I hated New Pokémon Snap for a solid two days. Seriously. I looked at this game like a relic, some ridiculous cash grab, a Bandai Namco nightmare. What was Nintendo thinking?
I couldn’t believe that anyone would trot out an incredibly slow-moving rail-shooter in 2021 and expect people to pay $60 for it, now matter how much they loved their Pokémon. This was the era of open world Pokémon in Sword and Shield. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re remastering classic Pokémon away from its constant JRPG element-matching battles with the Let’s Go franchise. And it even made the leap to mobile so hard that Hillary Clinton couldn’t hold back from an ill-advised reference to Pokémon Go in a pathetic Boomer moment. What was this weird relic doing in my house?
I never really had a connection to Pokémon. When it landed in the US, I was in high school and I didn’t own a Game Boy anymore, and I was far too interested in spending my disposable income on fake IDs and concerts across state lines with my derelict upperclassmen friends. And then Pokémon just got complicated as shit as the years piled on. I picked up Pokémon Go because I walked a lot and my partner needed eggs hatched. I got them Let’s Go Eevee for Christmas when it came out, and ended up loving it myself. They insisted I watch the movie.
When Pikachu died, y’all? Damn. I felt that.
But I don’t have a nostalgia for Pokémon as a franchise. Psyduck is my homie, but that’s because we used to take walks to the train station together so he could check out the Arrivals and Departures board, get a pretzel, buy a magazine at the newsstand. Sometimes we’d take him for a trip to Atlantic City or Newark, and he’d read Arrive magazine while picking at an Amtrak café car cheese plate.
This was the world I came to when I first entered Pokémon. My faves could follow me around, I could take selfies with them, and they weren’t just dudes I collected to battle it out against other people’s collections of weird little dudes. Psyduck is my bro. I really didn’t know about the times before, when interaction was so limited that the original Pokémon Snap was a revelation.
I never played old Pokémon Snap. So I didn’t know what to expect. In my mind, I guess it was somewhere between Ocarina of Time and an environmentally-conscious Fatal Frame. But this was more like an extremely cashed-up Super Scope 6 game. I took it to my friends and partner who were far more involved in the build up of the franchise and had a personal understanding of Pokémon Snap. “That’s Snap,” was the answer every time.
Ok, fine, I thought. If that’s Snap, let’s meet it on its terms.
WHY is that Snap? And is that a good thing?
Jungle adventure parks have been a thing since there were theme parks. The anglophonic world in particular couldn’t let go of the age of empire, of naturalists and explorers, of British gardens as bulwark against both the uncivilized and industrial and showcases of exotic spoils of conquest. Zoological preserves and safari branched out over the centuries into family vacation territory. In America, there are of course the big ones like Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens’ weird colonial approach to Africa in its Tampa Bay park, which join the larger metropolitan zoos and more generalized preservation parks. But the concept has been exported wholly or borrowed and made regional around the world. The safari went suburban. And even in Pokémon Snap, you begin your field research in a Pokémon preserve, and eventually you’ll be dragging your family around by pointing excitedly at an attraction on the map, and sprinting far ahead.
What’s interesting about Pokémon Snap is how cleanly it maps to this idea. Every one of these parks has their cart ride or boat ride through the various sanctuaries, where grouped animals seem to burst from the constructed wilderness. Sometimes you’re lucky and they’re doing something really weird, sometimes they’re just chillin’. Flamingos flock in groves like Flutterbees, water buffalo nap near man-made streams in the same way Bouffalant do, and the cart moves ever onwards without your ability to direct its motion. Maybe you’ll get a sticker for visiting the various rides, seeing specific animals, pressing them into a little booklet to take home as a souvenir of your ecological journey to simulated far off places.
I love the Pokédex. I love filling it out with photographs I’ve taken of the Pokémon I’ve encountered. It’s one part that World Wildlife Fund binder they used to sell children on TV and one part theme park sticker book. Here’s a stamp for visiting the small mammals. Here’s a $25 polaroid of your time with Charmander.
But most of all, what I finally realized is that New Pokemon Snap wants me to slow down, be mindful, and chill the fuck out.
As someone who is inclined to larger, slower cameras as I get older, eschewing the machine gun shutters of modern sports-and-wildlife centric DSLRs with immediate AI-driven autofocus for a more considered approach you’d think this would feel right at home, but it didn’t. Gamer brain took over and fought against this impulse. I was actively rejecting the nostalgia Pokémon Snap wanted me to experience. And it wasn’t until I chilled out and thought about the past that I could understand exactly what Snap was trying to do.
The 110-format in the mid-to-late ‘80s and early ‘90s was a film format that became the domain of cashed-up kids. Originally introduced in the ‘70s, the smaller, quick-loading cartridge format didn’t have the fidelity or reproductive capabilities of it’s bigger 35mm format, but it was cheaper, faster, and basically foolproof. And what started as a no-nonsense film for the Portable Instamatic became a hit with kids in the form of Vivitar’s neon offerings, and especially the first Fisher Price Cameras.
