Game Freak/Apple; iPhone
The cult 3DS game has been refreshed for smartphones and the combination of card game and horse racing is as weird and addictive as ever
Ten years ago, Pokémon programmer Masao Taya had the idea of combining a solitaire card game with a horse-racing sim and somehow, instead of sending him home to bed, developer Game Freak let him make it. The result was Pocket Card Jockey on the Nintendo 3DS and its cult success has now led to a new smartphone version, which takes the weird concept and quite literally gallops with it.
You play as an aspiring jockey, looking to work your way up through the ranks by competing in a series of progressively more challenging races. To win, you need to be successful in a series of solitaire rounds (using the simple Golf variation of the game), clearing the screen by matching sequences of cards. The closer you get to a completely clean slate, the more energy your horse gets for the next few furlongs of the race. You also need to manage their position in the pack, using a resource named Unity to guide them between opponents or to get them nearer the inside edge when going round a corner. It’s also important to conserve stamina for the final stretch where you get direct control over your ride, using a whip to boost their run as you gallop for the finishing line.
What you get then is a surprisingly complex combination of simulation, strategy and resource management. Managing every aspect of your race so that your horse reaches peak performance at exactly the right time becomes a challenge, especially as you hit the more demanding Royal Derby and face longer races that require judicious stamina monitoring. Each successful race earns you cash that can be spent on boost items such as carrots, which improve stamina, and magic gloves that guide your tactics in the solitaire phases. Between races you also have to choose your horse’s life path, opting between different sorts of events as they mature and develop.
Although the visuals aren’t quite as charming as the Pokémon series, the game has a pleasing cartoonish feel, and the dialogue between your jockey and the horse trainer and owner is always fun. There’s a pretty thorough tutorial but you’ll struggle for a while to understand how the different gauges intersect, and how to manage the flow of power from your Unity to your Energy meters. After each defeat, you do get tips on where you went wrong, but the learning curve is longer than the Mongol Derby, and you’re always reliant on the luck of the draw in the solitaire sections.
But there is something compelling about this eccentric game that keeps you coming back for one more race, and each time you play, you edge closer to understanding the balance of stamina, energy, enthusiasm and unity necessary to streak ahead on the final furlong. Taya and his team have done a good job of transferring the original dual-screen display to the smartphone format, and its availability on the subscription-based Apple Arcade means that the developers haven’t had to fill the game with in-app purchases and other byproducts of the free-to-play market.
Some people rank Pocket Card Jockey among the best titles on the 3DS and Ride On will not disabuse them of this notion. It’s a weird, demanding and sometimes obtuse game that nevertheless provides moments of sheer equestrian delight – which is, let’s face it, something we could all do with now and again.