New Pokemon Snap might be cute and brightly-coloured, but the moment that's stuck with me the most is its shocking expression of violence. My surprise might seem strange in a franchise based on training creatures for intense one-on-one battles, but on a recent meander through Snap's opening level, I watched a Pidgeot pluck a Magikarp from a lake, flying away with the unfortunate fish pokemon wriggling in its talons. In the animal kingdom, that kind of interaction often means that someone's ending up as dinner, but the mainline Pokemon games don't tend to sanction straight-up Poké-murder.
Shocking as that impromptu sushi session might have been, it's a great example of what makes New Pokemon Snap so special. More than just a game about taking good pictures of Pokemon, it offers a taste of what it might be like to be a real wildlife photographer, a discipline which – as anyone who's ever seen a David Attenborough documentary will tell you – is at its most compelling when it's documenting the way in which different species interact with one another.
Those same moments are when New Pokemon Snap is at its best too. Whether it's a pack of Mightyena harrying a Furret through the mountains of Durice Island, or a Wailmer squabbling with an Octillery in Maricopia Island's reef, my most memorable shots show different Pokemon playing with or caring for each other in a way that's a marked departure from the main series games. In those titles, Pokemon rarely get the opportunity to interact with one another outside of pitched battles with predefined rules. By contrast, New Pokemon Snap offers a taste of what it might really be like to live in a world inhabited by Pokemon as wild creatures, rather than tools for trainers to use.
Pokemon Legends Arceus promises to fulfill that same fantasy. In its official reveal trailer, Nintendo showed us an ancient, open-world version of the Sinnoh region in which "Pokemon roamed as they pleased." That showcase – presumably from early in development – doesn't show anything like the detail on display in New Pokemon Snap, with a few Pokemon idling in a vast wilderness unable to match the biodiversity on offer in the Lental region, and a significant focus on combat. But the idea of a world filled with Pokemon able to interact with their environment and each other, free of the influence of the player, is certainly there, and there's never been a better time for the series to explore that kind of world.
Back to the Future
The anime has always offered a way for The Pokemon Company to show off what it's like to live alongside Pokemon, but the games have rarely provided a similar glimpse into that reality. Beyond the original Pokemon Snap in 2000, only a few other well-loved exceptions, such as Pokemon Go and the Ranger and Mystery Dungeon games, had let us experience a dedicated Pokemon game not wholly defined by combat. New Pokemon Snap is a clear showcase of how successfully the franchise can be brought to life outside of that formula, with Pokemon oozing with personality at every turn. Nintendo has been taking baby steps in this direction for a few years, particularly with Sword and Shield's Wild Area and Camp features, which showcase both a more open-world approach and a space dedicated to letting Pokemon play together.
But most exciting is the hint that Pokemon appears to be waking up to the opportunities offered by the Nintendo Switch over the handheld devices that have shaped the games in the past. Watching that trailer for Pokemon Legends Arceus, it's almost impossible to ignore the influence that Breath of the Wild seems to have had on the upcoming open world adventure.
That's a major legacy to live up to, but more than any of the franchise's previous outings, the return to Sinnoh offers an opportunity to fulfill the fantasy of a living, breathing world of Pokemon – a fantasy that's existed in the minds of players since the days of Pokemon Red and Blue. New Pokemon Snap's on-rails approach might allow it to capture that world with more detail than a freeform, open-world outing, but if Pokemon Legends Arceus can capture even a fraction of the personality and interactivity that makes Poke-photography so delightful, it could easily be the Pokemon game I've been waiting for for more than 20 years.