What do Pokémon do when we’re not around? Surely, they don’t just sit in patches of grass and wait for precocious children to bump into them, chuck balls at them, and conscript them into an endless series of pointless human battles.
This is a question that Nintendo answered with much aplomb when they released Pokémon Snap for the Nintendo 64 back in 1999. Playing as a photographer tasked with snapping pictures of Pokémon in their natural habitats, you glided through vibrant locales populated with Pokémon doing their own thing. It was a captivating reimagining of the franchise. And now, two decades, four consoles, and 750 Pokémon later, New Pokémon Snap has returned to open up the natural Pokémon world to a brand new generation of players.
It’s easy to dive right into the story of Pokémon Snap: You’re a photographer who has been summoned to the Lental Region by Professor Mirror, a researcher running the Laboratory of Ecological and Natural Sciences, aptly acronymed to LENS. The Lental region is home to a series of biomes, including meadows, rainforests, coral reefs, and deserts. Your mission — should you choose to accept it — is to ride across each biome in your NEO-ONE exploration vehicle and take pictures of all the Pokémon that you find throughout your journey (more than 200 in all). When you bring your pictures back to base, the Professor scores them based on a series of metrics — such as how well-framed the Pokémon is or the rarity of what you caught them doing — and higher scores unlock new locations, times of day, and new ways to interact with the Pokémon you see.
It’s a simple setup and a simple base execution. You don’t have to control the direction of the NEO-ONE, or constantly trace and retrace your tracks across a vast wilderness like you often do in the main series games. Instead, each different location has a pre-set course, and your vehicle moves along it like a rail ride at a theme park, leaving you to focus on finding and framing your perfect photo opportunities. This might disappoint some people who prefer their worlds a little more open to exploration, but it puts the spotlight on the game’s biggest stars: the Pokémon.
The Pokémon series has always experimented with how to bring Pokémon to life in the wild. From Pokémon Yellow letting Pikachu follow players through the game, to the more recent overworld encounters of Pokémon Sword and Shield, the games have slowly been building toward Pokémon being more than just battle bots. But New Pokémon Snap takes this to a brilliant new level. The animations are gorgeous, the Pokémon are lively and entertaining, and the ways in which they interact with the environment and each other are legitimately surprising and impactful.
Every Pokémon in the game can be photographed in one of four increasingly rare states, and part of the game’s fun is trying to figure out how to influence a Pokémon to give you the shot of a lifetime. Toss a fluff-fruit to a Pokémon so you can snap it gently lighting the food on fire, or play a quick tune to inspire a few Pokémon to dance along. In sharp contrast to the mainline Pokémon games, in which the fun and frivolous designs of Pokémon often lose their personality in battle, the Pokémon in New Pokémon Snap are full of life, and it’s never been this fun to explore the fictional region.
If there is any criticism to be levied at New Pokémon Snap, it would be the story, or lack thereof. While there is a small, charming cast of characters on the island and a narrative reason for your exploration, it’s a thin attempt that becomes more of a distraction than a feature. But, with that said, the game manages to provide a surprisingly deep experience. Between leveling up the various locations and diving back and forth between day and night shoots, it’s easy to squeeze more than 20 hours out of the game. In truth, the game is not about a story. It’s about breezing through a tropical rainforest and catching the exact moment that a parent Pokémon leaps into the water with their baby by their side, smiles on their faces. That’s plenty!
It’s good to see that even 20 years after the original Snap, Pokémon continues to look for ways to innovate and expand the ways that fans experience its world. Give yourself a break from forcing electric mice to beat each other up and take an afternoon to float through a tranquil coral reef snapping photos of Magikarp. You’ve earned it.