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How the Pokémon studio’s unlikeliest mashup came about

Horse racing and solitaire pair better than expected in Pocket Card Jockey

A group of cartoonish, stumpy-legged horses run on a verdant racetrack in a screenshot from Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On! Image: Game Freak/Apple
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Pocket Card Jockey, an unlikely mashup of horse racing and solitaire from Pokémon developer Game Freak that became a cult favorite on Nintendo 3DS, is back. The just-released Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On! brings this inexplicably moreish combination to iOS via the Apple Arcade subscription service. I’ve had the game for the past few days, and it’s been a delight to be reacquainted with its chibi racehorses (look at them, they’re trying so hard), fast-paced card-clearing, flippant sense of humor, and unexpected tactical depth.

Playing the game also reawakened in me a desire to know the answer to two burning questions. Who on earth had come up with this bizarre idea for a video game? And… why?

Enter Masao Taya, a programmer at Game Freak who worked on most mainline Pokémon titles from 2002’s Ruby and Sapphire to 2016’s Sun and Moon. He’s the director of the original Pocket Card Jockey and Ride On!, a horse racing obsessive who dreamed of somehow combining his passion with a card game. But, Taya tells me over email, it was a friend and fellow horse-fancier at Game Freak who had the final moment of inspiration.

“I was already a horse racing fan and had been making horse racing simulators and similar programs. I had been proposing ideas that combined horse racing with card games within the company. However, even I don’t think those ideas were very good,” Taya confesses.

The starting gate of a Pocket Card Jockey race, with a set of playing cards overlayed, including a layer that reads “START!” Image: Game Freak/Apple

“Then one day, my colleague — Pokémon series composer and fellow horse racing fan Go Ichinose — recommended that I try out a certain solitaire mobile game. He knew of my idea and suggested that I use solitaire instead of my card game.” Key to Ichinose’s suggestion was the particular solitaire app he’d recommended. Solitaire is typically a relaxing and thoughtful game, but Pocket Card Jockey has the player clearing tableaux quickly against a time limit in the middle of a race to determine how well the jockey is balancing the horse’s levels of energy and stamina. It’s strangely exciting stuff.

“The solitaire app […] also had a leaderboard where you would compare your completion times to players across the world,” Taya says. “I was hooked on getting a high ranking on that leaderboard, to the extent that I even got second place in the world on the rankings one day.

“To achieve that, I needed to both ‘think of efficient plays’ and ‘rapidly, accurately move cards without wasting a single second.’ I found my mind was in a state of comfortable excitement as I did this. So I imagined that a jockey riding a fast thoroughbred, who is constantly analyzing the situation and making decisions in order to win, is likely under a similar sort of stress and experiences the same kind of excitement when things go well.”

Taya and Ichinose got together with programmer Toshihiro Obata to hash out a prototype. “Neither [Ichinose nor I] wanted to create a horse racing simulator,” he says; instead, they planned to smuggle an involved and authentic horse racing game into something that appeared quite different, so they could win unfamiliar players over to their hobby while still satisfying fans of the sport. The design they eventually settled on has surprising depth.

A solitaire hand is overlaid on a darkened race track filled with cartoon horses in the game Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On! Image: Game Freak/Apple

A Pocket Card Jockey race has several phases. Hands of solitaire determine how well your horse starts out of the gate, how much energy you build up, and the strength of the bond between horse and rider. Between these rounds, you need to position your horse tactically on the track, balancing many factors: the horse’s comfort zone, which determines the difficulty of the solitaire tableaux (and how much energy they earn); the stamina it will cost to move position; the horse’s preferred positioning relative to other horses; the distance from the inside of turns; and the location of power-up cards that litter the track. Finally, there’s a sprint down the home stretch, when the jockey’s riding crop needs to be used with sparing, careful timing to egg your steed on.

It’s pretty involved stuff. I asked how deeply Taya and Ichinose had studied the sport to prepare for the game. “When you’re deeply engrossed in something, it may seem to others like you’re working hard, or studying, or training, but sometimes the person who’s engrossed is simply enjoying themselves,” Taya says, drily. “I think that’s how it was. Looking back on it now, I seem to remember that we both spent quite a bit of money on our ‘studies,’ but I’d really prefer not to remember that part.”

Ride On! isn’t the first time Pocket Card Jockey has appeared on iPhone. Following the game’s original 3DS release in Japan in 2013, there was a free-to-play iPhone release in the country, but it didn’t work. “We couldn’t adapt the game to the F2P model well, so it didn’t work out from a business perspective,” Taya says. “Since then, I’ve been thinking in the corner of my mind of ways to make Pocket Card Jockey a successful mobile game, but I’ve also had my hands full with lots of other (fun) work, so I wasn’t able to put my ideas into action.

“While this was happening, Apple Arcade began to catch on in Japan. I felt that since Apple Arcade doesn’t have any in-app purchase except subscription fees, there would be no need to force an F2P model on the game. Instead, we could simply offer the core fun experience of Pocket Card Jockey. We decided to give it a shot.”

A close-up profile view of a cartoonish horse and its jockey riding on a grassy race track from the game Pocket Card Jockey: Ride On! Image: Game Freak/Apple

Ride On! is indeed very close to the 3DS original, with only a couple of additions. Race scenes are now rendered in 3D, which makes it easier to track the relative positions of the horses and the power-up cards, while the balance between stamina and energy is more clearly delineated through the addition of stamina recovery cards to the solitaire tableaux. Taya says there’s a plan to add all-new elements to the game via updates, too. Asked about the possibility of a Nintendo Switch version, Taya says he’s focused on getting feedback from Apple Arcade users and delivering updates for the time being, but he doesn’t rule it out. “We want to see the reaction we get and then we’ll think about the next step.”

While it’s a shame that Ride On!’s audience will be restricted to Apple Arcade subscribers, Taya’s story does show the value of Apple’s oasis in the freemium desert of mobile gaming. Pocket Card Jockey always made perfect sense as a mobile game, but the prevailing business model wouldn’t allow it. Apple Arcade creates a space where developers don’t have to twist their ideas out of shape to make them fit the mobile market — and where a beautifully strange and funny idea for a game can find a home.