Nintendo test the water of Freemium games and mobile gaming in general with the release of Pokemon Shuffle (Mobile) a game which saw release onto the 3Ds’ virtual store not too long ago. Following on from the variable quality in the official app for the ‘Pokemon Trading Card Game’, it looks like the first of Nintendo’s big franchises has arrived.
Nintendo isn’t first-party developing these mobile titles, rather they have created a partnership with an existing app development company to produce games using their IPs, there’s an important difference in this distinction because whilst Nintendo has a history of quality production values, some examples of their licenses in the hands of others have been somewhat dire. ‘Metroid other M’ and the Legend of Zelda titles on the CD-i all spring immediately to mind when this happens. Luckily Genius Sonority Inc seems to be focusing on producing safe but visually smooth titles for the time being, though it will be interesting to see if any innovation on these IPs can be made.
Graphically the game is extremely smooth in both animation and visual polish. The whole title uses a 2D artwork style that matches the visual design that has traditionally always inspired the Pokemon brand. Though the use of solid computer colour rather than the pencil and watercolour art style of the games cover and manual art is a shame, it matches in-game graphics seen in titles such as ‘Pokemon Snap’ and so consistently feels like a part of the same universe. Every Pokemon included in the title is represented by an icon of their face, and there’s quite a broad selection of these to be found given the massive run that the series has had in the past. Backgrounds are rendered in a faux-3D style to give the impression of depth that looks appealing, and although it would have been nice to see some pixel art on a title of this kind it does a good job of facing forward rather than trading entirely on nostalgia. Everything bounces, squashes and moves fluidly when poked or left idle, giving the entire thing a cuddly feel that’s very appealing.
The Pokemon series has never had strong musical direction and it looks like Shuffle intends to keep keep with this theme. Sadly the Pokemon Theme itself is not present in any form that I’ve encountered to date, but some of the background music is pleasant to listen to and does fade nicely between different tunes as you scale up and down the map to different locations. They’re aurally diverse as well, which lends some feeling of progression to the games extremely linear design. Sound effects for menus are excellent, with small pings and chimes as you browse or converse with characters, a factor usually overlooked by many titles that rest on ‘clicks’ for every action which soon become annoying. Battle sounds are a little soft and invoke games like ‘Candy Crush’ (never a good thing!) which don’t represent the act of battling against different monsters very well.
There doesn’t appear to be a great deal of ‘story’ to this title, although you set out from a small port town accompanied by an eager reporter who refers to you as a ‘Trainer’ which in the setting of the franchise implies that you’re an 11 year old boy or girl (the game is very careful never to mention your sex to further your involvement) on their journey to become a Pokemon master. She shadows you for her own reasons and aside from giving you basic tutorials has a general chatter and likability that makes her a good companion for a title of this kind, addressing the player directly in character and spurring you onward. Other characters encountered are usually other trainers or owners of Pokemon that act as bosses for each area and they act toward you in a similar manner.
Gameplay is traditional match-3 gaming with the player able to select a tile from anywhere on the grid and swap it freely with another regardless of the distance between them. Matching three or more Pokemon icons will trigger an elemental attack of their type against the solo enemy displayed on the screen above. Successfully defeating the opponent will win the stage and this must be done within a strictly set number of moves, making each turn and elemental types matter in a way few other titles manage. After a stage you have a chance of capturing the Pokemon and adding it to your collection with your performance taken into account for the percentage chance. You can increase this chance by paying in-game currency to buy a better pokeball, and of course real money can be used to buy fake money in traditional freemium style. This hasn’t affected me yet, but the overworld features a linear map with one ‘heart’ depleted per battle and at only 6 hearts and 20 whole minutes needed to restore just one it’s a safe bet that kids will be dropping money on ‘jewels’ to purchase more hearts or cash to further their collection. Collecting a Pokemon adds a small icon next to that stage so that you know you’ve collected and fully completed it, with stages finished without capture missing this pointer so you know to come back later and try again. You can forge your own party of Pokemon from the ones you catch and level these up through use, adding tactical depth to the game, although a button exists to simply select the best ones for each situation to save on over-thinking this through, making it more accessible for children. Coins can be spent on taking a selection of performance boosting items into battle too and evolution stones can be used to trigger ‘mega-evolutions’ for your primary Pokemon, which will transform into a more powerful form in battle once a hidden gauge has been maxed out. There’s also daily rewards, Facebook support and daily/monthly/special events to try out for more of a challenge.
Overall the game works extremely well as an example of the Match 3 genre but brings little new or exciting to the table. It has great visual style but sounds dull when played with the sound on and has the potential to eat away at the wallet given enough time or commitment to ‘catching them all’. At this point selecting and sticking with any Match 3 title of this model is basically a case of finding a franchise you like and enjoy. You could have Ghostbusters, Mavel superheroes, Adventure Time and even Magic: The Gathering is on the way with its own take, and that’s ignoring existing games such as Spellfall and Puzzle Quest or even Bejewelled. For what it is however the game is fun and a little quirky, running smooth as silk on the iPhone or 3DS without any glitches to be found. It remains to be seen how the game is up-kept over the long-term and what future updates will bring.