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The new Pokémon puzzle game is Nintendo's most free-to-play thing ever

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Nintendo has flirted with free-to-play game ideas over the past few years — inventively with titles like Rusty's Real Deal Baseball and more conventionally with demos like Wii Sports Club for Wii U — but nothing the company has done is as typically free-to-play as Pokémon Shuffle, a new puzzle game from The Pokémon Company and Genius Sonority.

Pokémon Shuffle for Nintendo 3DS hit the Nintendo eShop this week as a free download. It's a gem-matching puzzle game, like Genius Sonority's Pokémon Trozei for Nintendo DS though it plays very differently. Players can match three or more Pokemon heads in a row on the 3DS' bottom screen and successful matches will inflict damage on a Pokémon on the top screen. Line up Pokemon, create chains and combos, and you'll defeat (and then hopefully capture) other Pokémon. Players are given a limited number of turns — sometimes 10, sometimes 30 — to defeat their foe.

Pokémon Shuffle feels more like Nintendo's version of Candy Crush or Puzzle & Dragons than the game maker's other (better) puzzle games, and it comes with similar free-to-play trappings.

The game features a now-standard energy system. Each round of Pokémon Shuffle requires one heart to play. Those hearts regenerate over time (one every half-hour), but you can acquire more by buying jewels, then cashing those in for hearts. Jewels can be bought with real-world money, but a game character will occasionally toss you some and they can also be earned via StreetPass.

Pokémon Shuffle has another currency: coins. Players can earn coins in battle, but they can also be acquired by cashing in jewels. Coins are spent on power-ups — experience multipliers, extra turns per round, instant Mega Evolutions — between matches. One of the more expensive coin purchases simplifies the game board, so only three Pokémon are in play instead of four.

Players can also earn stuff by "checking in" once a day. The messaging on that process is initially confusing, as you need to progress through the game before the ability to check in becomes available. Once you do, you might get a few hundred coins or a special battle. You also need to check in at least once before you can buy jewels.

Buying jewels, which can be exchanged for game coins and hearts, is done through Nintendo's eShop. Prices range from $0.99 for a single jewel to $8.99 for a dozen to $47.99 for 75. So Pokémon Shuffle can go from free to expensive rather quickly, if you don't have the patience to wait for hearts to refresh so you can fight battles and win coins.

One of the bigger purchases players can make in Pokémon Shuffle is purchasing a Great Ball. When a player successfully defeats another Pokémon, they have the chance to capture them with a Pokéball. The odds that you'll capture them depend on the Pokémon and how many moves you have left. But purchasing a Great Ball with 2,500 coins guarantees a capture. The prompt to purchase the Great Ball feels like the most free-to-play smartphone game-inspired of the bunch.

In terms of straight up gameplay mechanics, Pokémon Shuffle feels pretty light, though there's something here for Pokémon fans who get a kick out of leveling up their monsters. As Pokémon level up, they'll inflict more damage, and when they evolve, they can unleash Mega Effects that change how they play as puzzle pieces. Matching three or more Mega Audinos, for example, clears out all puzzle pieces within one space of that match. A Mega Kangaskhan erases all puzzle pieces to its left and right; clearing out a column can unleash a devastating attack.

Matching the right type of Pokémon puzzle pieces against the Pokémon you're fighting is taken into account too. You can equip which monsters you'd like to take into battle — up to four — but if you're not comfortable managing your stable of Pokémon, the game will "optimize" your loadout for you.

Pokémon Shuffle feels like yet another experiment for Nintendo, but one in which it imitates other successful free-to-play games more blatantly than ever before. Genius Sonority and Nintendo offer plenty of safeguards to the free-to-play monetization aspects seem less predatory than others — you have to play for a while before you can buy anything, need to associate your Nintendo Network ID with the game and must opt-in to do "check ins" — but Pokémon Shuffle is also full of some of the questionable microtransactions that prop up hundreds of mobile and tablet games.

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