Horse racing is serious business in Japan. So serious that even a game as adorably bizarre as Game Freak's Pocket Card Jockey for the Nintendo 3DS offers a magnitude of depth you probably wouldn't expect from a title that combines Solitaire and ponies.
Indeed, Pocket Card Jockey's breeding of racing and cards sounds like an inhuman project by an unscrupulous race track manager. But the end product, though flawed, is guaranteed to gobble up your free time like a gelding going at a bushel of apples.
Even Pocket Card Jockey's story is furlongs away from normal. You play as a jockey with big aspirations, but a small brain. When you attempt to force a horse to run for you, it bucks you and you're immediately trampled to death by a team of horses in mid-race.
An angel resurrects you on the condition that you combine your dream (racing horses) with something you're actually good at (Solitaire). Yeah, it's something else. The important thing is, you return to life and now have an obligation to God to become a star jockey.
Fulfilling an oath to the Lord isn't something you do casually, and Pocket Card Jockey makes you work for your success. Thankfully, the version of Solitaire you play as a means of controlling your horse is actually quicker and easier to grok than traditional Western Solitaire (even though you've probably already dumped collective years of your life into the latter and understand its every nuance).
Pocket Card Jockey has you compete for cups in races of varying length. You can expect to play two games of Solitaire in a short race, whereas longer races can drag out to five games. In every race, you're expected to keep track of your horse's stamina, speed, and temperament.
The Solitaire games are vital for keeping your horse well-paced and well-tempered. Then the AI flips a card from your stock, you must tap the next card in succession, either higher or lower. If you fail to find a suitable card on your board, you need to flip another card from your stock.
If you clear all the cards on your board, your horse will wind up in a good mood and pace itself properly, which helps preserve its stamina. On the other hand, a bad game of Solitaire that's littered with extra cards at its conclusion plunges your horse into a bad mood. In this state, it loses stamina quickly, it won't listen to your commands, and might even turn runaway. It also risks not storing up enough energy to get enthusiastic about the vital run in the final stretch.
In between Solitaire games, you can draw a line to direct how you want your horse to run. Doing so lets you guide it into "comfort zones," areas where they run while expending minimal energy. If you win a game of Solitaire while your horse is running in a comfort zone, you can potentially gain big boosts to speed without spending any stamina at all. However, the Solitaire games that you play while your horse is in a comfort zone are quite difficult to clear. If you have too many cards left over at the end, you risk having your pony go completely orangutan.
All of your efforts come to a head in the final stretch. If your horse ran well thanks to your awesome Solitaire skills, they should have enough stamina, energy, and enthusiasm to break away from the competition and run to the finish line (provided you don't get boxed in by the other horses -- beware when drawing those guiding lines!). Alternatively, if your horse's stamina, energy, and mood is lacking, you're probably not going to make it.
Pocket Card Jockey is filled with big-headed horses, wacky owners with names like "Mr Blingman," and horses that have pompadours and wear sunglasses. Despite all that, there are a lot of racetrack politics at work here. For instance, your horse is considered beyond prime racing age once it hits the four year mark. You can still race it and earn money, but its stats won't grow. That means you have a pretty short amount of time to level up your nag's speed, stamina, and skills.
What's the solution to becoming a champion racer, then? Pokémon masters already know the answer: Good breeding.
Pocket Card Jockey isn't meant to be aced in one sitting. You're supposed to race several horses, breed them when they're mature, and make colts with high base stats. All that pairing-up is good incentive to keep playing, since you're driven to see what kind of cool babies your champions make.
In fact, Pocket Card Jockey should keep you busy for hours, and not just because it has all sorts of mechanics and tricks that are fun to try and strategize around. The game is addictive, period. You play race after race to shave seconds off your time, or challenge yourself to win several races in a row, or see if an eccentric millionaire will seek you out to ride one of their ridiculously-themed horses.
There's just one Clydesdale-sized problem with Pocket Card Jockey: A big chunk of your success relies on luck. You can plot your race according to your horse's weaknesses and strengths all you like, but in the end all it takes is a bad hand of Solitaire to bring you right down at the last minute.
Nevertheless, it's impossible to resist getting back up on that horse, so to speak. And even if you fail repeatedly, don't fret. All of Pocket Card Jockey's horses are entitled to a dignified retirement at your in-game farm. Nobody gets hauled off to the knackers like poor old Boxer from Animal Farm.
If you decide to go for a ride with Pocket Card Jockey, you're in it for the long haul. You'll spend hours bettering your times, breeding your champs, and experimenting with ways to keep your horse's stamina and energy up.
So many fun horsey noises.
Pocket Card Jockey is one adorable game. Besides the generic big-headed horses that come in shades of black, brown, and grey, you'll also see specialized horses with bizarre gimmicks: Pompadours, Luchadore masks, and smiling cats where their tails should be. It's more than enough to make you forget how the actual horse racing industry is, frankly, brutal.
Like any horse race, your success in Pocket Card Jockey relies on luck -- a little too heavily for some players, maybe. Nevertheless, once the game sinks its big, horsey teeth into you, it won't let go for a long time.