Did you own a Nintendo 64? No? Me neither. I suspect many South Africans were in the same boat. And that really sucks, because as the years have passed, generally people seem to look back on the console and its games with great fondness. Happily, the Switch’s recent success has meant that we’ve not only been able to see one or two ports of those older iconic titles but, now, even a brand new sequel for one of the N64s most unique ones… Yes, Nintendo’s take on a first-person, on-rails, family-friendly [photography] shooter, Pokémon Snap, gets the *NEW* tag and finds its way onto the modern hybrid console some 20 years after the original. And thankfully, if you decide to take the trip, you likely be smiling most of the way through your trip around the islands of the Lental region.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest Pokémon fan. Of course, when I was younger and the original Gameboy games and accompanying animated TV series hit our shores – like everyone else my age – I was rather keen. However, over the years I really lost touch with the series. In fact, baring Charmander, Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Squirtle and some of the rest of Gen 1, these days I can’t even name too many. That being said, I was really interested in checking this particular game out. Let’s be honest, in many ways this is THE Pokémon game for non-Pokémon fans. This is not about battling or matching types or even strategically setting up the perfect team. Instead, it’s a photographic safari. And at a time when dealing with serious issues and staying at home has become a reality – some digital exploration taking photos of cute creatures in a fantasy world seemed like a pretty fun way of spending some downtime. And happily (on the whole) on that front New Pokémon Snap delivers.
…in many ways this is THE Pokémon game for non-Pokémon fans.
You’re introduced as the new bright, young photographer tasked by Professor Mirror to take pictures of Pokémon in the Lental Region and, in particular, help the Professor’s team investigate the Illumina phenomenon that makes some of the local ‘fauna’ glow. Sure, that probably doesn’t sound like a story that will inspire the next great novel – but it’s just interesting enough to keep you happily snapping along from one place to the next. I enjoyed the variety of locations not only because it freshens things up on every new trip, but having jungles, deserts, ice and fire-themed islands also work perfectly with the different Pokémon types. And, while it’s rather satisfying to take that ‘perfect photo’ of almost every Pokémon because they’re all rather adorable, even a Pokémon noob like myself couldn’t help but be swept up in the nostalgia of capturing the familiar favourites as they chomped on a fluffruit (a Poképple if you will) or struck a pose with a friend. And while some may find all the cuteness a little cheesy – I couldn’t help but smile along the way.
In every area, you jump into a kind of safari-hover-car and move along a pre-determined path. The only movement you’re in control of (at least early on) is slowly swivelling around in the vehicle – looking around to find Pokémon and trying to capture them doing something unique. On each run, the Pokémon behave in the same way and so the more runs you make, the better you get at knowing when and where to look. Now, as someone who didn’t play the original and who doesn’t play shooters in general, the old-school ‘on-the-rails’ mechanic took me a bit of time to come to grips with. At first, I wanted the ability to reverse, to speed up and slow down. I felt like I didn’t have the time I wanted on each run. I wanted a longer trip.
…the game is really designed for you to take your time and it’s rather fun and calming.
However, I came to realise that the game is really designed for you to take your time. In fact, once you accept the chilled nature of the game – returning to a specific area and getting ready to get that perfect shot makes for a surprisingly engaging gameplay loop. And as your picture scores rack up – you’ll learn new ways to interact with the Pokémon and make them change their behaviour and even unlock alternate paths and new areas. And this slower pace exploration and not be able to control everything, something I sort of fought against at first, turned out to be rather fun and calming when it got the balance right.
Camera shake & lens flareon
Of course, the relaxed nature and the comforting repeated trips is a double-edged sword. And even though I eventually got used to and even enjoyed revisiting areas, occasionally I did feel that urge to speed things up. This is probably most evident in the additional challenges; Along the way, the host of characters you meet will give you special tasks like getting a shot of a Scorbunny doing a fiery backflip. Great, in principle, right? Frustratingly, I didn’t find the way to access the requests very intuitive. So what often happened was me completing a trip and realising afterwards I had missed getting the right photo and would have to go back again. I suspect this will lead to quite a bit of annoyance – especially for any 100%ers out there. And then of course – we have the actual photo rating system itself…
I found the whole mechanic of rating your photos a little arbitrary and occasionally even needlessly repetitive.
After every little tour of an area, you show your photos to the Professor. Each photo is given a star classification ranging from one to four stars (the more unique the shot, the higher the star rating). The Prof will then give your snap a point-score based on a variety of parameters like how well the Pokémon is positioned, how far away it is etc. Unfortunately, I found the whole mechanic of rating your photos a little arbitrary and occasionally even needlessly repetitive. For example, as far as I could work out, the Professor would only rate one photo per Pokémon per trip. So that means even if you got photos from multiple star ratings you had to choose one and then make another trip. Also, while the AI is generally not bad – sometimes my best photos got really low scores, while less impressive ones racked up the points. You can save any photos you like, however, to your own album. Later you can spruce them up with borders and stickers and the like and even post them online to be rated. I’m sure some people will spend ages enjoying this feature. And while I can see the appeal, after playing around with it a bit I didn’t really feel that enticed to spend too much more time on it myself.
One of the other gripes I had was how weak the audio was in general. The voice clips (English and Japanese are available) are so soft you can barely hear them at times – and only chime in for the first words in each speech. The music gets repetitive quite quickly too and I could’ve done without either. On the nit-picky side of things – I also didn’t care for some of the later game sections, including some of the newer-gen Pokémon (sorry fans). Also, I’m pretty sure I had a bug that didn’t open up an alternate path in the camp area – which didn’t stop me from finishing up the story but did bum me out because it stopped me from being able to explore everything. I tried to look online and couldn’t find anyone else with this issue though, so hopefully, it’s something specific to my playthrough.
A good Bulb(asaur) Mode
So, how does the New Pokémon Snap look when you’ve developed the film, rinsed it and hanged it up to dry? (Ah?… Yup – photography jargon). Well, it’s not likely to rank in many people’s greatest all-time lists. However, in a world filled with dark, serious and often rather violent games it’s kinda great to find a cutesy, calming and mostly charming change of pace even as someone who wasn’t the biggest fan of the pocket monster motley crew. And while there are a few small irritating scratches on the final image, now, during a time that we’re all still staying home a lot, I have to admit that it was rather fun to play a game that reminded me of the joys of a simple South African safari from the comfort of my couch.