For the longest time, I've thought about trying to bring on-board some help with producing content. It is, after all, tough to keep up with new releases when playing video games past a certain date and time fills you with strange, unpleasant emotions.
So whilst I buried my head in the sand and played Final Fantasy V, my wife played Pokemon Snap. That allowed me to cover ground rapidly - although I did find some time to sit in and observe the game and have some sample game time. It makes me happy that video games and the idea of video gaming is starting to re-cross the metaphorical Rubicon river of gendered marketing which stigmatised so many young boys and girls in the mid 90s.
Naturally I let Ali call the shots when playing. It was her game, so the player character was a girl. I don't know what bearing this had on my wife's playing experience, but there was certainly enjoyment being experienced. Which, more and more, is starting to become the reason I play video games. It's the journey, not the end result, which brings the most joy.
Before I get too excited, I have a confession to make. I have never played the original Pokemon Snap.
(Cue gasps from the audience.)
In this pundit's humble opinion, whilst Nintendo is unspeakably evil (like all triple-a studios), their games are still games. They're not elaborate penny-milking machines like other triple-A studios. Most titles Nintendo makes are aimed at children and teenagers, but they don't leave modern adolescents like myself and my wife behind. NuSnap wasn't for either of us but we loved it anyway - and it's pretty easy to understand why.
In a few words, New Pokemon Snap is colourful, joyful, low-stakes video game. Surprising no-one, the aim of the game is to take rad photos of cool Pokemon. The better your photos are, the higher your score and the more good chemicals you get. Despite the simplicity the concept, there is surpising depth to the game. However, there's also no stick in NuSnap. No failure states. Just constant positive emotional reinforcement and unabashed joy. It's like standing in the sun on a warm day and knowing everything is just going to be ok.
We live in dark times. New Pokemon Snap, as an experience, puts an arm around you and tells you it'll work out just fine.
Back to the photos and the taking thereof.
Much like OldSnap, NuSnap sets you in a variety of locales along a preset track and has pokemon come out at opportune times. You have a limited amount of film, and can interact with pokemon and the environment along the track. The player can throw apples, (called 'fluff fruits' for some reason), you play musical tune and scan the area. Later on you also learn to speed up your craft. So far, so the same.
There's something to be said about the 'thrill of discovery' when playing any pokemon game. You don't know what you'll find, so it's always exciting to experience a new area. Snap capitalizes on this concept by not only having a variety of stages, but also day and night and different research levels. The game works hard to make the stages feel fresh and new for as long as possible and keep the good chemicals from finding new pokemon coming as long as possible. Twenty hours into the game, there were still new pokemon to find and plenty of thrill to go around.
NuSnap adds an additional deviation from OldSnap at this point by introducing a new framing device. NuSnap is set in the region of Lental, which was struck by a meteorite (the so-called Tellur Metorite) a thousand years ago. This scattered a material called Illumina, which manifests itself as glowing plants along the routes in the game. Eventually, your scientist friend, Professor Mirror, develops a tool called the Illumina orb, which you can then lob at unsuspecting pokemon and Crystablooms to make them glow.
In this final added mechanic we find the last twist. There are a number of special pokemon you encounter in a one on one setting. These are the 'Illumina' pokemon, NuSnap's variation on boss battles. These present no direct threat to the player, but with the help of scale and atmosphere, are presented as significant encounters. Some of these levels are genuinely tense and adrenaline pumping, despite the goal being ostensibly the same - take photo, recieve dopamine.
Outside of that, the pokemon you encounter along the way can be captured in a series of poses. These are sorted by rarity - each pokemon has four poses they can be captured in. Whilst you can skate by doing the bare minimum (for the world's worst speed run), there's a real enjoyment to be found trying to capture each of a pokemon's different poses. To keep you intrigued, the characters in the game also offer you hints on the different poses a pokemon may have out there in their environs.
Which brings us to an intriguing part of the NuSnap experience - the supporting components.
There's a real story here, with framing devices, actual characters, and genuine attempts to add thematic depth to why you are here, and the purpose of the supporting cast. There's actual voice acting, interaction during the stages and a feeling of proper immersion when you're out there taking photos. At points it can feel paper thin, but I feel comfortable giving the title points for making a proper attempt at presenting New Snap as a comprehensive experience.
Flavour, people. It's delicious.
Not just that, but the visuals and animations in the game are quite good. There are some lowlights - the low texture volcano background in one of the stages springs to mind - but there's an attention to detail here that isn't present in other pokemon games. It helps to give Pokemon Snap just the extra bit of oomph it needs to turn it from a middling game to a good one. Especially in a game about recording pokemon in their native habitats.
Which seems like as good a point as ever to make a hard turn in and have a whinge about Pokemon. I knew from the moment I enjoyed Pokemon snap and thought it was a complete experience, that I would want to make some sort of commentary on where Pokemon Snap sits amongst other Pokemon Switch titles and what that meant for other titles on the horizon.
Unfortunately I still know nothing about the future of Pokemon - and I probably never will. I'm not about to get a call from Game Freak offering to spill the beans. I've made peace with that.
But I want to know how and why titles like Sword and Shield - Nintendo's blue chip titles, I might add - were so sorely lacking in features Bandai Namco were able to deliver to a high standard. Voice acting. Quality visuals and animations. A story with proper framing devices. Depth in gameplay. There's no doubt that Bandai Namco could've turned in an inferior product and it would've sold because it's a Pokemon product. That's how that works. But they didn't and I'm so glad they didn't phone it in, because now I have a like-for-like title I can wave at Game Freak, the Pokemon Company and Nintendo and ask:
How is it that a third party company can come in, pick up the source material and make a better pokemon game with less room to work in?
Pokemon fans who really do enjoy the core series deserve an answer to this question. Maybe it will come with the Generation 4 remakes or the new Open World Arceus came the triumvirate are planning. But considering that Bandai has come in and humiliated them all, Nintendo needs to put its first party developers on notice.
Or they won't and we'll get another hack-job pokemon experience on the switch. Don't overdo the champagne, now.
Circling round, New Pokemon Snap is a great title. It's not in the top echelon of video games, but it's not meant to be. It's a palette cleanser, a sip of water between courses to remind you that video games can still be these vibrant, euphoric experiences that prioritise user experience over anything so morally bankrupt as milking players for pennies.
Snap, crackle, and pop, indeed.
Catch you next time,
Critical Information Summary:
Review Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Bandai Namco
Cost (At Time of Publish): $80 AUD
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