System: 3DS (eShop)
Release date: May 5, 2016
Developer: Game Freak
You’re playing solitaire, managing RPG stats, strategically maneuvering an adorable little stumpy-leg horse. As disparate as these elements seem, they manage to meld into a single cohesive experience with every little initially convoluted wrinkle feeding into another system, looping around and creating a uniquely addictive experience. I haven’t ever wanted to play a racehorse management sim governed by the rules of solitaire, but I’m sure glad I did. I guess what’s most surprising is that some madman somehow crafted these distinct gameplay elements into one of the more engaging 3DS games.
The premise of playing solitaire to ride a horse seems a little shaky at first, and the characters in-game acknowledge it as such. In the opening it feels like there’s nearly enough dialogue to tack visual novel onto Pocket Card Jockey’s conglomerate of genres. In the only way it could be with a setup of such eclectic ideas, the dialogue is aware of its own absurdity so it’s still fun to read.
From a broad view, Pocket Card Jockey works as a cycle of picking a young racehorse in Growth Mode, acquiring skills and leveling it up in races before it reaches its ‘mature’ stage where it can no longer gain stat boosts. In Mature Mode, your goal is to win as many races as possible (through skillful play of solitaire and with smart management of stamina, energy, and position), before retiring it to the farm where you can pair your horses to breed and produce the next generation of superior racehorses — exactly how superior these horses are depends on their parents’ stats and win/loss ratio. It’s a system that’s relatively simple and tightly designed with just enough little nooks of complexity that make it enticing to continue the cycle of breeding ever-superior adorable little race horses. I could go on explaining the intricacies that lend depth to the gameplay systems of racing itself, but even the in-game tutorial resigns to mostly just letting you figure it out by playing. Needless to say, Pocket Card Jockey makes drawing lines, playing solitaire, and riding a horse seem like natural complements to one another.
There is some music which is delightful and other tracks which are delightfully odd. One that comes to mind is a very intense track with a woman wailing and singing some sort of indecipherable lyrics in the background. It’s a little too intense while played over unbearably cute horses running a derby on the top screen and a game of solitaire down below but like so much of Pocket Card Jockey, the juxtaposition works.
Pocket Card Jockey lacks stereoscopic 3D support – a feature that would be largely unnecessary except for one portion of the race. In the final stretch, you have direct control of steering your horse among the herd. This is where your solitaire skills and positional strategy throughout the race all culminate into your horse having more speed and stamina to outrun the others. The problem is that if you’re not careful about your positioning throughout the race, your horse can get stuck behind slower ones and basically surrounded, unable to outrun them. It can be difficult to tell what space in between horses you can run through and what you can’t. Support for 3D would’ve been a nice help here, but in the end, it’s only a minor quibble and, ideally, you shouldn’t position yourself in the middle of the herd for the final stretch anyways.
There are some weird performance issues where there will be bouts of slowdown and some sort of vertical screen tearing. Fortunately, this only happens during parts where you’re just watching animations play out, so it won’t affect your winning or losing. It does add a strange sense of the game being somewhat technically unpolished despite an otherwise fluid presentation. Maybe the adorable horse running animation is just too cute-intensive for the 3DS to process.
Have you ever wanted to play solitaire while strategically directing your horse in a derby? No? Me neigh-ther. At least, that would have been my answer before having played Pocket Card Jockey. It has opened my eyes to the merit of a hybrid solitaire-horse-racing and light-RPG-horse-management game by melding so many different elements into something equally deep as it is cute. At the surface level, it initially seems like such an incohesive idea. But through some excellent game systems planning, the developers managed to meld what would seem to be an indecipherable mishmash of ideas and genres into a gameplay structure with systems that work perfectly with one another while providing reasonable room for depth. Aside from a few minor technical issues, I can’t think of anything from a design standpoint that I would change. I didn’t really know what to think of Pocket Card Jockey going in, but it has absolutely become one of my favorite 3DS games.