Nintendo’s pandemic timing has been unintentionally impeccable.
That was my first thought while getting a virtual walk-through of “New Pokemon Snap,” a long overdue return to a one-off, delightfully idiosyncratic entry in the Pokemon franchise.
The game, a sequel-ish take on 1999’s Nintendo 64 title “Pokemon Snap,” feels like a bookend to last year’s “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” although set in different interactive universes. Even in a hands-off, strictly monitored gameplay preview offered by Nintendo, I wanted to bask in the bright, boldly drawn tropical world of “Pokemon Snap,” a universe where complementary and analogous colors — inject all those yellow and pink mash-ups straight into my tired, pandemic-brain, please — are there to introduce us to luxurious critters and warm us like we’re entering an ocular bath.
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” arrived last March at the start of the pandemic as a seemingly inadvertent response to nationwide stay-at-home-orders. Its relaxed, task- and chore-driven gameplay provided order and schedules in a moment of confusion and anxiety. Its island setting also allowed players to expand the idea of “home,” giving us us tools to create virtual ones that could be shared with friends. As I suffered from insomnia and a bevy of fears, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” was a video game relaxant that got me through many tired nights and early mornings.
“New Pokemon Snap” arrives April 30 exclusively for the Nintendo Switch at a different cultural moment, when there are still pandemic risks but the promise of vaccines and declining or plateauing COVID-19 case rates in many parts of the country offer a sense of optimism. No doubt, as evidenced by obnoxious spring break revelers or even the crowding of local restaurants, many are ready to falsely pretend it’s all systems go. Many, however, may need more tentative, cautious steps back into society, like bears gingerly stepping out after hibernation.
“New Pokemon Snap” looks like a game for that moment.
The basic premise, as in the original, is simply to take pictures of Pokemon in their natural habitat and try to get the best shots possible. Such picture-taking gameplay has become a bit more in vogue of late — see “Nuts,” if you’re curious about the mysteries that squirrels behold, or see “HoloVista,” if you fancy grander, more existential ideas and psychedelic imagery. But explore “New Pokemon Snap” if you simply want gentle reminders of the world outside our windows and a look at the life it holds and hides, as well as the fantasy-like charm present in all nature.
I was smitten instantly when shown that playing a simple melody can bring shy Pokemon out of hiding, even inspiring a flock of dormant Bellossom, creatures with red-headed flowers, to suddenly jump and shake their hips and arms as if they’re auditioning for a luau at a Hawaiian resort. During this pandemic, I’ve come to think of games more heavily as an act of performance, a conversation between player and interactive worlds, and even just as an observer, “New Pokemon Snap” had me feeling like a tourist.
The idea of bringing plants and animals to life, so to speak, via song was explored heavily in the wonderful narrative game "Mutazione,” and I hope that music will bring about all sorts of unexpected reactions throughout the islands of what is called the “Lental” region in “New Pokemon Snap.” The environments, both day and night and even underwater, seem built for surprises, thanks largely to what are called “Illumina orbs,” which can make a creature glow.
The islands are filled with bioluminescent areas reminiscent of Pandora from the “Avatar” film and theme park land at Walt Disney World, which adds an underlying mystery but also brings a subdued calmness to the isles. The pictures we take, which are rated and can be shared, also help further research into this phenomena. And while Pokemon games have more tentatively taken on themes of climate change, it’s unknown if any topicality will be laced into “New Pokemon Snap.”
Still, awe at nature appears baked into the very concept of the title.
And yet what strikes me with “New Pokemon Snap” is the way it wants to serve as a reminder that there’s a world to explore. If “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” showed us the comfort in creating a place we can call our own, “New Pokemon Snap” is a call to get outside of ourselves.
In our real lives, we may not literally stumble across a slimy scamp of a Stunfisk looking sad at a piece of fruit, or Crab Crawlers mugging for the camera with their boxing-ready claws, but with a little playful urging, who knows what we may see when we’re least expecting it?
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