In 2012, developer King released a little free-to-play mobile game called Candy Crush Saga. Eight years later, Candy Crush Saga and its various spin-off games are still pulling in millions of dollars in revenue every single day.
Every family has a Candy Crush-playing aunt. It’s easy to poke fun at them for their candy-swapping hobby until the day you become a Candy Crush-obsessed aunt.
It happened to me. But instead of Candy Crush, I’ve been sucked into the world of Pokémon Café Mix, a very similarly addicting puzzle game.
The premise is simple: swirl the Pokémon around with your finger to make chains, break sugar cubes, dissolve whipped cream dollops, and serve up treats to your adorable Poké-patrons. As you complete levels (referred to as “orders”), you unlock new Pokémon, new skills, and new gimmicks.
When Pokémon Café Mix launched on June 24, I was quick to download it on my iPhone (don’t talk to me if you downloaded it on your Switch, you screen-smudging weirdo). An early adopter of most free-to-play Nintendo mobile games, I expected this to be another fun little distraction that I would get sucked into for two weeks, then never pick up again. Mario Kart Tour, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, Pokémon Masters, and Doctor Mario World all provided a good month of toilet-entertainment before they were sacrificed to the phone storage gods to make room for my 9,000+ photos (mostly of my cat).
But Pokémon Café Mix is…different. I know what you’re thinking — Amy, the game has been out for less than a week, how do you know?
The Recipe for Success
Ok, hear me out. Pokémon Café Mix is, dare I say, a dangerously perfect mix of ingredients. You’ve got:
- An extremely cute art style!
- Pleasant, relaxing music!
- A beloved video game franchise!
- The illusion of control that fosters a gambling addiction!
Some people don’t have the gambling bug — they were kids who walked past the claw machines at Wal-Mart without a second thought. But while never succumbing to the point of monetary ruin, I have always gravitated toward rigged cranes, scratch-off cards, and virtual slot machines.
And I don’t intend to spend a dime on Pokémon Café Mix, either. I have not been desperate enough to cough up any real money for virtual acorns I can use to get a few extra plays and special abilities. Yet.
Pokémon Café Mix masters a little thing I like to call the “dopamine loop”. Dopamine is the hormone that makes us feel good — your brain releases dopamine when you eat something tasty, have a good workout, or…successfully complete an order for a cute Charmander customer.
Pokémon Café Mix starts out with a lot of very easy puzzles. Completing them and earning rewards gives you a feeling of satisfaction that makes you want to keep playing. Simple, right?
But if every puzzle was easy, the game would start to get boring. I’ll admit it does take a while for Pokémon Café Mix to really ramp up the difficulty (order #64 was the first really frustrating one I remember), but once it does, that just makes completing orders even more satisfying.
Maintaining a balance of easy and difficult puzzles is key to making the game’s dopamine loop work. You knock out some easy puzzles that make you feel like a genius, then get stuck on one really tough puzzle (that might tempt you into buying your way out of it), and feel even more accomplished (and relieved) when you get through it. Rinse and repeat, the dopamine loop continues.
Another important element that makes games like Pokémon Café Mix and Candy Crush so addicting is the feeling of control that I mentioned earlier. Crane games are a perfect example of this. Even though they’re primarily luck-based, moving the crane around makes you feel like there’s more skill involved than there really is.
Pokémon Café Mix is particularly interesting in that you really don’t have much control at all — the Pokémon icons you slide around are not set in a grid like Candy Crush of Bejeweled. Rather, their movement is almost liquid, sliding and falling all over the place when you slide your finger around the screen.
So while you still feel in control, Pokémon Café Mix is far more random than most games in the matching puzzle genre, making the game even more frustratingly addictive.
And finally, like most other free-to-play games, Pokémon Café Mix makes you wait. You get five hearts and lose one every time you fail an order. It takes 20 minutes to regain a single heart, forcing you to take breaks (unless you want to pay for more hearts, of course). By making you wait, the game — yep, you guessed it — feels even more rewarding when you can finally jump back in and start making cute Dugtrio-shaped sandwiches again.
A Message for Parents Worried About Their Kids Playing “Addicting” Mobile Games
Hi, mom or dad! With all this talk of “addiction”, are you worried about handing this game over to your youngster?
You should always be cautious about giving your kid a game where they can end up spending your real, actual money (there’s even a pop-up “message for minors” every time you start the game addressing this issue). That being said, it’s not going to turn them into a gambling addict or anything. There are a lot of factors that influence addiction, and mobile games are not one of them.
If you’re concerned about any type of video game-related behavior — whether it’s playing too much Fortnite or constantly begging you to buy them extra turns on a level of Pokémon Café Mix, it may be because they’re psychological needs aren’t being met elsewhere. Video game addiction is more likely a symptom of a problem rather than a cause.
What does the future have in store for Pokémon Café Mix?
While the game released literally less than a week ago, I think it’s safe to say that Pokémon Café Mix has a bright (and profitable) future ahead of it. At the very least, it will likely outshine Dr. Mario World, another matching puzzle game Nintendo launched last year with a rocky start. Pokémon is a strong IP with a (mostly) loyal fanbase, and the cute critters are much more pleasant to look at than Dr. Mario’s germ blobs.
But will it do better than Candy Crush Saga? Honestly, probably not — Candy Crush fever was a truly unique phenomenon that just can’t be recreated, not even by adorable Pokémon in little café uniforms. But if anything, Pokémon Café Mix has made me think twice about judging anyone who gets hooked on free-to-play puzzle games.
So to my Aunt Annette, if you’re still playing Candy Crush…I think I get it now.