shade.
That’s the sad reality; I like this world and I like being in it, I just wish I could do more, and feel like I’m exploring it and interacting with it on any meaningful level. What we have is just Jurassic Park if none of the dinosaurs escaped. Endearing and briefly entertaining, but hardly involving. It’s made worse when you realise all these epic vignettes are pre-baked and occur every time, quickly stripping them of their power. Oh, they’re all just animatronics. I’m not wandering through a wild, natural world, I’m at Chuck-E-Cheese.
Beyond that, the whole thing just feels a little undercooked. The graphics feel a bit rough, especially for a game based on looking at things in close detail, and in the case of your NPC support characters, they’re firmly rooted in the uncanny valley. The story threading everything together can’t even summon the effort to feel convincingly excited, and the legendary Pokémon that briefly show up feel like they’re just here for a paycheck until their agent can get them into something better. At one point the damn game even made me play the same undersea level five times in a row before it would let me get to the next campaign step. Clearly, this was a product in need of some refinement.
When I take a step back, I feel I’m being slightly harsher on Pokémon Snap than it deserves. It’s not that it’s bad, there’s just a general absence of good. The truth is that there’s something fundamentally missing here, a lack of recognition in what would make a game like this exciting (at least for anybody who isn’t a ferocious Pokéfanatic).
Despite all the trappings and anime flourish, Pokémon are still animals at the core, and with that needs to be wildness and unpredictability. They need to surprise us, to elude us, to approach us, even to annoy us at times, because that’s what makes it feel authentic. We all hate running through the long grass and getting jumped by a wild Pokémon attack in the last half-inch before safety, but that is a plausibly wild event. A pigeon flying into your head is something that happens in nature, for better and worse.
A dog might put his face on your lap or a puddle on the carpet. But by stripping the Pokémon of anything that feels organic, Nintendo has effectively made its critters feel like wind-up toys, removing the romanticism and mystique that should always come through witnessing raw, unbridled nature.
They took these untamed lands and tamed them before we even got there. Unfortunately, the resultant game is as exciting as you’d imagine.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.