People often forget that Game Freak is more than Pokémon. Certainly, that’s where the big money is, but as a developer, the team have come up with some excellent smaller ideas too. Pocket Jockey on the Nintendo 3DS was one of the finest download-only games on that platform. Thank goodness, with the 3DS store closed, the game lives on, with Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On! on Apple Arcade.
Horse racing is a horrible sport. The horses are treated terribly, and it’s one of the most egregious examples of gambling that we have. I do have an issue with the way a game like Pocket Card Jockey acts to sanitise the sport. However, this is an industry that sanitises murder and crime, war propaganda, and just about every other social nasty you can mention, so in the grand scheme of things it’s not that problematic either. It is cute and charming, and that’s the first thing you’ll notice about the game. The aesthetics are colourful and cheerful, the deadpan humour in the narrative is downright delightful, and the horses themselves will make you want to squee. Unlike the 3DS game, the races are rendered in 3D here, and while that doesn’t do anything for the gameplay, it does double-down on just how adorable the package is.
The gameplay, meanwhile, is wholly unique, and you’ll likely never see anything quite like it again. In essence, you race horses by playing solitaire. At intervals during a race, a grid of cards shows up on the screen, laid out in solitaire fashion. Your goal is to clear them, as you would playing a variation on solitaire (in other words, pairing a card with another that is one value higher or lower). Clear the entire board before the time runs out and your horse gets a boost that will help it zoom around the track and come in in first place. Fail, and the leftover cards become a penalty that can see the horse drop back in the pack or struggle to make it to the home stretch with enough energy to gallop hard.
Between the solitaire games you’re not able to control your horse directly, but you can give them commands to reposition them on the track. Positioning is important because there are several “zones” that dictate the “tempo” of the race, and this impacts on the solitaire games that you’ll play. If you position your horse in the “hot” zone, the solitaire game will be more difficult, offering better rewards but in exchange for a heightened risk that you’ll fail to complete the board. Additionally, if you position your horse on the outside of the track, they’ll be less likely to be crowded in, but will use more energy to move around. The inside part of the track will be packed with horses, but it may be necessary to race there to preserve stamina.
In short, there’s a lot of tactical thinking that goes into Pocket Card Jockey. What seems very easy in the early stages (you’ll find it almost impossible to lose at first) does steadily escalate in the challenge it offers, and it does eventually get quite demanding. After the first few hours expect to lose more races than you win, just like in the world of real horse racing. The game is paced for Apple Arcade play (i.e. you’re meant to be playing on a daily basis forever) and so it does take a long time to get to the point where it does play like it is meant to and offers an interesting challenge, but otherwise, the experience is just the same as the 3DS original.
Off the track, there’s some more work to do. Horses gain experience and skills as they level up and age. Once they’re too old they need to retire, so you need to carefully manage them to get the most out of them in the short time that they can race. Thankfully, the game doesn’t treat retired horses as the real-world racing industry does. This is actually a really neat loop, because with every horse having different preferences in terms of how they race, and different strengths and weaknesses, you’re constantly having to adopt new tactics and approaches. This prevents the game from ever becoming a grind where you’re doing the same thing for hours on end.
Then there’s the breeding system. Retired horses can be bred, and the offspring will inherit qualities from their parents. This is the real progression system at work. Over time and by carefully preparing the lineage, you can breed up the digital equivalent of Phar Lap and dominate the most prestigious races of them all. It’s not a hardcore simulation by any means, and is designed around very casual management play, but it’s a welcome addition that gives the game long-term continuity and keeps you invested right throughout.
I thought Pocket Card Jockey was going to be one of those delightful experiments that died when the platform it was released on did. Thankfully Apple Arcade has saved it from that fate because we need these kinds of quirky and different games out there. I’m sure Pocket Card Jockey started out as a fun side project for the people at Game Freak that wanted a break from Pokémon. What they delivered was a slick and cute hit, and hopefully, this time around it gets the attention it deserves.