It’s almost surreal nowadays to think that there was ever a time where portable gaming didn’t have Pokémon. When Red and Blue first hit Western shores in 1998, those 151 legends would bring with them a wave of merchandise, cementing the series in history as the cultural epidemic it really was. Airplanes, cars, buildings; all were infected by the pokévirus, but none were quite so potent as the powerhouse that was the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Wizards of the Coast first brought them to the US in 1999, and the rest is school playground history. Can a Game Boy Color title truly recreate the ferocious rivalry and friendship-destroying power these cards held?
Hudson Soft was tasked with adapting the table top card game for Game Boy, bringing things right back to their roots with another RPG-style Pokémon adventure. For all intents and purposes the main experience appears very similar to Red and Blue, as you take on the role of a budding champion who collects badges to challenge the final elite four, but exploration is stripped down to a bare minimum. There are no towns or routes to travel along, no Pokémon centres or item shops. You move straight from club (this game’s version of a gym) to club, collecting medals with no messing around in between. The whole appeal here is the card game itself, battling other collectors and earning booster packs to assemble the ultimate deck. It may seem limited by comparison, but it’s an extremely competent adaptation that couldn’t possibly feel any more streamlined and accessible.
Chances are, even avid collectors at the time weren’t quite sure exactly how to play and remained perfectly content to just throw cards at each other, create their own rules and horde the holographics like they were sacred relics. Anyone in possession of a Charizard knew it was amazing, but some probably couldn’t care less about energy cards or anything other than the fact it did 100 damage. ONE HUNDRED DAMAGE!!! Thankfully, the game provides an excellent tutorial that explains how everything works, even suggesting a few basic tactics once you’re up and running. The ability to bypass these tutorials is also a welcome feature for the real veterans, who can launch straight into the meat of the game.
You’ll start by selecting one of three different decks, each representing either Squirtle, Charmander or Bulbasaur, and consisting of 60 different cards in total. As you progress, you can create your own deck of 60 cards entirely from scratch, with the ability to save them for use anytime. Much like the main series, Pokémon come with their own list of elemental strengths and weaknesses, and can even evolve if you draw the required card. Every time you remove an opposing monster from play you earn a prize card, and the goal is to claim each of them – usually either 4 or 6 – before your opponent does to win the game. Additionally, trainer cards act as items, allowing you to heal your team or search your deck for specific cards, while energy cards are placed on your Pokémon to allow for more powerful attacks. Grass Pokémon need grass energy for example, and HP-blasting attacks like Solar Beam require as many as four.
Like many other table top games it’s extremely easy to learn but can take much longer to fully master. You’re given every opportunity to improve, however, as there’s absolutely no consequence for losing; you’ll quickly amass a large enough selection of cards that entire strategies can be changed on the fly. Unfortunately this leads to what is perhaps the game’s biggest misstep. Predictably, each of the 8 club leaders base their decks around a certain element, wearing their weaknesses on their sleeves; this is also the case in the main series of course, but here it’s a lot easier to exploit. Taking on a water-loving opponent with a deck filled to the brim with electric pokémon feels more like bullying than a tense challenge, and since you don’t need to catch and train pokémon at all, it’s easier than ever to do so.
Get lucky with a few booster packs and you could be opposing Squirtle with a Zapdos right from the beginning. There’s no incentive to build up a constant ‘team’ of Pokémon, so players can build custom decks just to win against specific rivals. This is an unavoidable limitation of facing predictable AI opponents of course, and some could rightfully argue that it merely rewards those who are fully aware of their deck, constantly customizing to meet the task at hand. Lacking the option to play online however, this exploit only shortens an already brief experience.
That’s not to say that the game isn’t fun, because it absolutely is. The real-life cards are recreated in game with some nice clear visuals, and battles are made more lively by fun attack animations. Characters are surprisingly memorable, with cameos from Pokémon Company CEO Tsunekazu Ishihara and total weirdo musician Tomoaki Imakuni who gives us serious Tingle vibes… Even the ‘professional’ Dr.Mason sends you some cheeky little winky faces in his emails. The lack of outdoor environments and the uninspired club designs are admittedly a disappointment, but if you’ve come for the gameplay – and you should – then there’s no shortage of duel opportunities here. You can challenge the same people multiple times, and a special area named Challenge Hall provides a nice mix of much more unpredictable opponents.
There are over 220 cards available in total, with legendaries that are still exclusive to the game itself. Though your enjoyment does weigh somewhat on your investment in the Pokémon series as a whole, fans of the card game genre will find an enjoyable diversion here, even if their chosen rock has hidden them away from any knowledge of the subject material.
The Pokémon Trading Card Game successfully shows newcomers the ropes while providing the initiated with a slick, faithful adaption of the table top experience. It’s all the fun with none of the clutter, and the ability to save multiple decks allows for both experimentation and control over your play style. The main story would benefit from having some more unpredictable AI opponents, but overall we’re definitely ready for a new sequel. Let’s put those AR card readers to use, Nintendo!