Game Freak spends most of its time these days churning out Pokémon RPG after Pokémon RPG, especially now that the series runs on an annual release calendar. Yet when the studio does break away to develop a completely unrelated, original game, it almost makes us wish that Game Freak had the time to be bigger than just “that Pokémon studio.”
I’ve done my part in exploring as much of the broader Game Freak catalogue as possible with zero regrets. As we await a new Pokémon adventure, these are four recommendations of games that share both Pokémon’s charm and its developer.
Pocket Card Jockey
The best Nintendo 3DS game of 2016 was this hidden gem, an eShop exclusive with a bizarre premise. It’s solitaire mixed with horse racing, with a little bit of dating sim in there. (Maybe “horse dating” isn’t the best phrasing here, but it’s not far off.) Pocket Card Jockey is one of those games that seems light, and then you check your 3DS Activity Log and realize you’ve been playing it for four hours straight. Switching between managing your horse’s stamina and playing a quick round of solitaire to win a race provides for one of the most entertaining, fast-paced games I’ve ever played. Plus, the horses are really cute and the writing is weirdly hilarious. It’s perfect. Play it.
Another 3DS eShop game worth checking out, Game Freak blended another pair of disparate genres to come up with this short, sweet adventure. HarmoKnight is a 2D sidescroller, filled with platforms and enemies a la Kirby. But to make it out of the level alive, you have to swing your music-note sword in time to the rhythm. This makes for a challenging rhythm game, especially when it comes to some cinematic boss battles. But as with most rhythm games, the repetitious nature is part of the joy. HarmoKnight is another title so mesmerizing that you will probably want to beat the entire thing in a sitting, because that’s how obsessed you are with it. Bonus: There are a few levels set to classic Pokémon themes, which are the most fun of all.
One of the quirkiest Game Boy Advance games is Drill Dozer, which is instantly memorable if not for its gameplay, but its cartridge. Its deep-pink cart sticks out much more than the usual GBA game; it has a built-in rumble pack, something that no game other than this and WarioWare: Twisted! have. That rumble is a nice addition to what is already a nice, if difficult, action game. Jill is a little bandit who uses her oversized drill-mobile to crash through ruins. The goal? Steal back your (already stolen) rare diamonds. It’s fun to play as a girl who’s basically the bad guy. Mostly, though, it’s fun to drill enemies to death. Shifting into different, more powerful attacks takes some work, and the platforming can be a bit finicky. But there still aren’t any games quite like Drill Dozer, which feels very much of an era to look back at fondly.
This is the wildcard pick. Yoshi is not the most popular puzzle game with folks, but trust me: I am a diehard puzzle game fan, and I think Yoshi owns. It eschews the simple block-matching formula borrowed for fellow NES games like Dr. Mario, instead requiring players to build stacks on four different platforms that they have to quickly reposition. If you let your towers hit the top of the screen, you know what happens. It’s still a dang puzzle game, and a fun one at that. Maybe I’m biased, because I only just played it for the first time in the Nintendo Switch Online NES collection, and it was the one game I was better at than my friend. But just wait until you manage to match two halves of a Yoshi egg, hatching a lil’ baby dino. Within this cuteness lies the earliest seeds of the thrill of hatching Pokémon.