So We Ride Again...To Another End...
I was fully prepared for New Pokémon Snap to phone it in. Its predecessor for the N64 is regarded as highly as it is almost purely through nostalgia; it’s an alright game, but limited in action, repetitive, and short. It was fine for what it was, a quick Pokémon photo-taking game that most likely existed just to make money off those Blockbuster photo printing kiosks, but in 2021 there needed to be something else, right? After all, it’s been nearly twenty-two years since the original released, and fans have been pleading for a new entry for as long as I can remember. With a dated foundation, two decades of hype, and the general frustration of Pokémon games in recent years, it’s a welcome surprise that New Pokémon Snap absolutely knocks it out of the park and lives up to everything people wanted it to be.
The core mechanics of New Pokémon Snap are the same. You’re riding around themed areas filled with Pokémon Creatures, setting up shots and interacting with the wildlife from the comfort of your on-rails machine, called the NEO-ONE. Pretty much every item from the N64 original returns, save for pester balls, which have been deemed (understandably) too cruel. They also make a point to mention that the fruit you’re tossing is “soft and doesn’t hurt the Pokémon”, which I don’t buy, but whatever keeps PETA out of Game Freak’s mentions, I guess. The one item that confused me, the music, seemingly doesn’t do very much in this game. They claim it’ll help get Pokémon’s attention or wake them up, but I don’t think I ever used it outside the tutorial. It wasn’t a game breaker, but it was more odd than anything.
These items are but one aspect of the way New Pokémon Snap handles progression. Same as before, You unlock both new stages and new items as you play, allowing you to unlock new interactions with new Pokémon. This was what I expected out of the sequel, a straight copy-paste of what Pokémon Snap was in 1999, with prettier graphics and more monsters. Bandai Namco didn’t rest on their laurels, however, and ended up adding simple evolutions to the formula that both greatly extend the playtime of the game and expand the amount of actually rewarding interaction the player can have with each level, blowing way past my own expectations.
Each map now has a “research level” which rises as you take pictures, with the score on each shot raising it over time. As the level rises, the Pokémon “feel more comfortable with you” and will do different things, or new Pokémon will appear on the map. This fixes one of the main flaws of the original Snap, in that once you played through a level, replaying it to get better shots felt like a slog, since it was the same route with the same interactions. This time, while it’s the same background, replaying levels will net you new animations, making those replays scouring for new pictures far more exciting.
On top of that, another new mechanic, the picture rating system, alleviates even more of the slog. Pictures will now also be rated on a four-star system, which doesn’t actually tie to the quality of the image itself. Instead, the ranking is associated with the “quality” of interaction the Pokémon has, giving you four separate rankings per Pokémon. One-star shots are usually the Pokémon in a neutral pose, and higher ranks are given to more difficult to see poses. You can absolutely score a high number of points on a picture of Pikachu just standing there if it’s shot well, and score poorly on a shot of a Pokémon unleashing a sweet attack. It makes those initial “feeling things out” runs of levels still worth the trip.
Rolling through each level is a treat, as there’s always something new and cute to see. Pokémon interact with each other, the environment, and the player in ways I never thought I’d see, and having such high-quality models for the creatures adds a ton. Sure, in the mainline titles I don’t need Kangaskhan to have every single polygon ever, but here it helps, and the art direction of each stage accentuates the excursion. The human characters look kind of off, but you’re not looking at them much. Professor Mirror’s a bit of a freaky lookin’ guy, but whatever, he’s just gonna be in the corner saying “wow!!!” every once in a while.
Another new addition are Illumina Pokémon, which are a sort of boss Pokémon that have entire levels based around them. They’re big, glowing, and usually need to be interacted with in specific ways to get pictures of them that count. A few of these challenges are fun, such as the underwater level where you must get a group of Wishiwashi to school so you can get proper photos of its larger form. However, a standout frustrator is the Volcarona level, which straight up doesn’t tell you how it works until you run through it a second time. You can accidentally figure it out (you need to hit it with apples twice in a row, even though there’s nothing showing the first shot did anything!!) but I went through once without doing that, and I felt like a moron on my second run. I do wish the game explained puzzles through context clues or by showing things in the environment instead of having the humans tell you! There aren’t any major flaws like this in any other stage, and even if there are small frustrations with the normal Pokémon, it’s quickly glossed over as you swiftly move on to the next photo op.
We did lose a few things in the transition that are a bit of a shame, such as making Pokémon evolve through interaction. There’s not as big a “wow” moment like the first time you see Charizard in this one, but there’s still lots of great, small interactions between the monsters and their environment that brought a smile to my face. I’d say New Snap is more of a “death by a thousand cuts” sort of game here, except in a positive way: life by a thousand cute Pokémon.
New Pokémon Snap feels modern:a full-fledged game instead of the cheap theme park ride of the original. There are more goals to achieve, more fleshed out ways Pokémon can act, and a far more enjoyable experience overall. This is exactly what Pokemon Snap should be in 2021, and legitimizes the spin off as its own thing instead of a nostalgic experience with no real meat on its bones. There are small issues here and there, but overall this is a fantastic update to a game that was carried on nostalgia alone. This entry can safely stand on its own as a solid video game.