2023’s first gaming surprise is here, and it’s a shockingly pleasant one: Pocket Card Jockey is coming to Apple Arcade on January 20. Game Freak’s experimental 3DS game is notable for both being really fun and one of the studio’s only non-Pokémon releases, and Apple’s ongoing exercise in subscription gaming is now poised to save it from the dead Nintendo platform.
Pocket Card Jockey is a mashup of horse racing and solitaire. You play as a man who dies and comes back to life to use his skills playing cards to help his horse win races. It sounds absurd and it is. But it’s also brilliant, showing Game Freak knows its way around more than just iterating on Pokémon sequels.
Apple announced the port to iOS, called Ride On!, on Tuesday, and while the gameplay will remain the same, the horse races themselves will now be portrayed in 3D. It’s the perfect sort of pickup for the platform’s subscription service, rewarding players who are signed up with a hidden gem while not ruining a beloved formula with ads or microtransactions.
Players compete in each horse race by clearing piles of cards, with their corresponding horse performing better the more cards they are able to get through. That’s not all. Certain cards also provide bonuses, improve performance, raise the horse’s level, or grant it new skills. There’s even horse breeding, because while cards are forever, a horse’s life is not.
It made Kotaku’s 2016 list of “weirdest 3DS games you may have missed” with former Editor-in-Chief, Stephen Totilo, lauding the gameplay as both “strategic and shockingly deep.” But why does it exist in the first place? Why would Game Freak, the studio continually pumping out new Pokémon best-sellers, take time to ship a $US7 ($10) micro-game?
The studio has an internal system called the “Gear Project” where employees form teams and submit game projects. The approved ones then get greenlit for full development. Besides Pocket Card Jockey, games like HarmoKnight, Tembo The Badass Elephant, and Giga Wrecker were also born of this process. Game Freak programmer and director Masayuki Onoue previously said in an interview with VGC that it helped staff developer their experience around making original games and return to the Pokémon series “refreshed.”
The most recent game released this way was Little Town Hero for the Switch back in 2019. Another card-based hybrid, it was a fun little tactical RPG with charming visuals and a soundtrack by Undertale’s Toby Fox. Hopefully the current onslaught of Pokémon games, and their clear need for more development time and polish, doesn’t prevent Game Freak from continuing to experiment with weird one-off projects in the future.