So why don’t you giddy up (giddy up) and ride straight out of this town?
Apple Arcade had something of a slow year in 2022. While there were still a handful of fun and time-consuming games released for the service, nothing came down the pipe that blew away my expectations or elevated itself above the best games available on the platform. I’m still playing a few games from last year — mostly just Cooking Mama: Cuisine! and Wylde Flowers — but at the turn of the new year, I was ready to finally say goodbye to the $5-a-month subscription once and for all.
Then, just three days into 2023, we learned Pokémon developer Game Freak would be releasing a new version of its niche classic Pocket Card Jockey on the service in January. Needless to say, I was excited, and I decided to table any cancellation plans until I had a chance to try this game out for myself.
I’m really glad I did because this is already a contender for my personal Game of the Year.
Wait, how does this play again?
If you don’t know what Pocket Card Jockey is, it’s a bit hard to explain without overexplaining and sounding like a crazy person. Case in point: my cringe-in-hindsight review of the Nintendo 3DS original. People routinely sum up the game as horse racing by way of solitaire. Each race you enter is divided up into three different segments. The solitaire segment has you trying to clear a tableau of cards by using cards that are either one above or one below it (for instance: using a 5 of Clubs to clear a 4 of Hearts).
The goal of this segment is to completely clear the board, which nets you energy for the second segment where you position your horse on the track. Each horse you race is different and they’ll have unique preferences on where they should be located in the race. The better you are at positioning your horse, the more enthusiasm they’ll gain. The first two segments go back and forth two to three times a race before you enter the final stretch. Here, all the energy and power you’ve manifested throughout the race come into play as you make your last-ditch effort to take first place.
You’ll repeat this process for each horse you jockey. When your horse is age 2 and age 3, these races will build their experience and level. Once your horse reaches age four, it’ll have to keep winning or be sent to the farm for retirement. Horses at the farm can mate to create foals that carry some of the traits of their parents. That is the general gameplay loop of Pocket Card Jockey, and if it at all sounds confusing, it’s really easy to understand once you give it a shot for yourself.
Unfortunately, that wonderful little 3DS gem will disappear with the rest of the 3DS eShop next month when Nintendo shuts it down along with the Wii U eShop. Because the game was never released physically, there would have been very few ways for people to experience this quirky masterpiece. Game Freak did release a mobile port of the original to iOS and Android in Japan but ended up shutting it down when it couldn’t figure out how to adequately monetize it as a free-to-play experience.
Not a microtransaction in sight
Thankfully, that’s not an issue with Apple Arcade. The main selling point of the service is you get access to mobile games without all the nonsense that usually comes with them. There are no in-app purchases, paid season passes, or ads to worry about. You just pay the $5 monthly fee and play dozens of games on whatever Apple device you own. It’s the perfect environment for a game like Pocket Card Jockey, and it’s clear Game Freak thought so too because it ended up making a better version of what was already an outstanding game.
Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On! takes everything great about the 3DS original and transforms it into an ideal mobile experience. Nothing is lost in translation from the two-screen 3DS to whatever single-screen device you’re playing it on. I’ve spent the past two weeks or so playing it on my iPad and there are times I have to remind myself that this once needed two screens to work. Not only is the translation of gameplay nearly perfect, but the addition of 3D graphics makes for more exciting races. The horse models look great in 3D and the tracks themselves have a certain GameCube-era charm to them.
While the gameplay is the same as it was before, there are some small tweaks that I have noticed. First of all, when a runaway horse runs into you, they no longer send you spinning out of control. You’ll still take a bump and may lose your positioning, but it’s not as severe as it was on the 3DS. Second, Ride On! has embraced the mobile platform and added login bonuses that grant you power-ups you normally can only buy from the shop that pops up sporadically. Unlike what you buy from the store, the login bonuses can be saved and used in any race you want.
The only change I’ve experienced from the original version that I could argue is a negative has to do with the positioning segment of each race. On the 3DS, you would literally draw a path for your horse to move with the stylus. On iPad, you just press where you want to go and your horse will go there. It’s far simpler, yes, however when you start seeing items pop-up on the racetrack, I’ve found it more difficult to chart my horse’s course so they end up in a position to collect those items. Each horse I’ve raced so far moves far more quickly than those items do and figuring out how to adequately chart a path has been the most challenging aspect of this version of the game.
I would play 100 hours and I would play 100 more…
But, considering I put dozens and dozens of hours into the original, I should be thankful there is some sort of difficulty curve for me to conquer. Pocket Card Jockey is my second-most played game on my 3DS, right after Animal Crossing: New Leaf, with around 100 hours put into it. By the end of the year, I have no doubt my playtime with Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On! will eclipse that. I just can’t stop playing this game, and considering I can access my save file from every Apple product I own, I really don’t have to.
Whatever thoughts I had about finally putting an end to my Apple Arcade subscription were put on pause when Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On! was announced. Now that I’ve had about two weeks with it, I am more than ready to pay the $60 I’ll have to pay this year to keep playing this game on my iPad.
To hear more of my incoherent thoughts on Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On!, check out the first Pocket Edition episode of the Keep Nintendo Weird podcast, hosted by Seth Sturgill and featuring yours truly.