It’s the early 2000’s. Friday after school, my mum picks up my sister and I and tells us she can’t be bothered cooking dinner tonight. We look at each other, excitement in our eyes. We knew we were going to every child’s favourite restaurant, McDonald’s. Our exhilaration didn’t come from knowing we’d be snacking on some nuggets soon, or playing with this month’s Happy Meal toys. We knew our local Macca’s had the greatest thing of all. A Nintendo 64 game kiosk with a copy of Pokémon Snap. We’d scoff down our food and run off to get our hands on the game. We’d marvel at Pikachu riding his surfboard, or at the Charizard emerging from lava, happily snapping as many photos as we can. When it was time to leave we’d beg mum for just one more go and on the car ride home I’d pretend to take photos of my favourite Pocket Monsters running alongside us. Now, decades later, those memories I thought lost have come back to me in a flurry and that childlike wonder has been reignited, as New Pokémon Snap is brought to the Nintendo Switch.
When New Pokémon Snap was announced back in June of 2020, I was smiling ear to ear. Not only had these childhood memories come back to me, I saw so many new Pokémon in the trailer, I didn’t know how to react. The original title only utilised first generation Pokémon, I was in awe wondering what developer Bandai Namco could do with eight generations and over 900 different species to choose from. I was struck with its beauty and its potential. I just hoped that it would be a sequel that not only recaptured the charm of the original, but elevated it in such a way that fans new and old could celebrate the wonderful world of Pokémon. And thankfully, it has.
After selecting your appearance, New Pokémon Snap immediately introduces you to the Lental Region, an assortment of islands currently being researched by Proffesor Mirror and his assistants. The Professor gives you a camera, basic training and before you know it you're taking photos of a wide variety of Pokémon in their natural habitat. I was surprised to see the game had a story to tell, simple as it may be. The crux of Mirror’s research is around the Illumina phenomenon, a mysterious occurrence that causes Pokémon to glow in vibrant and beautiful ways. As Lental’s newest research photographer, you’re tasked in investigating how this marvel occurs and what’s triggering it.
The serviceable plot does a good job in placing you in the mindset for what the game has you do. As you explore deep jungles, frozen mountains and even the ocean floor, environmental storytelling continuously adds to the mystery of the Lental Region in a way that doesn't distract from the core gameplay. Progressing through the game introduces you to new characters, tools and even ‘boss’ encounters that are usually accompanied by voice acted cut scenes. All this is to say that the game does a great job in building a Pokémon world that is familiar but has its own little charms that have you excited to see what comes next. Along with the core story to progress through, New Pokémon Snap introduces a request system, where the Professor and his assistants ask you to take specific and often stylish photos. Getting these photos can be tricky, but snapping them is the most satisfying part of the game as they just ooze personality. Although it doesn’t take long to complete the main story, it is so incredibly stuffed with over 200 Pokémon to see, just as many requests to complete and dozens of secrets to find, that the game has a remarkable amount of replayability.
When you begin your journey you are equipped with the camera and have only one biome to explore. After every on-rails adventure, you are asked to select one photo per Pokémon species to present to the Professor, where he then assesses each photo, giving out a 1-4 star rating and a research point score. Completing the ‘Photodex’ requires a photo of each star rating for each Pokémon, which may sound like a lot of work but happens surprisingly rapidly as you unlock more tools to use and biomes to explore. The point score you get on each run helps to progress you through the game. Getting enough points levels up the research score of that route, with each upgrade changing the route slightly. New Pokémon appear, branching paths can be found and behaviours change. Leveling up biomes also unlock night cycles and new biomes altogether, with new things to see either way.
Eventually you’ll unlock each island's unique Illumina Spot. These routes act as the game’s ‘boss’ encounters, having you follow a large Pokémon that is overflowing with the Illumina phenomenon. These stages create opportunities to take gorgeous photos and progress the main story along. It can be very grindy to improve these courses' research levels but they offer some of the more challenging and beautiful moments in the game. It’s a magical feeling not knowing what's around the corner each time you unlock something new.
