Say cheese

‘New Pokémon Snap’ review: Another round on the lazy river, please

By refusing to be anything but itself, ‘New Pokémon Snap’ ends up with the most casual replay value of any high-hype title in recent memory.

A Pokémon smiling

I would consider myself a casual gamer, despite often writing about video games in a professional capacity. I have trouble sitting still long enough to play through sprawling RPGs; I am often forced to spend a few hours re-learning complex control systems before jumping back into a game I started months back. Nintendo and Bandai Namco's New Pokémon Snap, with its nonexistent learning curve and repetitive nature, is nothing short of a godsend for a gamer like me.

I went into my New Pokémon Snap experience with few memories of the original Nintendo 64 game. Unlike many of my peers, I did not reminisce upon Pokémon Snap with rosey glasses — what I remember of it, in snatches from tween sleepovers, was unremarkable and pretty boring. I’d always preferred the catch-’em-all experience of Pokémon Red on my Game Boy.

New Pokémon Snap released at the end of April, just as COVID-19 vaccines were becoming readily available in various countries across the world. I began to feel restless, the weather growing warm and sticky, the prospect of an open world irresistible after more than a year of sitting on the couch. I downloaded New Pokémon Snap nonetheless — something to do while I waited for my vaccine appointment to roll around.

Somehow the universe conspired to release New Pokémon Snap at just the right time, like Animal Crossing: New Horizons coming out just as stay-at-home orders were picking up. New Pokémon Snap is the lazy river of video games: So easy you could set the controller down while playing any given level and still technically finish without issue. This is always what the Pokémon Snap experience was meant to be — and the new version gets it right by adding in new complexities without sacrificing how very easy it is.

Precious moments.Nintendo

For more serious gamers, the on-rails experience of New Pokémon Snap might be something of a letdown. You’re forced to play through each level multiple times, with only slight variations, to progress to new locales. Learning the minutia of the game’s scoring system for your photos can be frustrating, often favoring photos that are kind of bad just because they meet predetermined criteria. (Many of my favorite shots have received abysmal scores.) The usefulness of each new tool — the fluffruit, the music box, the Illumina orbs — feels a little too random to really get a grip on when to use each.

All these pieces that might serve to frustrate a more serious gamer are exactly what keep me coming back to the game. New Pokémon Snap is crafted specifically for gamers like me. I played the game for a solid ten hours or so in the week after I purchased it, enjoying the spectacle of cute Pokémon interacting with each other and the environment. When I picked it back up again a couple of weeks later, it was as if I’d never left the Lental Region. I could start snapping pics immediately, without dedicating time to re-learning controls or remembering where I’d left off in the story.

Night mode.Nintendo

I also love that New Pokémon Snap can be played in incredibly short increments. The game isn’t going to fault me for only having fifteen minutes to play while I wait for my rice to boil. I can turn on my Switch, boot up the game, play through a level or two, and shut it all down, no FOMO required. I find that most “casual” games try to suck you in by convincing you there’s just one more thing you need to do before closing out the game. I love both Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, for example, but I never feel all that satisfied with either unless I’m devoting fairly large chunks of time to maintenance and upkeep. They’re just a little too capitalistic to be truly "casual" in every sense of the word.

New Pokémon Snap doesn’t exist on the same plane as the rest of the world, and I love that. It is completely unrooted from reality. It refuses to bend to society’s whims. There is no money being exchanged at all; the only in-game currency is your ability to hit the shutter button at just the right moment. And it’s all for the sake of research. I don’t need to save up for purchases or consider what I might sell off for profit. Day and night are controlled only by which level you choose to play, and you otherwise exist in a limbo state at the camp area. I love the feeling of being nowhere, of losing track of the laws of physics for a few minutes at a time.

Flower power.Nintendo

With New Pokémon Snap I can log off at any time without the fear of forgetting what I was supposed to do next. I can leave Professor Mirror and Rita and Phil to their own devices, unafraid of weeds destroying my crops or villagers giving me the cold shoulder. Sometimes when I pick the game back up again I’ve completely forgotten how Mirror scores my photos — the system really is all over the place in many instances — but I also don’t care that I’ve forgotten. The scoring system doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the game; I could score low on every photo I take and still have a good time.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say New Pokémon Snap is a perfect game, or really to bestow any sort of superlatives on it at all. And that’s fine, because it’s not trying to be the best at anything other than, well, the best Pokémon Snap it can be. It’s the rare game that doesn’t try to be anything more than itself. Two months in, with the main storyline completed, I’ll still find myself gravitating toward its casual dismissal of the “real” world. I only play it in short spurts on random occasions — and that’s exactly how it shines. I look forward to putting it down and picking it back up for years to come. That’s not something I can say about many titles.