Chances are, if you’ve booted up the new Nintendo Switch game Pokémon Snap (official title: New Pokémon Snap), you’ve taken a look at the photos the video game deems worthy of four stars (its highest score) and said, “Ha! This [derisive air quotes] ‘snap’ sucks!”*
If none of those words make sense to you, the basic premise of New Pokémon Snap, both the new iteration and the 1999 Nintendo 64 original, is as follows: You ride around a small slice of nature—a forest, a beach, a volcano—and take pictures of the Pokémon (a.k.a. “pocket monsters,” funky little critters that you can catch and then train to battle each other) who exist in that habitat. When you return from your excursion, a man called Professor Mirror rates your photos on a scale of one to four stars, with four being the best. His criteria for judging photos are fairly simple: The Pokémon has to be big in the frame, it has to be centered, and it should ideally be doing something cute or posing with friends.
As may be obvious, at least the first two criteria are not necessary ingredients for great photographs by anyone else’s metric. In an interview with Wired, conservation photographer Melissa Groo deemed most of the New Pokémon Snap pictures shown to her as middling at best, and even described Mirror’s criteria as “so alien to [her].”
OK, fair. But let’s be honest: New Pokémon Snap was never going to teach you how to take a good picture.
The game’s central mechanic may be taking photographs, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to teach you anything about photography as an art—and how would you program a game to essentially perform art criticism, an inherently subjective field? Yes, it’s totally ridiculous that my best-rated photo of the giant whale Pokémon Wailord is basically a solid blue square, because I was so close to it when I took the picture, but that ridiculousness is part of the joy of the game. And it’s not as if the game will really penalize you for taking the kinds of pictures that you want to take, rather than the ones Mirror tells you to take—you’ll still receive points and be able to progress in the game.
Besides, the fun of the game ultimately lies in watching Pokémon just be cute. As if to prove the point, in the first few seconds after I started the game, Grookey and Pichu (an adorable green baby monkey and the baby form of Pikachu) frolicked onto the screen together. They ran off before I could take a picture of them, but that was fine. I had my memory of the moment, at least. This isn’t to say that the point of the game is to put your phone down and be present within the nature around you—rather, if anything, the game exactly replicates the experience of seeing a cool animal in the wild and failing to get a picture of it in time. You might end up with a picture of a grey blob—or no pictures at all—but the moment was still a thrilling one.
And the criteria that Mirror sets make a rough sort of sense for the story the game is trying to tell. The photos you take provide material for Mirror’s ecological research, and in that respect, it feels natural that he’d want the biggest, clearest view of a Pokémon as possible (though, again, my Wailord photo seems like it wouldn’t be that helpful). Art isn’t really part of the equation.At the end of the day, New Pokémon Snap is not a photography simulator, and can’t really be enjoyed as one. It’s obviously more gamified as a system, and its purpose is less to encourage quality picture-taking as much as it is to enjoy a sliver of life in the Pokémon universe that is as of yet inaccessible otherwise. One of the joys of the franchise is building a team of Pokémon and helping them grow, but there’s no good way of hanging out with them or observing them in nature. The new generation of role-playing games, Sword and Shield, come close, as wild Pokémon are literally out in the wild, walking around on the tundra where they had been practically invisible before, but that’s nothing in comparison to the rich world that Pokémon Snap provides. Mantine swim in schools, Alolan Raichu surf around on their tails, Bellossom dance together. It’s all gorgeous to behold. The pictures almost come as a nice afterthought.
Correction, May 5, 2021: This article originally referred to the Nintendo Switch version of Pokémon Snap as Pokémon Snap. The game is called New Pokémon Snap.