Pokémon's New Focus on Photos Has Me Playing More

Show me your best Pokéface

Key Takeaways

  • Abandon the Poké-battling for a while to go on an arcade-style shooting trip with your camera.
  • It's a surprisingly relaxing trip through the cartoon ecology of Pokémon.
  • I am throwing a lot of apples at a lot of sleeping critters' heads, though. Feels bad.
Hero art from 'New Pokemon Snap'

Nintendo

I think I'd be happier with Pokémon as a concept if it had always been like this: more photos, less cage-fighting.

New Pokémon Snap is an interactive trip to a fantasy zoo, where you take only photos and leave only footprints. Instead of trying to fight and capture every wild animal that wanders into your direct line of sight, you're a well-meaning assistant at an ecology lab whose job is to find and document every Pokémon on a series of isolated islands.

This is the first game I've played in quite a while where I wished it had less plot. There's a mystery to solve here and a rivalry to navigate. You've got an antagonist named Phil, and you can tell at a glance what his whole arc will be because he's got Vegeta's haircut.

That's all well and good, but I found it was really getting in the way of my wildlife photography. It's rare for me not to want to engage with a game's storyline, but that says something about how solid the core gimmick actually is.

"It's actually not a bad child-friendly tutorial on basic photo composition, which surprised me."

Calm Like A Photobomb

Like its predecessor, 1999's Pokémon Snap, New Pokémon Snap is a crazy take on what long-time gamers call a "rail shooter."

At the start of each level, or "research trip," you're put into a moving pod like the observation jeeps from Jurassic World and sent into Pokémon territory. You’re always moving and have no control over your vehicle. From there, you have until the end of your route to take up to 72 pictures of any wild Pokémon you encounter along the way.

Screenshot from 'New Pokemon Snap.'

Some are naturally photogenic, but most aren't, and a few Pokémon are actively hiding. The trick is to figure out how best to get them to show up and pose for you; by throwing them treats, playing music, or making them glow with a special orb.

It's effectively a series of neat little puzzles, where you have to first find each Pokémon hidden in a stage, then figure out how best to tease out its most photogenic angles.

At the end of each run, your photos are graded by your character's mentor, Professor Mirror, according to framing, background, content, and how close you got to your subject. It's actually not a bad child-friendly tutorial on basic photo composition, which surprised me.

Good pictures are gradually rewarded with more ways to share them with your friends and on the Switch's online network, as well as the ability to level up each research area so you can find more and better photo opportunities.

Screenshot from 'New Pokemon Snap.'

It's a little repetitive since it's recycling many of the levels' designs while reshuffling the local Pokémon, but each route has a lot to dig out of it depending on when you choose to go. The nighttime version of each map, where your route is lined on all sides by adorably sleeping Pokémon, feels like a trip into a bedtime story.

No Parents Allowed

Pokémon as a franchise has always been at a weird halfway point between children's entertainment and a reasonably hardcore RPG. Kids like the cute monsters; teenagers and adults enjoy building those monsters up into league-champ killing machines.

New Pokémon Snap, conversely, is aimed directly at kids, with a story straight out of shonen manga. It might actually end up as a gateway into getting them interested in hobbyist photography.

The appeal for adults here, at least from where I'm sitting, is its relaxation value. New Pokémon Snap might be the single most chill game that Nintendo's put out in years, if not ever. While it does have an irritating habit of disrupting your groove by bringing up parts of its storyline, the actual photography part is a series of short, calm jaunts through the well-rendered wilderness.

Screenshot from 'New Pokemon Snap.'

Having halfway-decent reflexes can help, as a few of the Pokémon I've found so far are well-hidden, skittish, or both at once (looking right at you, Scorbunny), but each route is fixed. Once you spot a Pokémon, you can anticipate its appearance and be ready for it next time.

I've never been much into Pokémon as a rule, but I checked out New Pokémon Snap in search of something upbeat to play in my downtime, and I'm glad I did. I'd go so far as to say that it's my favorite of the Pokémon games I've played, entirely because I'm just here to explore this weird world Nintendo's created.

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