'New Pokémon Snap' Is Predictably Cute, but Surprisingly Lifeless

A whole new world of Pokémon awaits, but please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Apr 28 2021, 1:00pm

For many Pokémon fans, the original 1999 Pokémon Snap marks a singular moment in the franchise’s history. Outside of Japan (which already had access to Pokémon Stadium), it was the first time fans were able to see their favorite Pokémon brought to life in glorious 64-bit 3D graphics. I remember being floored when I first played the opening level, seeing the Pokémon I love running around in the natural habitat, hunting, sleeping, being animals. My young mind began racing with what could be, the inevitable 3D Pokémon game that would have you encounter them out in the world, just how Ash did in the anime. 

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But the moment was not to be repeated. The mainline Pokémon games continued to use mechanics and metaphor to build a world where Pokémon were wild animals that “lived” there, but they never embodied them in the space of the game. As they made strides to personify and bring to life the individual Pokémon you captured and cared for, I still longed for more interactions with them before they’re put in a Pokéball.

Image courtesy of Nintendo.

It would be 20 years before a Pokémon game attempted to create the experience I imagined then, and with Sword and Shield I would say we got middling results. Now comes New Pokémon Snap and I admit, my expectations were pretty high: I've had 20 years to daydream about this concept, and it would be hard for any game to compare to the ones I've built-up in my head. Still, New Pokémon Snap manages to both undershoot and meet some of my expectations for a new Pokémon Snap game in 2021.

New Pokémon Snap is an on-rails, nature photography game for the Nintendo Switch. As in its predecessor, you are tasked with taking pictures of Pokémon in their natural habitat for a professor. Each map consists of a trail along which you will travel in an autonomous vehicle called the NEO-ONE, as Pokémon go about their daily lives around you. Mechanically there are few differences between this game and the original, for the most part if you played Pokémon Snap, you know what you're in for. Story wise, things are a little different this time around in that there is narrative framing in New Pokémon Snap.

Image courtesy of Nintendo.

Replacing the original Professor Oak is Professor Mirror, who runs the Laboratory of Ecology and Natural Sciences, or L.E.N.S. for short. He’s here in the Lental Region with his plucky child assistant Rita to do an ecological survey of the Pokémon living here. The region is largely untouched by modern society, and the only available scientific documentation of the wildlife is a book that’s over 100 years old. These new narrative hooks are a welcome addition to me, an elder Pokémon fan. Seeing the world of Pokémon infused with a bit more variety in the ways humans interact with Pokémon is always welcome. But as with any time creators introduce a new part of their world, it also opens up a whole new possibility space for fans to place their expectations.

Image courtesy of Nintendo.

It also opens up a world where we can go out exploring again. The last long vacation I took before the pandemic was to Yellowstone National Park, home to both stunning and unique geothermal phenomena and rare wildlife. I spent much of that vacation leaning my medium format film camera out of the side of a car, trying my best to get a shot of two Bison fighting in a cloud of dust, or a roaming black bear cub ducking behind logs before cresting a hill out of our sight. I remember being delighted to be near and around so many animals just living life while at the same time realizing that my experience of it was heavily mediated by the park’s structure. The delineation of nature and humans is strongly defined, both for nature's sake and your own. In the part of the park where I was, you aren’t supposed to leave your cars on foot or go off-roading, the idea being that if you didn't get beat up by bison or fall into a hole, you'd probably inadvertently destroy some wildlife or its home.

Screenshot courtesy of Nintendo.

New Pokémon Snap’s first map is set in a nature preserve not unlike Yellowstone, and with similar restrictions and wonders. Almost immediately I was met by Bouffalant sleeping, grazing, and otherwise minding their own business in a field. I was immediately transported back to that vacation, both the sense of being near nature and in the understanding that it was a heavily mediated space. There is no road in this Pokémon park, but there may as well have been one. There are no boundaries visible, but the horizon is often so close in that first level that it can feel like a set. While I was happy at first to see all the friends I’ve made over the past twenty years living life and being cute for my camera, there was this underlying twinge of sadness that one more bit of the fantasy of Pokémon had broken away.

The game partially redeems itself in later maps, the jungle one in particular feeling the most like you’re studying Pokémon in an undisturbed space that feels the most naturalistic. Unfortunately the game swings back and forth between these two extremes through most of the early to mid game; one level will feel like an amusement park ride where the Pokémon are there for your amusement, to dance and smile for your camera, and the next will feel like you’re getting a glimpse of a real habitat, of nature just being nature.

Screenshot courtesy of Nintendo.

The game’s new Expedition Level system helps sell the latter fantasy: each photograph you choose to show Professor Mirror is scored with a point system that takes into account the pose of the Pokémon, the direction the Pokémon is facing, how much of the frame the Pokémon takes up, and what else is in the frame. Each of these categories gets a number score that adds up to a point total. The point total for all the photos you show the professor (limited at only one per type of Pokémon) on a given run are then tallied and added to your overall Expedition Experience pool.

Once you hit a certain amount of experience you unlock the next level of that track. When a track is leveled up it represents your knowledge and time spent in that space allowing for you to notice new things. In practice it means the tracks are shuffled a bit, many of the same Pokémon are still there but will now be doing something different, and some new faces might also appear. Add to this a Night variant for each track that has its own experience pool and you get a surprising amount of variation for each track in the game. It gives even the most “amusement park” like tracks a sense of time passing that helps the game sell these habitats as habitats, even if the overall unevenness in the maps’ designs heightens how façade-like the bad ones really feel.

New Pokémon Snap is exactly what it says it is on the box. It's a novelty, and one that has the misfortune to come out a year after Umurangi Generation created a masterpiece around the act of photography. That thoughtfulness doesn't exist here. It's just Pokémon Snap, and the main draw of seeing and interacting with Pokémon in their natural habitat has been developed in many ways since it’s first iteration. 

Image courtesy of Nintendo.

At its worst it feels like I’m on an amusement ride, but at its best it transports me into a world teeming with life that is scared, bemused, annoyed, or just plain ambivalent of my existence. And what more could I want than to be completely ignored by a Pokémon, not just because the game says it should, but because that Pokémon has better things to do than smile for the camera?

Tagged:

pokémon snap, new pokemon snap

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