Everybody loves a nostalgia trip. It’s the reason why I went to a few university costume parties dressed as Ash from Pokemon (surprisingly, the ladies were not interested in my garb).
And it’s the reason why I freaked out when New Pokémon Snap got a surprise announcement back in June 2020. It took me back to my primary school days (high school to those in America), flocking to my mate’s house every Friday to fire up the N64 and snap the best possible pictures of Charizard in the volcano.
But nostalgia can be cruel. It’s a feeling that is so often used to create poor remakes or cheap imitations of the source. The 2010 version of Goldeneye 007 still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
So now is the time to judge Pokémon Snap, a spiritual sequel to the 1999 original, in the harsh light. Is the new game new or is it just another cash-in on nostalgia?
I want to snap the very best
The story casts you as a researcher who has travelled to the Lental region to help document the Illumina phenomenon (something that is causing Pokémon in the region to glow). This journey takes you across a variety of islands, where you examine the local Pokémon and their ecosystems by (yep, you guessed it) taking photos of them to eventually uncover the secrets behind Illumina.
It is a simple narrative for sure, but one that is good at tying your actions together, and it’s an excuse for Bandai Namco to show off the visual feast it cooked up for your enjoyment.
New Pokémon Snap looks gorgeous. Every level is dripping with atmosphere during day or night, from the deeply colorful palettes popping off the screen to the interaction between Pokémon in these intricately designed levels; it is something you learn to appreciate as you move slowly through each area in your NEO-ONE vehicle.
Yes, being an on-rails game afforded the team a chance to go in hard on making your immediate surroundings look as good as possible, and the team has done exactly that by making the game run at a solid 60 frames per second. That framerate is a little shaky when in handheld mode, but it stays nice and fluid most of the time.
This pairs well with audio production that seems simple on the face of it, especially when you hear the menu soundtrack over and over again. But levels are a multi-sensory experience, where you have to listen for particular audio cues from hidden Pokemon, and the sound effects engross you in the world. It culminates in a world that feels lived in that you can’t wait to dip back into and find out more about, see more secret interactions, and take in more of the ambiance.
Take this as a fair warning, though. The lure music you pick up for your camera will be stuck in your head like a commercial jingle for years to come.
The core goal beyond the story is nearly identical to the original Snap: take photos of all 200+ Pokemon and fill up the Photodex for Professor Mirror. The way you achieve that goal remains the same too; that is, by using a series of luring items and a camera that doubles as your ID badge, communications device, and music player capable of storing only 60 photos (we’d probably give hardware like that a bad rating).
Like no game ever was
Doing this is a joy most of the time. The controls are simple with extra complexities just when you’ve got the hang of things for an ever-evolving challenge. Photo taking is snappy, the reward system is easy to understand, and the levels themselves manage to keep things interesting.
By “interesting,” I take you back to my primary school playground, where the real attraction of the game started to shine. Morning conversations between games of tag would involve sharing any secret routes or Pokemon behaviours to capture through a convoluted series of interactions. This nugget of greatness still exists in the game and discovering these moments for yourself feels genuinely surprising.
However, there are a couple of problems. First of all, camera movements are just far too slow. You can quickly rotate using directional buttons, but as the Pokémon go about their day and move past you, the default movement speed actively works against you having a fun time. Luckily, this can be customised and I recommend turning up the camera and cursor movement to the maximum setting.
And the motion controls, like many motion-controlled Switch games, are a no-go. You’ll try them for a couple of minutes then and never use them again.
To capture them is my real test
To fill out your Photodex, you have four categories of shots to capture of each Pokemon, from common one-star pictures, all the way up to rare four-star opportunities. On the face of it, this sounds a bit like a grind, but it really helps provide an engaging challenge to repeat levels, memorise paths and behavioural patterns, and improve your score.
That’s because every rare moment captured and every diamond-rated photo taken feels earned, giving you a euphoric feeling that you will strive to achieve again.
Plus, while the number of levels may seem small on paper, each route has multiple levels revealing different Pokemon and challenges, which gives the game much more depth and longevity than expected.
That said, the rating system can feel random at times. For example, here are two identical pictures of Braviary, but the game’s algorithm scored them pretty differently. Most of the time it’s fine, and provided you get the Pokémon in the centre of the frame, you’ll be rewarded. But it can get arbitrary and confusing in its decision-making.
The pacing slows down in the middle of the story, as it becomes more about replaying levels rather than making any real progression. If you get stuck, there are requests for specific pictures with tips that give you direction and an indication of whether you are really moving forward.
To share them is my cause
Photo modes found within modern games have a lot to thank Pokémon Snap for. That feels weird to say, but it’s true if you really think about it.
So, it's only fair that New Pokémon Snap takes a few notes from the best photo modes out there and uses them to add another dimension of creativity. It all starts with saving and re-snapping.
This gives you the ability to reframe your shots and edit them to your heart’s content, from making more granular tweaks, like focus alterations, to bigger, more social media-friendly changes like adding stickers and frames.And speaking of social media, New Snap goes one step further and offers in-game network features, giving you the chance to share your creations and rate other players’ photos.
On the face of it, these features can be viewed as skin deep. However, uploading photos to get reactions from others and feeling like a part of the community transforms the experience by adding an extra layer of interaction.
Moreover, you can use the global leaderboards for friendly competitive photography. Each of these additions are integrated deeply enough into the game that they don’t feel like tacked on social elements like you get in many games nowadays.
A testament to that social element is that, after playing this game for a few days, my partner and I have already racked up 500 saved photos.
As I said before, everybody loves a nostalgia trip, and through that lens, New Pokémon Snap is one of the best.
This is an unashamedly reminiscent experience that takes the core elements of its 22-year-old predecessor and expands them to make for a more in-depth, longer-lasting experience with the power to surprise and delight.
Don’t get me wrong, it comes with some of the same problems this unique formula suffered from before, from clunky controls to the arbitrary photo ratings. New Snap will not win over people who didn’t enjoy the original. And to newcomers — if a slow on-rails game where you take photos of fictional animals doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, this is not for you.
But if you like Pokémon and want a relaxing and addictive experience, Snap is exactly that and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To those who have been waiting patiently for over two decades for a sequel, like myself, trust me when I say you will not be disappointed.