Virtual worlds have long been a place to escape. That was true before the pandemic, but lockdowns and stay-at-home orders across the world certainly accelerated the phenomenon. I spent an embarrassing amount of time last year gardening in Animal Crossing and going to concerts in Fortnite. They were great distractions, but never really gave that vacation-like escape I was truly searching for — turns out what I needed was a safari full of Squirtles.
New Pokémon Snap launches this week as the long-awaited sequel to a fan-favorite Nintendo 64 game from 1999. The premise remains the same: you, a budding wildlife photographer, traverse beautiful landscapes while snapping photos of every critter you can find. At its core the concept is incredibly simple, but — much like Pokémon Go — it’s a form of wish fulfillment. It takes out the battling and complex roleplaying elements that drive the main Pokémon games and instead just lets you be a part of this world, at your own pace, and without the threat of failure.
There is a story, but it’s pretty simple. At the outset, you join a research expedition exploring the new Lental region, and naturally they need some help documenting the wildlife. The Lental region is actually a string of islands with a surprising amount of biodiversity. You start out in a fairly run-of-the-mill wildlife preserve, but eventually you’ll be riding a sort of futuristic, enclosed hovercraft through deserts, beaches, volcanic trails, and even underwater. In many cases, you’ll be able to see the areas during both day and night, giving you a better understanding of how the animals behave.
You move through these environments on rails, as if you were on a ride at a particularly cool amusement park, and view the world through the lens of your camera. The main goal is to take pictures. Each area is teeming with creatures: birds soaring through the air, bugs digging through the sand, Machamps flexing for anyone who happens to be looking. The most impressive part might just be the density. There are pokémon seemingly everywhere, just waiting for the right moment to pop out and reveal themselves.
The goal is to catalog as many creatures as you can. Just like in the main games, you have a pokédex of sorts, only this time you fill it out by photographing monsters. You’re supposed to capture them in different poses, and at the end of each level a professor will rate each photo based on things like framing, pose, and whether there are any other creatures in the shot. Outside of your camera, you have a few ways to interact with the world. You can toss out berries to feed pokémon (or annoy sleeping ones), play a lullaby to get their attention, or scan your surroundings to center on points of interest. There are also bonus quests that ask you to capture very specific images — like a sleeping Arbok falling out of a tree, or a yawning Torterra — for extra points. As your overall score increases, you’ll unlock new areas.
But your most important tool is careful observation. And that’s because New Pokémon Snap is a game largely built on repetition. You’ll be traveling through the same areas many, many times in search of new things. There are twists — you may get a new tool, and some levels have multiple pathways — but actually getting good photos requires a lot of time, patience, and experimentation. You might have to keep your camera trained on a soaring Wingull in hopes it does a loop-de-loop, or try multiple tactics to get a Magikarp to do, well, anything. Sometimes I would toss berries at everything just to see what happened. (Mostly it resulted in some adorably angry pokémon faces.)
Initially this process felt tedious, particularly early on, when there were only two spaces for me to explore. It was almost boring, like riding the same slow rollercoaster over and over. But this feeling changed when I started looking closer. It was amazing how many creatures I missed the first (or tenth) time I went through a level. But when I looked closely, there they were, hiding in shrubs or in undersea caves. Sometimes if I watched for long enough, I could see pokémon fighting or cuddling together for warmth. The more time I spent in these places the more I started to notice the fine details — and the more I wanted to search out even more.
Snap also does a great job of creating spectacle. Those quiet moments are punctuated by the shock of a giant Wailord rising out of the sea in front of you, or the joy of spotting a flock of cute Squirtles just hanging out on a beach. It’s enough to make me long for a Pokémon game in VR.
This is helped by the fact that Snap moves at a leisurely place. There are some photos where you have to react quickly, but if you miss the shot, you can always try again. There’s no penalty for failure; bad photos are simply discarded. The emphasis is on celebrating your triumphs. When I couldn’t figure out how to capture the photo I needed to progress, I did run into a few roadblocks, which were frustrating. But generally Snap is a game that rewards curiosity and does little to punish players for not following the rules.
(It should also be noted that one of Pokémon Snap’s most intriguing features wasn’t available to test ahead of launch. The game includes an Instagram-like photo sharing mode, where you can add filters, stickers, and borders to your images and then share them online with others. It’s a feature that could add a new social element to the series, but I haven’t been able to test it yet.)
Really, New Pokémon Snap is a game that forced me to change the way I think about virtual spaces. Decades of playing games have conditioned me to race through levels, checking off a to-do list of accomplishments as efficiently as possible. But that doesn’t work here. I had to slow down and watch carefully, focusing on the small details as well as the big moments. I had to relax to enjoy the view — and it’s exactly what I needed.
New Pokémon Snap is available on the Nintendo Switch on April 30th.