It was the kind of thing your parents shoved into your hands as they packed you off on a flight to Tampa to visit your grandparents because it was officially summer and they were DONE. It was, in effect, the next generation Brownie—a gateway device to understanding (and mastering) a child’s world. At best, a 110 format camera gave you 24 shots per cartridge, and neither the film nor development were exactly cheap, even in this age of high-volume retail processing. The camera offered children both the tool to capture and claim their world and experiences, but with baked in limitations that later digital cameras would strip away almost entirely. Limitations aren’t a bad thing though. Learning how precious each exposure can be is one of those valuable life lessons.
Snap limits you to 72 shots per route; when you hit the end of the film counter, you’re done. Ride’s over. And when you review your photos at the end of the ride? You only get to pick one of each Pokémon you managed to photograph. There’s no presenting all of them. Much like the original 110, it’s an exercise in restraint. In an era of digital cameras, the in-camera limitation is charmingly out of place. The world of Pokémon is one well above our own technological level, but the cameras offered up by Professor Mirror have less storage capacity than even phones in the late ‘90s, and the shutter speed on the camera isn’t that fast either. When it comes time to print, you’re not printing an entire roll, you’re printing a contact sheet and then selecting the image you want. Photography is as much an art about filtering as it is about acquisition. At most national parks in the US there’s usually a plaque somewhere encouraging visitors to “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” With the advent of digital cameras and near limitless storage, there’s a tendency to take photograph after photograph, and then store them in a folder —forgotten. There’s a resistance to this idea baked into Pokémon Snap. Keep only the pictures you believe matter. And after a few routes, you’ll start knowing which shots you really want to release the trigger for. Editing in the camera so there’s less sifting to do at the end. Or you’ll just really embrace the sift.
There’s an auto-button if you really don’t want to. Letting the New Pokémon Snap AI choose which photos are “the best” by the internal rubric that guides Professor Mirror, then you can button mash your way through to glory in and out of the lab.
Resist this impulse. That’s not this game. And it’s emblematic of a quality of life feature detracting from the core identity of the game. You should be choosing those photos, not the AI. And while it’s simple enough to say “simply don’t press the button,” once you figure out that it’s there, and you’re on your 10th run of the same route, you’re going to just hit the button because it’s there.
My frustrations with this mirror my frustrations with the experience system. I understand that without it, this is a game you blow through in an afternoon. It needs to pace the player and gate their progress somehow. And a numerical representation of “what you’re learning as a Pokémon researcher” is certainly that. But it feels out of place, a grand misstep when “get a photograph of every Pokémon in this biome” makes a much more logical gating system. That it’s barely a roadblock too makes its inclusion even less sensical. You can blow past the level requirements easily, but the game will always make you aware of it. Is it minor? Yes, but it’s the kind of small thing that has a significant impact on how the game feels as a player. It’s too transparently quantitative.
Professor Mirror’s rubric for grading photographs (again, numeric) is also too needlessly transparent in how quantitative it is. And yes, the conceit for New Pokémon Snap is that you are his research assistant, and not a wildlife photographer or fine artist, but the judgment values will routinely negate a photograph with a sense of wonder and action for one that’s just “Squirtle is big in the center.”
It’s the small nitpicks that pull the game apart. Like having a shitty dad who leans over your shoulder in the car as you’re filtering through the paper envelope of fresh prints from your vacation to say “That one’s blurry.”
But maybe that’s part of the memorial aspect of New Pokémon Snap. Maybe you need a shitty parent to temper and give shape to the nostalgia.
If Pokémon is fundamentally a series about childhood memories of playing junior entomologist, then Pokémon Snap is the fantasy of playing at Junior National Geographic Explorer on a wildlife preserve’s safari ride. In fact the entire game has the sense of being at these zoological theme parks specifically because of its naturalist/environmentalist messaging. As much as it is a fun series of rides and attractions, both share this overarching message of personal responsibility in conservationism and ecological mindfulness. It’s very 1980s Saturday morning cartoon in that regard. But lacking a real system of global capitalism destroying the planet for Pokémon trainers or research assistants to push against (Team Rocket is bad, and a metaphor, but it’s not remotely comparable), it’s probably not a terrible idea to instill a message of “giving a shit about the environment and not fucking with flora and fauna too much.” It’s what the largely pleasant world of Pokémon can afford to bear. But this isn’t EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus by a long shot. The core message is the wonder and awe of the natural world (of Pokémon) with a little bit of friendship, and a whole lot of summer vacation.
Honestly, it works. It also works that aside from some mechanical tweaks and the addition of more Pokémon and more tracks, this is fundamentally just a coat of paint on the original Pokémon Snap. It’s a nostalgia play, but what in the Pokéverse isn’t?
What ultimately pulled me out of my tailspin of frustration with New Pokémon Snap is appreciating how simple and casual its joys are. Letting the game take its time as it coursed me along the routes, letting it surprise me despite every gamer’s anticipatory nerve firing in unison. Learning to suppress those impulses and not ratchet up the turn sensitivity so I could 360 noscope a fast-moving Pikachu. There’s a joy to knowing that if you take a photograph of the flamingo on the right side of the car, you won’t have time to get a photograph of the rhino on the left projectile shitting against a concrete restraining wall. Even if you advance the film, and knock your grandfather back into the club car’s bench seat as you clamber over him as fast as your little limbs can. There’s joy in begging your family to go on the ride just one more time while you’ve still got film and daylight left.
New Pokémon Snap was developed by Bandai Namco Studios and published by Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. It’s available for the Switch.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.