My Love/Hate for Solitaire Racing

One of my guilty, time wasting pleasures is solitaire. I’ve played solitaire in one form or another since I was a kid. Sometimes using one deck of cards. Sometimes two. Sometimes cheating. Sometimes not. These days I mostly play spider solitaire, 4 suit, winnable deals. I play it on my phone in bed when I’m too tired to play a “real” game, but my mind is whirling too much from whatever happened during the day to sleep. I find solitaire slightly meditative. Sure, it’s mostly chance, but there’s a bit of skill involved, a little intuition. And it teaches you to take whatever is thrown at you and try to make the best of it.

I also like ponies. I was a little girl in the 80s and I had My Little Pony everything—before there were bronies, before the my little ponies got all stretched out and weird looking IMO. To this day I literally squeal in delight when we drive by a pony. I clap my hands and everything. It would be quite embarrassing, but that brief flood of little kid joy that I barely remember how to feel dissipates any shame in my delight at seeing PONIES!

I like to think that I’m fairly up to date on Japanese video games. I buy a small fortune in Japanese gaming magazines every month. But sometimes some of the smaller more indie games escape my notice, or attention. Such was the case with Game Freak’s little horse racing solitaire game. Although it’s hard to call Game Freak, Pokémon’s creators, indie. I’m unsure of what to call the game in English. In Japanese it’s named Solitiba, which is a mash up of the word for solitaire with the Chinese reading for horse tacked on to the end. My interpretation of the reasoning for why they slapped the Chinese reading onto it is twofold. 1) SolitiUma—Uma being the Japanese word for horse—doesn’t flow off your tongue easily. 2) The word for horse racing uses the Chinese reading for horse and it is: 競馬 read keiba (pronounced like kayba).

Until recently I never even knew Solitiba existed. It turns out it’s been out since 2013. I’ve only in the last couple months noticed QR codes with cute little horses next to them tucked away in the back of a magazine.

Solitiba QR Code from May 2014 issue of Nintendo Dream.

Solitiba QR Code from May 2014 issue of Nintendo Dream.

It wasn’t until this month’s (June 2014) issue of Dengeki Nintendo arrived with a large portion of the magazine devoted to downloadable games that I even saw a two page spread on the game.

Dengeki Nintendo's June 2014 article on the game, complete with another enticing QR Code.

Dengeki Nintendo’s June 2014 article on the game, complete with another enticing QR Code.

female jockey aka me

female jockey aka me

So, last Friday, knowing next to nothing about the game except that it contained cute horse QR codes and solitaire of some sort, I decided to look it up on the eshop. Low and behold it was about 5 bucks. I have a vast backlog of games, both English and Japanese, so I can’t justify another $50 game purchase (sorry Love++), but $5 is virtually guilt free even if I hate it and play it once. So, without any further investigation (didn’t watch the trailer) I downloaded it.

The game starts off, your jockey goes to train and immediately gets trampled (sorry for the spoilers). You end up in some dark void, quite dead making a deal with god, who says you have to win at horse racing or he’ll send you to hell—I’m kind of hazy on the why of the next part because I really just wanted to play the game and it was too much plot for me—for some reason you tell god that the only thing you’re good at is solitaire and you don’t know how to race and so he infuses racing with solitaire and sends you back to earth. Voila! Solitaire Racing.

Is it what I expected? No. It’s not the quiet, meditative, play-before-bed game that I wanted. It’s fairly action-packed. You have to play solitaire quickly. Each race only has a few rounds of solitaire depending on the length of the race. And don’t get too attached to any one horse because you only race him competitively while he’s between 2-4 years old. After that you can race him/her in the old horse’s section, and if he loses too much there it’s off to pasture. Apparently when they go off to pasture (the ranch) that’s where you can breed and where the QR codes come in to play. I haven’t even tried that yet. I’ve been too busy getting my butt kicked.

Sometimes getting my butt kicked is warranted. Despite my best efforts of staying in the right place I’ve gotten jostled by other horses or I just run out of stamina, or I’ve done terribly on the solitaire rounds. It is luck based after all.

