When I first saw Sunshine Shuffle, I figured I didn’t really need to play it to get the joke. “Animals playing poker” seemed like a pretty straightforward gag that turns a Cassius Marcellus Coolidge painting into something comically literal. So I was certainly surprised when I found myself clutching my heart as one of the cute animals at my poker table detailed the gut-wrenching story of his father’s slow death.
Sunshine Shuffle is the kind of game that’s more than meets the eye in all the right ways. It’s easy to explain on paper, but that won’t fully convey what the unique narrative poker title does so well. That makes for a smart, hilarious, and at times strangely emotional little indie gem that doesn’t just teach players the rules of poker and how to bet. Instead, it uses that gameplay loop to tell a funny, but poignant story about risk-taking. And it does all that to a ska soundtrack.
Sunshine Shuffle begins unassumingly enough. An unseen animal protagonist steps onto a boat and joins a poker tournament that’s happening on board. It’s all very cute at first, as a table full of animals play straightforward rounds of Texas Hold ’em and communicate through Animal Crossing-like bubble speak. The poker gameplay doesn’t require much explaining; the goal is to win at poker, making smart bets along the way.
Simple, right? Well, not for long.
The lid is quickly lifted when it’s revealed that the players are all part of a crime crew called Morning Shift who pulled off a heist — one that crossed the Fishie Mob. The main character isn’t really there to play poker at all, but to find the truth behind what happened over a few hours of cards. Those cute animals suddenly start arguing and swearing at one another as they talk through what went wrong. It’s a secret noir detective story that plays out like a one-act David Mamet play.
Poker, of all things, turns out to be the best possible vehicle to deliver that story. The Morning Shift’s saga is a tale of high risk, as the crew orchestrated an impressive heist with some serious consequences that each member is still grappling with. The quiet genius here is that you learn that truth while learning when to make smart betting risks in the tournament. The story itself is about characters who failed to learn the most basic rule of poker: You have to know when to hold them and when to fold them.
Sunshine Shuffle toys with your attention in order to deliver that idea further. It’s tempting to get distracted by all the conversation happening at the table, as an engrossing story slowly unfolds in the middle of rounds. There were plenty of moments where I’d lose focus as I got invested in an animal’s sob story, only to make an obvious mistake with a catastrophic result — another hard lesson that the Morning Shift learned on their failed heist.
There’s an intentional layer of frustration on top of everything that’s sure to be hit-and-miss for some players. For instance, the computer characters operate like real poker players insofar as they can take a long time to ponder their next play (something that causes other animals to neg them). With no way to quickly skip through turns, games can drag on as they would in real life. The entire game is also soundtracked by an original ska score that quickly grates as it repeats the same few songs over and over. I imagine all of that is there to try and take away my focus and test my endurance as I pursue victory. Still, that aspect winds up feeling like more of a fun in-joke than anything.
I’m not sure if I got better at poker by the end of the two-hour story (you can continue to play freely once the credits roll), but I do feel like I learned more about how high stakes it can be. Much like Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, a film that brilliantly contrasts the life of a gambler and a military interrogator, Sunshine Shuffle gets at what the cards really have to say. And I’m just now realizing how absurd it is that I can make that comparison between these two pieces of art at all.
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