Micro-mon Mega Evolved
Nintendo takes on the world of microtransactions with Pokémon Shuffle. What could go wrong?
Pokémon Shuffle (3DS)
Developer: Genius Sonority
Released: February 18, 2015
MSRP: Free, with microtransactions (the bad kind)
To dispel the notion that Nintendo is entering entirely uncharted territory, it has already done free-to-play — to great success, actually. Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball was one of my favorite games of 2014, and implemented the scheme in an incredibly unique and very Nintendo way. Although I’m not a big fan of Steeldiver: Sub Wars‘ gameplay, the model is fantastic. What the company has done with Pokémon Shuffle is a complete 180 from its past triumphs, and frankly disappointing given that it’s a child-oriented IP. I don’t know if Nintendo, its board members, Genius Sonority, or The Pokémon Company is to blame, but any way you slice it it’s not good.
Presentation-wise, Pokémon Shuffle seems innocent — it’s vibrant, and all of the enemies you fight are represented by floating heads with no 3D effects to speak of. The general setup of the game is fantastic as a puzzler. It’s a match-three, no mistake about it, but it’s fast-paced and some stages are actually difficult (more on this later).
It’s remarkably easy to pick up since there are few restrictions as to where you can shift tiles. As long as you can make a match of three or higher, you can use your stylus to drag and drop. If you happen to get multiple matches in a row and more drop down to form more matches, you’ll make combos. That’s basically the gist, and it works. Most levels require you to defeat the enemy by scoring a certain amount of points within a certain turn limit.
There are some nuances, like the ability to use different types of Pokémon to do more damage by way of a weakness system. Also, certain monsters will have specific powers like the “Power of Four” attack that does more damage when you match up four or more tiles. Some characters can even Mega Evolve, which gradually fills up a gauge while matching that monster, and unleashes a power move the rest of the game. It adds a bit of edge to each match, because you’ll stop to think every so often and decide whether or not certain matches are worth it.
That pick-up-and-play surface mixture with complex depth is fun for the first 10 or so tutorial stages, then the free-to-play gating starts. Initially, Pokémon Shuffle will graciously allow you to play the game, granting you “Hearts,” “Jewels,” and “Coins” freely. Wait, what? Three currency types? Yep, it gets very sticky from here on out.
The core currency is Jewels, which function as the premium element and are available for purchase for $0.99 each, with a small discount for bulk shopping. You can exchange Jewels for Hearts, which let you play one level one time (win or lose), or Coins, a sub-currency that can buy one-use (of course) power-ups. The main problem with Shuffle derives from the Heart system. You’ll start off with five at first, and then you’ll have to wait 30 minutes for each one to refill, up to a maximum of five. To give you some perspective, levels generally take 30 seconds to one minute to complete. So after three or so minutes, you’re waiting two and a half hours to play five more. Even if you only pick it up once per day it’s still a tough prospect to swallow.
But that’s not the worst part. Power-ups are presented in such an underhanded way that they trump waiting for Hearts on the sleaze scale. After each level is completed, you have a chance to catch the Pokémon in question. At first your catch percentage is generally high, weighing in at 75% or more — so catching that Charizard makes you feel good, but even if you don’t catch it, spending a Heart to try again doesn’t feel like a waste. As time goes on however, I’ve bottomed-out on common-level Pokémon at 3%, at which point my jaw actually dropped. After a capture failure if you happen to have 2,500 Coins handy (that’s a ton, as each win only gives you 100 Coins), you can spring for a one-time use Great Ball, which enhances your chance slightly. It doesn’t even guarantee success.
Let me say that again — some common-level Pokemon will have a 23% capture rate even if you literally pay for an item that costs roughly 75 cents in real-world money. It’s outright disgusting when you think about it, especially since people are going to want to catch their favorites. If it happens to be anything under 50%, good luck to you. There’s also insult to injury once you realize that you spent a Heart replaying a level to try to catch a Pokémon with a low percentage, only to find out that you have to wait over two more hours to truly try again.
Oh, and each Pokémon has a miniature experience/level system too, so if you want to grind to increase your level for some of the tougher Expert or later stages, that’s more Hearts. It’s absolutely maddening. At one point I was having a lot of fun playing the game since I had purchased some Hearts. I blew through some stages and it was a blast. Quickly, I realized that I was playing Pokémon Shuffle, and the energy system kicked back in. I guess Nintendo thought that I didn’t need to play for more than 30 minutes and needed a break.
Nintendo allows you to gain extra currency by way of StreetPass, which I did test, but the gains are minimal. At best, you’ll get to play an extra 30 minutes or so per day if you live with another 3DS owner before it’s back to the waiting game. The other issue is that pretty much every power-up is oddly expensive outside of the clear-cut best value 800 Coin turn extender, which feels like a win button in some cases. No Play Coin support is another missed opportunity.
Anything truly enjoyable about the game is ruined by the microtransactions. Apparently Nintendo is doling out random events, like the ability to fight Mew for three weeks after launch. I absolutely rocked him, and blew the challenge out of the water on the fifth attempt, using up all my allotted Hearts. It was a rush. I was greeted with a 30% chance to catch him with a Great Ball. I said to myself, “Why even try? Why even get excited at the prospect of catching a rare Pokémon when the game is literally pay to win?”
Expert (EX) levels seek to mix things up by allowing unlimited moves in exchange for a time limit, but they follow the same principle — you do a ton of work, beat the stage, and get nothing out of it outside of a paywall. In the interest of disclosure, I made it to level 100 (Nintendo states there are 160 in all), and used $4.99 of my own funds to purchase Jewels to continue playing. I didn’t replay very many levels to see if I could recatch Pokémon, because frankly, it felt like a waste of time.
I’m not inherently against free-to-play in the slightest. I actually have felt inspired to spend money on games I was having fun with, and many games like Dota 2 and Path of Exile actually feel legitimately free, with a purely cosmetic shop. The system can work. Maybe I sound like I’m trying to bargain with the devil, but if Pokémon Shuffle had even a 15-minute-per-Heart timer it would be a much stronger experience. For now, if you really want a 3DS Pokémon puzzle game, buy the flawed Pokémon Battle Trozei instead for $7.99. It’s basically the same thing, but you can actually play it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher ahead of launch. No microtransaction payments were provided.]