What’s Wrong With the New Pokemon Snap Soundtrack?
How does the newest game stand up to its 22-year-old prequel?
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Let me tell you about the two games I recently picked up. One, I play to relax, aiming my character at all types of monsters while I traverse varied landscapes and ecosystems. The other is a more puzzling shooter, one that involves finding the best route and replaying areas to reach my goal as efficiently as possible. The games, you ask? Returnal and New Pokémon Snap — in that order.
Despite the shades of psychological warfare at the core of the fast-paced shooter Returnal, Housemarque’s latest game is my most recent stress-free outlet. Yes, the game will confound and kill you, as you work to fend off hordes of enemies while preserving enough health to get you to the next room. But its quiet campaign, paired with simplistic, yet fine-tuned controls, mean that each setback doesn’t feel like wasted effort.
Instead, I find myself pushing Selene faster and faster through Atropos’ diverse biomes until I reach a new weapon, some ether or obols, or a much needed health pack. And if I die and end up watching Helios get shot out of the sky and crash land for the 30th time, so what? I’ll just start all over again.
New Pokémon Snap on the other hand, has unleashed my neuroses. A step up from the 1999 original in terms of the amount of content offered, the Pokémon Company’s latest drop can feel more like summer school than summer vacation. Snap’s updated systems allow me to not only take photos of more than 200 Pokémon (more than triple the amount in the first entry), but also to take them in different poses and locations, each of which count towards filling out the Photodex, a ledger of all the Pokemon you’ve caught.
Until now I’ve played haphazardly, pointing my camera at anything that moves and hoping it’s the three-star Magikarp photo I need, or the two-star Meganium shot I missed. That said I’m tempted to brush up on my excel skills and start mapping out my plan of approach in an effort to more efficiently spend my time exploring the Lental region.
New Pokémon Snap is a fun game. Save for the frame rate hiccups in handheld mode — Wailord’s lard-ass obliterates otherwise smooth sailing — NPS is a generally enjoyable experience. Having to level up areas, and not your character is an intriguing take on a common Pokemon system, creating what amounts to a living, breathing I Spy book.
But If I’m being honest, there’s only one thing that irks me about the game: the music.
New Pokemon Snap strikes a delicate balance between adventure and amusement. As an on rails shooter, part of the fun comes from having full 360 control to peer around the game’s environments. It’s easy to sit back as a spectator without snapping photos while taking in the surroundings. But when you’re ready to lock in and fill out the Photodex, there are enough photo ops with short windows to make the game feel like a real safari. These are wild Pokémon, so it’s no surprise if one lands inconveniently out of frame as you try to catch the perfect moment.
You would think the game’s soundtrack would play up the inherent sense of wilderness. The Lental region is seemingly untouched by human intervention, but the music of New Pokemon Snap feels far too neatly orchestrated to fit the game’s feral scenery.
Don’t get me wrong, New Pokemon Snap Composer Hiroki Hashimoto crafted some easy listening on the game’s soundtrack. Shiver Snowfields is by far one of my favorite tracks.
I enjoy Shiver Snowfields both for its ability to transition between instrumental sections, as well as for it reminding me of one of my favorite video game songs of all time: Yasunori Mitsuda’s “Corridor of Time” from Chrono Trigger.
Generally speaking, I tip my cap to Hashimoto’s Nighttime compositions. Just as the usually herding Bouffalant sleep the night away, the evening tracks for stages like Florio Nature Park or Founja Jungle use more subtle instrumentation, like piano, bass, and hand drums to accent, not overpower, the level aesthetics.
Still, the Daytime sections of New Pokemon Snap OST rely so heavily on orchestration that many of the soundtrack’s bright spots are devoured by somewhat repetitive string sections. While the Sweltering Sands Night track makes ample use of sitar to project a distinctly Middle Eastern sound, its morning counterpart drowns out its pointed rhythms with flowing string sections that distract from the level’s atmosphere.
By contrast, the 1999 Pokemon Snap soundtrack tended towards a healthy dose of genre experimentation. Composed by Ikuko Mimori, the OST appears to be her final video game score credit. In a way it can be considered her magnum opus, as the soundtrack taps into mood shifts that further color one of Pokémon’s earliest attempts at crafting a 3D world.
Right off the bat, Old Pokemon Snap’s first level theme, Beach, dives headfirst into the Reggae stereotypes often imprinted on sandy shore levels. A medley of instruments — woodwind, synth horns, steel drums, and bass — bounce along to a distinct, accented, 4/4 time signature that so frequently features in the genre.
But after a breezy seaside intro, Mimori throws players into the dark with her Tunnel track. Haunting synth work ricochets around the tunnel walls until it crashes midway through the track, indicative of all the electric Pokemon that call the tunnel home.
Valley is easily my favorite track of the bunch, as it’s something of a two-for-one. The intro is clearly influenced by the whistle of the Wild Wild West, which is further accentuated by the guitar work. Then the song breaks out some slick saxophone with a piano accompaniment before looping back to its western roots.
The River theme sounds like a long lost Crash Bandicoot track, heavily reliant on hand drums, woodwinds, and even a rain stick.
And the Volcano track complements the level’s surging lava with gurgling bass and kick drums while peppering in some marimba rhythms that add a sense of tension to the course.
These tracks don’t even touch on the other ways Mimori experiments on the OST. The options menu uses a distinct, hip-hop breakbeat to remix the main theme.
Then there’s the gallery music which is a flirty bossa nova piece, complete with the occasional grunt sound effect.
Even Professor Oak’s lab theme takes into account its setting, stripping back the instrumental almost as if to not interrupt the Professor while he works and studies.
Arguably, Mimori’s soundtrack had the benefit of the time period. Pokemon Snap dropped in 1999 — at that point, Nintendo had cemented the sound for so many of its series, which arguably helped influence those tasked with composing for their projects. The Cave theme for example harkens back to the ethereal and spacious Great Fairy theme, it’s reverb effects simulating the hollow cavern walls.
In comparing both the old and new soundtracks, I don’t want to sound like some nostalgia freak. Nor do I want to support the idea that more diverse soundtracks are always better. Plenty of games lean into a specific sound for their entirety, whether it’s the folksy, punk rock backdrop of Life is Strange, or the symphonic melodies of Octopath Traveler.
The Hashimoto score is perfectly fine music — it’s just not the most fitting Pokemon Snap Music. Traditional Pokémon RPGs plop the player in a region themed around a real life area — think Pokemon Black and White’s Unova being New York City or Pokemon Gold and Silver’s Johto being Kyoto. Stylistically, the music follows suit, taking cues from Unova’s metropolitan skylines or Johto’s rustic scenery to inform the soundtrack. The Ecruteak City theme works because the flowing melody supports the town’s role in local mythology about the legendary Pokemon.
While New Pokemon Snap is anything but traditional, its orchestrated music is unfit for a tropical region with diverse biomes teeming with wildlife. In other words, the music is cohesive to a fault, leaving much to be desired, even if the gameplay is a stellar upgrade to its 22-year-old prequel.