Improving your research scores also unlock new tools to help along your journey. The Flufffruit can lure Pokémon out to eat, Illumina Orbs light up special plants and make Pokémon react in unique ways and the Melody tool can be played to wake up sleeping creatures or even make them dance. These tools are unlocked fairly quickly and are necessary to get Pokémon to behave in a certain way to complete research requests. There are lulls in the game’s pacing here and there as you grind to improve research scores, but nothing so terrible that I got bored. In fact, the huge variety in Pokémon to snap and behaviours to trigger meant I continuously saw new things well after completing the main story.
There's a lot to love with each photography journey, but it doesn’t stop once your photos have been graded. After completing a level, the new ‘Re-Snap’ feature allows you to edit your snap in a photo mode. You can adjust the placement of the photo, add stickers, filters, borders or whatever you like before saving them to your console or even uploading them to social media. These edited photos don't affect your overall score and you can unlock more editing tools by completing requests.
The modern Pokémon video game franchise has not been shy of criticism of its visual design. Stiff battle animations, empty fields to explore and a general lack of creative liberty have weighed down recent games like Pokémon Sword and Shield. I’m extremely pleased to see that this isn't the case with New Pokémon Snap. The game is quite simply the best looking Pokémon game I’ve ever played. The environments are lush with detail and personality. Translucent water shows off rich reefs on the seafloor. The jungles are filled with vibrant foliage moving with the creatures that inhabit it. Pokémon lit with the Illumina orbs shine amongst crystals, blizzards and plumes of lava. Each environment has been lovingly crafted and takes full advantage of the Nintendo Switch’s hardware, looking great and running fantastically in both docked and handheld mode.
The greatest praise I can give the game as a long time Pokémon fan is that the monsters behave in a way we’ve never seen before in a video game. Mantine flies through the air before crashing into the ocean. Bidoof scurry past with sticks and twigs for their dam. Squirtle blows bubbles into the air and Piplup slides over the ice. These creatures all are active and reactive in this world, their personalities shining through and behaviours constantly changing depending on how you interact with them, or even how they interact with each other. Its so refreshing to see Pokémon actually act like Pokémon.
I greedily wish there was more to see. Despite being a packed game, there are notable Pokémon like Gyarados and Snorlax, missing. It’s only a minor gripe as the game is ripe for DLC. The potential for new biomes and new Pokémon being added to the game is limitless and I would love to sink more time into this engaging and delightful world.
The sound design in New Pokémon Snap is fairly average. While the Pokémon themselves sound great and hearing each react to the Melody tool as you move from location to location is intriguing, it’s a shame that the rest of the game’s score is serviceable at best. Pokémon is known to have some incredible overworld and battle themes and unfortunately that same level of quality isn't here. It’s not bad, just forgettable, I wish it was utilised better to elevate the game's immersion. In any case, the score never detracts from sounds of the creatures and environments around you, which are quite polished.
There are a tonne of things to do and see in New Pokémon Snap. Pokémon fans looking for battles or a deep story won’t find it here, but what they will find is a spin-off that captures the nuances, charisma, beauty and life of Pokémon. Simple and accessible mechanics and a deep, creative level design allows any amatuer photographer to get lost for hours in this world. A bevy of unlockables, challenges and cute moments will keep you playing long after the story ends. Despite some pacing issues, a weak score and notable absences from the roster, New Pokémon Snap not only resparks the magic of its predecessor, but serves as a celebration of 25 years of Pokémon.
So, why should you play it?
You love Pokémon!
You enjoy taking cute photos.
You get excited over unlockables, secrets and surprises.
Looking for a relaxing game you can play for hours or in short bursts.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
You play Pokémon for battles and action.
You get bored with repetition.
You don’t like Pokémon.
James is a writer, voice actor and absolute dork who is as passionate about making puns as he is about video games. From Melbourne, Australia, when he's not playing Dungeons and Dragons or rocking out at karaoke, you can usually find him engaged in some kind of story.