There is a horse that pops up and explains the game to you which is well and good, somebody has to tell you how to play this quirky little game. But he also shows up every time you lose and tells you exactly what you did wrong (whether it was in your control or not). And you’re forced to tap tap tap until he’s said his piece. For me, he’s the new equivalent to the duck hunt dog. He drives me insane. Because it seems to me that even though his intentions are good, he seems to be mocking me. “You sucked! You need to stay in the zone!” —that’s not what he says, but my interpretation. Maybe you can turn him off, but I haven’t spent any time in the options section.

And when I win he doesn’t show up at all. It’s so rewarding.

The offending horse once again reprimanding me. I hate his Charlie Brown  fiesta shirt.

The offending horse once again reprimanding me. I hate his Charlie Brown fiesta shirt.

When I play new games in Japanese, especially in genres I’m not used to, it takes me a little while to figure out exactly what’s going on. This game, was really hard for me. I had a vague understanding that I was supposed to be in the center white line. But I wasn’t really sure why. And I knew the horse was yelling at me about being too high on the track around corners, but it took me a bit to put all of this new information into something coherent. And every time I felt I understood one little nuance of it, there was something else I found I was not understanding, or doing wrong. That’s why I played it for 5 hours Sunday night. 5 hours. For this little game that can be played for 10 minutes or so and put down.

The top screen during a race.

The top screen during a race.

That’s my little horse galloping his heart out at a very slow 022. You’ll notice all the other horses have a lot higher numbers next to their fireballs (073, 074 etc.). The hearts are stamina. The more the merrier. At this point in the race I have 06 hearts which isn’t terrible, but I’ve got 2,000 meters left to run.

The bottom screen during the race: where all the action takes place

The bottom screen during the race: where all the action takes place

If you immediately look at this screen and can tell what’s going on, bravo! It too me a while to put all the pieces together. That’s my horse with the brackets around him “Macaron Prince”, and at this moment he’s smack dab in the center of zone 3 (that vertical white line) which is exactly where he needs to be. But, see the icon in the top right corner with the horse. It’s orange which means he’s kind of pissed off and the time I have to play solitaire will be shorter than normal. In the top center of the screen you see a white horse head? next to it are two arrows, that shows the direction and speed that the white zone I’m in is going to shift in the next round. So ideally I need to draw a line from my horse to where I think the sweet spot is going to move. Once I’ve drawn that line, I hit the red circle button in the top left. The horses will run for a few seconds, and then I’ll play a round of solitaire.

Even though I stayed in the zone pretty much the whole race, I still lost that one spectacularly. But I do win sometimes.

I'm the jockey. The woman dressed up as a cat (don't ask me why) is the horse's owner and you know, I'm not quite sure what role the little guy plays. I think he's god, actually.

I’m the jockey. The woman dressed up as a cat (don’t ask me why) is the horse’s owner and you know, I’m not quite sure what role the little guy plays. I think he’s god, actually.

When you win a big race you get a trophy in your achievements and these cute commemorative photos are saved so that even when you retire your horses you can see the highlights from their career.

For a five dollar game there’s a lot going on. I haven’t even started trying to breed horses. There’s a ridiculously overpriced item shop that has gashapon for sale that contain puzzle pieces. I don’t know what happens when you complete a puzzle. IIRC it just said “something good”. And there are so many cute, quirky horses. You see the horse cat horse from my winning picture, and the little bandaged horse from the top screen screen shot. I also had a fiery horse named “Fire Boy” and I’ve seen pictures of ninja horses and even a pompadour sporting horse that seems to be smoking a cigarette (that so wouldn’t fly here).

Victory with Fireboy

Victory with Fireboy

See the gray pompadour horse? Didn't someone tell him that smoking was bad?

See the gray pompadour horse? Didn’t someone tell him that smoking was bad?

I think a lot of the reason I’m playing it a lot right now and talking about it is because a) it’s new for me, b) I’m bad at it. And when I’m bad at something either I give up or I worry at it until I figure it out. And despite the evil Charlie Brown horse that I hate, I think this game is fun. I can pick it up and I don’t have to remember what I did previously. What I have to do this play time. I just race, quirkily, badly, triumphantly.