Splatoon made a believer out of me. When the game was first introduced, I thought it would be just another shooter that I’d never play. Instead, it turned out to be my favorite game of 2015 and very likely my most beloved gaming experience of this console generation.
This is why, when it was recently introduced during a Nintendo Direct presentation, I made a mental note of Game Freak-developed eShop title Pocket Card Jockey. This hybrid solitaire game seemed, on the surface, a wholly ridiculous endeavor. But that’s what I said about a certain squid-based multiplayer combat game.
The closest analog I can find to Pocket Card Jockey is the mobile phone golf/card game Fairway Solitaire. Both titles take the ultimate digital timewaster, solitaire, and pair it with a separate, insular sport about which I know practically nothing. With delightful results.
Added to this intoxicating blend of horse racin’ and card playin’ are some light RPG elements. You begin by naming your hapless character who, while far from world class jockey, is a pretty fair solitaire player… so he uses this same knack for card gaming to… race… horses.
Okay, don’t think too much about it. Just play. And as you do you’ll realize that, rather than the character himself, your noble steeds are the ones who gain experience, level up, and develop new helpful skills. (This part, at least, makes a lot more sense when you realize it’s also a hallmark of Game Freak’s beloved Pokémon franchise.)
Each race plays out as a series of games of solitaire. The speed and finesse with which you complete your initial, mini-round—the purpose of which, rather than freeing all the cards is to uncover which card stack hides the coveted 5 diamonds at its base, only settling for a lesser bounty if your time runs low—determines you pace and place out of the starting gate.
Some horses prefer to hang back while others are more comfortable leading the charge, but each can benefit from settling into a mid-pack groove, known as the game’s three-tiered “Comfort Zones,” to generate the requisite Energy. Sticking close the inside lanes is likewise advisable, as it preserves the Stamina (represented by on-screen heart cards) that would otherwise be expended by making wide turns.
This Energy is supplemented in each subsequent hand—assuming you play well. Poor performance leads to low Energy, wasted Stamina, and sours your mount’s mood, making him less likely to find his way into the winner’s circle.
As you approach the race’s final straightaway, your Energy is converted into “Enthusiasm,” which roughly translates to how motivated and surefooted your horse is in these high-intensity final moments. Leftover Stamina can be employed to perk up your horse should he begin to struggle, and a special Boost card can sometimes be picked up during the race that allows you to really kick it into high gear in that final stretch.
While that’s already a lot to take in, know that there is more. Much more. Properly anticipating the movement of the other riders can net you some helpful Experience (horseshoe) and Skill (light bulb) cards that occasionally materialize on the track between hands. These, as well as any leftover Stamina and Boost cards, help you level up your skills—there are only two, Speed and Stamina—and even open up special Skills for some horses.
Plus there’s the game’s Mature Mode, which opens up once your adult horse “retires” from the core Growth Mode, and even an extra Farm Mode that shows up once you put him out to pasture. But even that doesn’t touch on Happy Horses, a store where you can use your winnings to buy buffs and mystery items, or the game’s myriad of outlandish characters like the shop’s proprietor (and her helper robot), your trusted but direct advisor Mr. Maekawa, the steady stream of eccentric horse owners, your Guardian Angel, a freakin’ talking horse…
All this is to say that Pocket Card Jockey is a weirdly complex (and complexly weird) portable title that I can’t seem to get enough of. Its deeply nuanced strategy and myriad of play mechanics can certainly be intimidating—especially because it tries to front-load much of this info into the game’s earliest moments—but no matter how convoluted it may seem, the game totally understands what it’s really all about: playing solitaire as quickly and efficiently as possible and also coming up with highly questionable names for your horses.
Pocket Card Jockey is not likely the kind of game that’s going to garner massive attention, accolades, or even high sales, but it is the ideal title for those niche gamers out there. There’s even a free demo available that you can use to determine if this quirky little horserace is your new jam—so give it a shot!
Review materials provided by: Nintendo of America