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Pocket Card Jockey was last year’s best Nintendo game that no one played

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A weird, wonderful 3DS eShop title defined my year

pocket card jockey Game Freak/Nintendo

I spent most of 2016 in transit. Until the tail-end of the year, I wasted hours a day on a taxing but scenic, commute. It’s what I’ll remember from the previous 12 months — but not just for how much time I spent alone on trains and on foot, but for how I spent that time.

Typically, I would sleep if I was on the early morning train, or doze off late at night. (I was a frequent passenger on both.) Sometimes I’d write, or read, or stare out the window. Mostly I stewed in my anxious thoughts and calculated what little time I’d have to myself when I got back home at the end of a long, long day. It was rarely ever enough to start whatever console game I was excited about; I hardly had time to eat dinner and watch TV before I had to go to bed and start all over again.

For a period of time, though, I spent my train rides doing none of the above. Instead, in the early summer of 2016, they began to feel too short. I had my beloved Nintendo 3DS to thank: It had introduced me to Pocket Card Jockey, the new love of my life.

I downloaded the Nintendo eShop title after hearing how surprisingly mesmerizing it was. It helped that it was the rare game made by Game Freak that had nothing to do with its better known series (and my personal favorite), Pokémon. It was an easy purchase.

That is, for me, at least. To others, Pocket Card Jockey may be a tough sell. It’s an odd bird, combining several genres into one exhilarating mash-up. The player is an amateur jockey trying to break into the world of horse racing, after their death in a race that goes terribly wrong gives them the kick in the pants they needed. (Yes, this cutesy game starts with the hero dying.) Once they’re back in the game, the jockey gets to raise a variety of horses from birth, in the hopes of pleasing their wealthy sponsor and proving that maybe they’re not so bad at racing, after all.

It’s not just a horse racing simulator, though. In fact, Pocket Card Jockey is more of a reimagining of my Game of All Time, Solitaire. Each length of a horse race requires players to knock out a quick round of Solitaire. The faster they can clear out the cards, the better; failing to do so means bad news for that poor horse.

Being good at Solitaire doesn’t make one good at Pocket Card Jockey, since there are tons of other variables to consider. (There are things called Unity and Comfort Zones to worry about, if we’re going further into the weeds.) It does, however, make Pocket Card Jockey impossible to stop playing.

My love for solo card games, cute horses and matches that wrap up in minutes made Pocket Card Jockey my addiction. Its dark sense of humor made it my obsession. It was a reliable train companion, whether I’d had a crummy day or was exhausted or, too rarely, in a pretty solid mood.

I’ve always preferred handheld games, even when I wasn’t someone who spent most of her time on the move. I appreciate that most of them only require a tiny time commitment, and stopping and restarting games is easy. They’re also often quirkier than the games I play at home; name one console role-playing game from last year that’s as weird (and good) as the marriage-obsessed Fire Emblem Fates.

But spending all of my time by myself and in vehicles, I could almost never devote myself to any console beside my 3DS. Much like my rigorous and repetitive commute, the handheld was one of just a few constants I had in 2016. Pocket Card Jockey was another one, and always having my 3DS on me made it easy to pick up at any moment.

My love affair with Pocket Card Jockey ended, as affairs do. I still think of it fondly, but I’ve moved on to other games, on my 3DS and otherwise. When I finally, happily chopped down my commute by half, I was able to check out all those console games I’d been missing out on. My little 3DS became slightly less exciting and definitely less alluring.

I’m reminded of my love for the handheld’s games, and this weirdo eShop title in particular, not just because it’s Game of the Year season. More than that, perusing Polygon’s list turns up not a single handheld game — or even one by Nintendo. That’s shocking to me, who spent more hours with portable Nintendo games than any others in 2016.

Since it’s such a niche game, I doubt many of us at Polygon beyond a select few got around to playing Pocket Card Jockey. I wouldn’t expect such an underrated, tiny release to make it into the big leagues with Titanfall 2 and Dishonored 2 and other well-known sequels. I still can’t help but be disappointed, even as I feel emboldened to keep recommending 2016’s best, most under-the-radar downloadable game.

From Pocket Card Jockey to Pokémon Sun, the games I fell in love with on my 3DS last year made my slog of a commute worth it. I will never get those wasted hours back — but because of the simple and weird Pocket Card Jockey, I won’t soon regret them.