I grew up in the ’90s; Pokémon hit at the exact right time for me to become obsessed with it. I was hooked on those games for the first three generations; I dropped out after that, but made a triumphant return with X and Y and have been a steadfast pokéfan since.
Still, I wasn’t exactly excited at the prospect of Pokémon Café Mix when it was announced.
I like Pokémon because it has cool monster designs and old-school, turn-based JRPG mechanics; a puzzle game focusing on the cutest ‘mons isn’t a new concept for the franchise, but generally speaking, games like that haven’t been a great fit for me. Still, I was curious–the art style is certainly charming, and if I’m honest, I wanted to see what kind of pokémon-themed dishes the creators had designed, so I grabbed the game and gave it a try.
Pokémon Café Mix is a game in which you open a café and serve a variety of drinks and meals to pokémon. Meals are created through the completion of puzzles–but they aren’t match-threes, or Tetris-style line clearing games, or any of the other usual suspects in games like this. In fact, I have to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever played a puzzle game quite like Café Mix: the screen is filled with a bunch of different little pokémon icons (tiny pikachu and charmander heads, for instance) that you have to link together. Linking is accomplished by simply dragging the icons into each other using the touch screen on your Switch or smartphone.
The screen is basically a big ball pit; once you’ve grabbed an icon and started moving it around, the icons will bounce and jumble freely around the space. Also, a timer starts as soon as you grab an icon, so you’ve got a limited amount of time to build your link chain. You only get a set number of moves to clear the puzzle, and the prerequisites for clearing are different every time. Sometimes you need to reach a certain score, sometimes you need to link a specific type of pokémon a certain number of times, and often you will have to interact with different ingredients–and it’s through these ingredients that the game achieves a complexity that took me by surprise.
See, the game starts off easy. At first, there’s only one recipe for you to make: a latte. Lattes are simple and don’t really have special ingredients. They’re the tutorial. Soon, though, you upgrade your café with a tea set, allowing you to make your guests tea. At this point, the game introduces sugar cubes. Sugar cubes are that sit in a fixed spot on the screen, and pretty much any time they appear, you need to break them to clear the puzzle. To break a sugar cube, you have to set off a chain right beside it; it takes three chains to fully break a cube.
As you keep fulfilling orders for your customers (by which I mean completing puzzles), you continue to expand your café. Sometimes you get more space, allowing more pokémon to visit at once. Other times, you obtain new decorations, which entice entirely new types of pokémon to come by. But the most exciting upgrades are the ones that allow you to cook new dishes, because these directly affect your puzzles.
Sugar cubes are just the beginning. Before long, you’ll get a nut tree that lets you make a toasted nut frappe–but to crack these tough nuts, you need to utilize the special abilities of the pokémon assisting you in the kitchen. Oh, you’ve got some nice tomato plants so you can make cute little dugtrio-themed veggie sandwiches? Well, you’ll need to maneuver those tomatoes into baskets placed around the puzzle area. Sticky honey blocks quickly spread through a puzzle area, olive oil coats icons in residue that has to be dealt with before they can be linked–each new dish comes with a new challenge.
Ingredients aren’t the only consideration when working on a puzzle, either. You also need to figure out which ‘mon you want cooking with you on a given dish. You see, as you fulfill orders, you raise the friendship level of the customer you’re serving. Once you’ve fulfilled enough orders for a pokémon, it’ll join your staff and you can use it in the kitchen. Different pokémon have different strengths: charmander is good at making drinks, slurpuff excels at sweets, and so on. In practice, what this means is that these ‘mons can trigger their special abilities faster when working on specific menu items–and trust me, you want those abilities to trigger as fast as you can. There aren’t a ton of different abilities; they all pretty much take the form of “break all icons/ingredients in a single direction,” but that’s incredibly valuable. You can whip out mountains of whipped cream or crack handfuls of nuts with a well-placed pokémon ability.
Good performance in a puzzle also nets you golden acorns, a currency of sorts in Pokémon Café Mix. Unfortunately, the only thing the currency seems to be good for is buying extra turns on tricky puzzles or grabbing some useful items that help out when you’re in a jam, neither of which I’ve really needed so far.
I should also note that there are micro-transactions in this game–not surprising, given it’s a free mobile game. They aren’t too bad–mostly just non-essentials like the aforementioned items or more acorns–but there’s one that irks me: Sweets Pikachu, a pikachu cooking partner who specializes in sweets, is only available via real-money purchase. Admittedly the little guy is only $4, which is a more than fair price for how much fun I’ve actually found this game so far, but still… it seems a bit cheap to gate the franchise’s mascot character behind a premium purchase. I wish that he was also available through acorns. Even if the price was really high, I’d save up enough to grab him, and they could still keep the premium purchase option available to those who didn’t want to save up.
Other than that minor gripe, I’ve had a surprisingly good time with Pokémon Café Mix. While this style of puzzle isn’t my absolute favorite, it’s at least new and interesting, and the sense of progression as you improve your café and recruit new pokémon friends is rather addicting. Plus, the adorable art style and fun food and drink designs are make it a real feast for the eyes! While it’s nowhere close to rivaling the main series in terms of fun or time investment, Café Mix is definitely worth checking out for fans of the franchise or the puzzle genre–after all, it’s free on Switch and mobile, so what have you got to lose?