Why bring Nintendo games to mobile, when you can bring mobile to Nintendo games?
I had to play Pokémon Shuffle for the Nintendo 3DS quite a bit before I could figure out how I felt about it. When I first saw the trailer for the game, I was excited. “Finally,” I thought, “a game to cleanse my pallet after the frustrating difficulty curve of Pokémon Battle Trozei” (clearly, I have a history with Pokémon Match-Threes) I was obviously skeptical about the “free-to-play” elements of the game, and the careful word choice of using the phrase “download at not cost” made me feel worse, not better.
When I finally played the game, suddenly, none of that mattered. My eyes glossed over, lost in the world of the Match-Three. Being able to move pieces anywhere, and the possibilities that created for massive amounts of four-matches and five-matches, and the fact that having only four different kinds of pieces meant a high chance of insane cascades made me so happy, I forgot about all that free-to-play stuff. Then, after five rounds, my world came crashing down when I was informed that I either needed to wait thirty minutes to play the next round, or use the jewel they just gave me to play five more…
I spent the jewel, because it was a tutorial and I was supposed to do that. Over the course of the next few days, I continued to play the game. In the morning, after work, in between rounds of Destiny, before bed, and generally any other time that I remembered it existed, because it was simple and fun… but also nefarious. Despite intermittently thinking about how Nintendo included the option to spend $47.99 at once in a game that appears to be for children, I played on, five levels at a time. Then, somewhere around level 45, I won a round without making a single move. It was then that I thought “okay, now I can review this game.”
For those who don’t know, Pokémon Shuffle is a free-to-play match-three game, akin to something like Candy Crush Saga. You pick a level from a map, and you have a certain number of moves to complete the level. The objective is to defeat the Pokémon on the top screen by attacking it with matches made with your team on the bottom screen. Failing to defeat the Pokémon within the allotted moves kicks you back to the stage select screen with nothing. Each level requires you to spend one energy to play it, and energy recovers at the rate of one every thirty minutes, with a max of five energy. You can find or buy jewels to buy more energy or spend them on coins for power ups.
Observe the aforementioned trailer:
Watching it again, I can’t help but think “man, that game looks fun.” That’s why that trailer exists, though. They don’t mention the “free to play” elements of the game at all, except for showing the purchasing of new energy, but that may have been included for some strange legal obligation to show that those parts of the game exist. The kicker is that they show the purchase of said energy as obtaining items to “enhance your game.” They would have us believe that being limited to playing the game in twenty minute bursts, they’re doing us a favor by allowing us to spend real money to continue playing, and that is a feature that improves the game. I would argue that omitting the concept of “energy” would be a greater enhancement. The other “enhancement” they show is a power-up called Complexity -1. Admittedly, Complexity -1 is by far the sweetest power-up, removing one Pokémon from the equation, so that your cascades are extremely frequent and last for a very long time, but it is also the most expensive by a wide margin (it costs 9,000 game money, with 10,000 costing about $3). They introduce this awesome power-up in the trailer, and neglect to mention the real money you’ll need to buy it. What’s worse, within the first part of the game, they give you a free Complexity -1, just to give a taste to get you hooked. I understand that this strategy is par for the course with these kinds of games, but I would expect this from Zynga, not Nintendo.
As I mentioned before, the game starts out at a very low difficulty level. You’ll find a lot of the early levels almost impossible to lose, especially if you have a decent roster of Pokémon that and you’re equipping them in such a way to get type advantages. The game can do that for you, as well. Instead of picking Pokémon with abilities that suit your play style and have a type advantage, you can just tap the “optimize” button and the game will pick a good line-up for you. It’s sort of a nice feature, but it raises questions about what group of people and age-range this game is designed for.
After a battle, your Pokémon gain experience and level up, a nifty way to make the game more engaging.
Each round you play, you’ll expend an energy, regardless of how effortless it is. Once you’ve won, you’re given a chance to catch the Pokémon you’ve just defeated and add him to your roster, with a static success percentage that goes up based on how many moves you had remaining. Certain Pokémon are harder to catch than others by default, so players could find themselves replaying levels just to catch the Pokémon that they like. If you fail to catch a Pokémon at first, you can spend the in game money equivilant of about $1 to try again to get a Great Ball with increased odds. You can earn some coins by checking in every day and clearing levels, but one Great Ball costs five days of check ins. I’ve also found that Pokémon that seem to be more popular are also harder to catch, which means lots of players, especially kids, could be replaying levels over and over, trying to catch their favorite, and generally getting them to either play the game for longer, or getting fed up and just spending real money on it. Every once in a while, you get a level that’s really tough, requiring you to play it over and over in hopes of conquering it, as if there weren’t even places to sink energy into already. Then, three levels later, you’ll find a level that virtually beats itself. The game seems to have a grand identity crisis.
Certain Pokémon can mega evolve during the round, adding much needed complexity to the gameplay.
So, the player is given a choice. To play the game maybe three times a day for twenty minutes a time, depending on their personal schedule, or spend money. The gems they occasionally give you are not enough to play continuously for any real amount of time, and what’s more, when you fail a level, they allow you to spend a gem on five extra moves to finish the level with. Except that gen is worth five more energy, so five moves at the end is generally a pretty shit way to spend your gems, acquired with real money or otherwise.
While I played Pokémon Shuffle, I was frequently asking myself if I was having fun. Most of the time, the answer was yes, because I enjoyed the simplicity of matching the pieces and watching them cascade. I could easily play without thinking, the game just giving me the best team for every level with the tap of a panel. It all left a bad taste in my mouth, though, as I found the payed elements easy to not engage with, but hard to ignore. To its credit, the game is more complex than some old school match-three like Bejeweled, but is missing certain important elements to really make investing your time (or money) into it worth it. Anything I accomplished felt trivial, each Pokémon being just another drop in the bucket as I let the game tell me which ones to use, any variation in the seemingly endless stream of levels next negated completely by the “optimize” button.
I wouldn’t necessarily discourage people from joining the 1,000,000+ users in downloading this game, so they can see themselves if it’s right for them. In the end, however, I think that Pokémon Shuffle could succeed as a paid game, and possibly as the same game on mobile, but I don’t know if there’s a place on a dedicated portable console for this kind of game. Heck, I don’t even know if anyone is still buying into this free to play match-three stuff.
E-mail the author: Nick Obleschuk.
Follow the author on Twitter: @Big4Vlad