Friday, July 19, 2024

‘New Pokémon Snap’ Finally Explores New Horizons For The Franchise

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Maybe it’s the first glimpse of a holographic illustration as you flip through a freshly opened pack of cards. The first buzz of your cell phone as you arrive in a new place, signaling new and exciting Pokémon to catch nearby. Or maybe it’s the first little digitized cries of a new game’s starter Pokémon that get your heart racing. The incredible thing about the Pokémon franchise is that magical moments are everywhere. And perhaps even more special is that these moments cater to all sorts of personalities, find their ways into the hearts of collectors, explorers, and cute-seeking animal lovers alike.

With that being said, Pokémon fans have become increasingly hesitant to buy into franchise’s videogame series over the past decade. It’s been twenty-five years since the launch of Pokémon Red & Blue in the 1996, ingenious games that paired the concepts of pet-ownership and team combat. While this idea took several games to perfect, the series was always anchored in enchanting character designs, wonderful music, and a simple battle system that nevertheless allowed for customizable strategy based on which Pokémon you chose to capture, train and battle with. When you won a hard-fought battle, it often felt like you won alongside your Pokémon. You’d have gone on a journey with friends of your own choosing and overcome the odds to come out on top.

After the remarkably challenging and story-oriented Pokémon Platinum & Pokémon Black/White entries, which to many remain a peak within the series (alongside Crystal and Emerald before them), Pokémon games began to shift. They became generally easier, dominated by hand-holding gameplay and limply written cutscenes with forgettable characters. This culminated in Sword & Shield, entries whose graphics and general game format were so uninspiring that many die-hard Pokémon fans in my circle abandoned the game midway through. Especially compared to the awe-inspiring entries that were flooding the Nintendo Switch around the same time, Sword & Shield feels like the sort of massive disappointment you sometimes forget a major franchise is capable of making. Even with the release of universally appreciated DLC for the game, it was clear that something had to change.

New Pokémon Snap could not have come at a better time.

Two beaver pokemon - Bidoof - stumble across the path of the player, waiting to be photographed.
From the beginning of the first level, New Pokémon Snap offers cute creatures galore. It’s your job to make the memories last a lifetime.

The idea behind the first Pokémon Snap, which was released over two decades ago, was that you’d ride along a route through a Pokémon-inhabited stretch of wilderness. Essentially, it was a digital photo-taking safari ride featuring Pokémon instead of animals. There were five levels, each featuring different Pokémon and environments. You’d ride through each level while snapping away, also throwing apples and ‘pester balls’ to get reactions out of Pokémon for more interesting shots. At the end of each ride, your photos would be judged to generate a score. You could also go print out your digital pictures in real-life establishments like Blockbuster, may it rest in peace, to keep for yourself or share with friends.

A screenshot of the game's photo editing system, demonstrating how players can layer stickers on top of the photos they take.  The given picture shows a flower pokemon surrounded by heart stickers.
The game’s surprisingly deep photo editing system offers everything from technical adjustments – like filters and cropping – to fun stickers and frames.

These core ideas are back with New Pokémon Snap, except that literally everything is upgraded to the extent that one would hope. Graphically, the game is delightful – absolutely leagues ahead of Sword & Shield. It’s still entrenched in the cartoon simplicity that the series is known for, but the coloring and animation of the environment – and the creatures within it – make it easy to get lost in the game and forget its more mechanical aspects. Yes, some of the creatures will act the same way when you re-ride through an environment, but it rarely feels like a drag because everything’s just so pleasant to look at.

Oh, and the repetition? New Pokémon Snap puts so many tools at your disposal that no ride is really the same. First of all, each track levels up over time, with Pokémon acting differently in each level. You can always go back to previous levels to clutch shots you might have missed, but the further you get, the more fun and wild scenarios there are to photograph. The idea is that the more you explore an environment, the friendlier the Pokémon get, mimicking the idea of the bond-building you feel during a mainline Pokémon game. As you see a Pokémon act in different ways over time, it’s hard not to feel that delightful sense of growth and friendship that’s so key to the series’ appeal.

A screenshot of the game's trail menu for a given location, showing a map with multiple versions of the same route available to explore.
The amount of variation, even in single tracks, becomes apparent early in the game.

Just as important is the game’s wide range of tools. Camera movement and zoom are to be expected, but New Pokémon Snap absolutely loads the player’s toolbox with different ways to interact with the creatures you photograph. This allows for a satisfying skill cap and rewards system. There are shots you’ll have to aim projectiles precisely in order to get, and many that require fast reflexes in order to snag. And of course, you can still feed the Pokémon, which results in uncountable adorable interactions.

This just scratches the surface of what New Pokémon Snap has to offer. The game is inlaid with puzzles – shots that must be set up to be captured, often at the behest of other characters but certainly discoverable on their own by creative players. There are a surprising number of different routes, most of which offer multiple paths as well as day and night routes which offer completely different experiences. And then there’s the surprisingly robust photo editing options that Pokémon Snap offers, which allows players to really sculpt their work to share with other players. It really does feel like all the creativity and love of the original game has been translated with care into the modern age.

An in-game screenshot of a player finding burnt fruit on the trail. The professor - who interjects during each run - hints at how the player might be able to find, and photograph, the Pokémon who burnt the fruit.
Each mystery in New Pokémon Snap requires a sharp eye and some creative thinking to solve.

And that’s why New Pokémon Snap feels so needed for the franchise right now. It’s a highly polished game made with passion for its subject, one that truly feels like it’s running at the same level as other major Switch games on the market. Sure, it’s still a humble concept and has an approximate runtime underneath 20 hours. But the depth and enjoyment of this game, after the steady stream of disappointments from the Pokémon series, allows lovers of the franchise a sigh of relief. Because you don’t have to love Pokémon to love Pokémon snap – you can love riding through beautiful environments, taking pictures, cute animals, or just sitting back with any videogame that’ll plunge you into a world without imposing any stress upon the player.

The game’s only weakness is its scoring system, one that prizes close, centered shots in order to hit gain maximum points. These points ultimately fuel your progress in the game, allowing you to travel to new and exciting locations – and the first rides in each new location undoubtedly make for the highlights in the game. However, there is so much personality in the game shining through each creature’s movements and interactions within the landscape that even this limitation becomes arbitrary over time. New Pokémon Snap may have rules, but there are plenty of ways to break them. No matter how close you stick to the rails, the game can’t help but lure you into making the journey your own.

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Images via Nintendo

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