Like many gamers who flocked to buy New Pokemon Snap on Friday, I played the original on the N64. My heart was excited for New Pokemon Snap, but my brain was weary. I had it all wrong.
New Pokemon Snap is the long awaited sequel to N64 cult classic and, despite there being 22 years, 7 generations and roughly 750 new Pokemon since the original’s release, the fundamentals of the game haven’t changed much. You’re still inside a capsule vehicle that treks along a fixed path, your photos are still evaluated by a professor and, most importantly, it still rules.
Despite being a sequel, New Pokemon Snap reminded me of a completely different game: Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Like Animal Crossing, the appeal of New Pokemon Snap cannot be explained with words alone. Like Animal Crossing, New Pokemon Snap is more satisfying than it should be. Like Animal Crossing, New Pokemon Snap is just nice.
Since its announcement last June, New Pokemon Snap has been subject to consternation among Pokemon fans. In 2021 the Pokemon Snap concept, viable as a full-priced game in 1999, feels like it would be more appropriate as a free-to-play iOS/Android title. How would developers Namco Bandai pad the game out enough to make it feel substantial, without stretching the concept thin?
New Pokemon Snap is not a complicated game.
Your vehicle’s movement is fixed, so your only job is to look around and take photos. At the beginning Professor Mirror — for there is always a Pokemon professor — gives you a Photodex, which you’ll fill by taking photos of Pokemon. Mirror will evaluate your photos at the end of each level, giving you points based on factors like how large the Pokemon is and how centrally it’s focused.
The Photodex categorizes shots on a four-star scale. Each star represents different action: A photo of Pikachu sitting quietly may be one star, eating fruit may be two stars, letting off a thunderbolt three stars, playing with a Pokemon friend four stars. Different actions, different star rankings. To that end, you’re given a variety of tools — throwable fruit, lumination orbs, a scanner and a music box — to capture Pokemon in different actions and from different angles.
All of this tomfoolery is just a pretext to get you paying attention to details. And it mostly works well: Replaying the same levels looking for different angles of the same Pokemon or trying to elicit different reactions has an addictive quality.
That brings us to the real MVP of New Pokemon Snap: level design. It’s fantastic. Each stage is an intricately designed set piece. It’s not just that the game is often beautiful, it’s also effective at guiding your attention. Big, irresistible Pokemon shepherd your gaze from one area to the next, but the screen is often filled with multiple moments worthy of capture. On your third or fourth playthrough of a level, you’ll find that the same Pokemon you gawked at the first few times was merely a diversion and that an even better shot was to the side or behind you the whole time. To keep gameplay fresh, the level designs often change. All the points Professor Mirror gives you for capturing shots count toward leveling up each stage, and each new level-up brings new elements. That can be new Pokemon, the same Pokemon behaving differently or slightly different routes opening up. These changes sound small but, like changing the piece shapes on the same puzzle set, drastically change strategy.
It’s not flawless. Systems don’t work perfectly, particularly the algorithms that determine points and star categories. The star rankings are specific to each Pokemon, so I often found what would be two-star activity for one species would be ranked differently for another. What’s more, I’d take several photos of the same Pokemon within the space of a second or two only to find that nearly identical shots would fall into different star categories. Meanwhile, the points system prioritizes the size of the Pokemon in the shot. That results in you getting more points for boring closeups than for fun shots taken from a slight distance: Sometimes it feels like your creativity is being stifled by the man — Professor Mirror, in this case. But these are technical imperfections that cause minor annoyance, not major frustration.
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