I always knew Pokémon cards would dominate the economy

pokemontcgPokémon Trading Card Game (2000)

It’s just crazy how quickly a popular fad can take a young generation by storm. Even in the late 1990s, I’ve seen pogs, marbles, conkers, slaps, Royal Rumbles, knife fights, games based on the IRA and co-ordinated sexual assault all gain huge popularity among my young contemporaries. But the reach of all of these rather popular things, even the IRA games at the height of all that bother, never got anywhere near as widespread as that infernal cash-machine known as Pokémon.

What was interesting about the Pokémon moneytrain, however, is that it swept through our prepubescent lives in two distinct and separate forms: first of all, you had the Game Boy games. Red, Blue and Yellow were there, with one old pal of mine somehow securing a dubiously-translated copy of Green. Gold and Silver and perhaps very briefly Crystal did make appearances, of course. But if there was no Missingno., Mewtwo or overly dramatic sounding Bubblebeam, most of my schoolyard peers didn’t want to know.

Once the games had died down a little bit though, in came a whole new and even pricier Pokémon endeavour: Pokémon cards. Yes, with the games having 151 monsters to make cards out of, all of distinct elemental types and with many items that could be employed as support cards, it would have been foolish not to cobble together a Trading Card Game out of it all.

So you could grab yourself a Machamp deck for not a huge amount of money and start from there. Only problem was, if you remember, those booster packs cost a small fortune. And they only gave you something like 10 cards, only one of them rare (and usually something shocking like Clefairy). I tell you, they were like little nuggets of gold, those booster packs. I think I might have opened two in my whole life.

And what was the point in any case? I never once saw people actually playing the Pokémon Trading Card Game. It looked like a fun game on the outside, though. So rather than building my card collection to have 40 Mewtwos and 20 Charizards like everyone else shot for, I tried to build a deck that might actually be competitive in terms of the actual card game. I even entertained these lofty ideas of attending TCG “tourneys”, whatever they were. I’d read about them in magazines, you see, and fancied a go myself, see could I win any prizes. Beat the very best and go home rich.

I ought to have remembered, of course, that that type of thing can only ever take place in upright, together countries like the UK or the US; an attempt at setting up a tourney in Ireland would inevitably have led to some shambolically organised, badly regulated effort with some Magic the Gathering cards thrown into people’s decks for good measure. And just when you think you have a win sewn up, the 9-year-old child you’ve just tactically outclassed lets out a well-planned, rip-roaring cry. His stunt has the desired effect: to minimise fuss the “organisers” (two uninterested housewives on backhanders) award your opponent the win by default.

You are beaten and cleaned out – you may even have to give one of your cards of his choosing away to him. And as you leave in a terrible bout of shame, your head bouncing all over the place like Nick Moran’s in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the last thing you catch sight of before you unleash all your pent-up fury and thrash the place is the sight of the spoiled 9-year-old boy smirking at you and writing his name in permanent marker on your once proud Alakazam.

Well, so much for that. It was a noble idea to try and get a nice Pokémon card game going. But like anything else, once the competitive folks get on board, the type who bring their own lucky coins to games and who have warehouses rented out to store all their Energy cards, things were only ever gonna go one way. Really, it was probably for the best that seemingly none of the other children in my school could fathom the rules of the card game. They preferred instead to spend all of their parents’ money so that they could walk around holding as many cards as they could in one hand, with seven Charizards on the top of their deck. On jealous reflection, they probably had the right idea.

But there was a solution to deprived children wanting to perform strongly and look the part during the Pokémon fad, and it even combined both the Game Boy games and the ubiquitous Pokémon cards as well: Pokémon Trading Card Game for the Game Boy Color. Better still, it had every card available, or just about, with no need for trading with other germs and restart the game 9 times to complete your collection. So even after the initial outlay, you’re saving money and time very quickly.

The game actually gives you a story, as ridiculously bonkers as it seems, although there are quite a few gaps that I’m sure fanfictioners took it upon themselves to plug. You play as this dull-looking boy in a bandanna (this was in the sexist days of Pokémon, before you could play as a girl) who lives on a small, economically unviable island where there are only 12 buildings and every one of them is dedicated to only one pursuit: the Pokémon Trading Card Game©®™.

You better believe that Pokémon cards are incredibly serious business in this game. And I love that. It’s great; the game doesn’t even bother poking fun at itself or satirising the silliness of it all. Everything on the island is dedicated to the cards. Better still, the few NPCs that don’t play the game, and who technically are homeless and unemployed as a result, are treated as social lepers and don’t even get given names. If you don’t dabble in cards, this game suggests, then you might just as well take yourself to the edge of the island and throw yourself in the drink. – that’s how serious it all is. There aren’t even any bathrooms or beds to sleep in.

The flow is actually remarkably similar to the mainline Pokémon games: you can choose from a Bulbasaur, Charmander or Squirtle deck at the beginning, and your overall goal is to win the 8 medals from different Gyms (sorry, Pokémon Clubs) around the island so that you can go on to… ah, inherit the Legendary Cards. In doing so, you’ll have to beat Pokémon Club lackeys, then take down the fearsome Club Masters, with heartpounding, this-is-nice-but-probably-a-tad-inappropriate-guys music pumping in the background.

Once you’ve gotten the eight medals, you can then take on what’s basically the Elite Four of Pokémon cards (no, really) and collect the fabled Legendary Cards. You are the Card Master! And that’s what the game is all about – I told you it was serious business. I can tell you that during my climactic adventure to gain the Legendary Cards, I quickly put together my trademark Blastoise Rain Dance Spam cheat deck. I finally got the chance to take part in tourneys. I also traded cards with other scrubs and collected all of the cards in the world, including rare Promo cards. But most of all, I managed to take every opportunity I could to get one over my horrid rival with annoying hair, Ronald. Yes!

How do battles take place in the TCG? I’ll be brief, because I know it’s tough – after all, it baffled most of my school friends. You’ve got 60 cards in a deck, deal yourself 7 to start off with and put a number of ‘Prizes’ (cards that are overturned upon defeating an opponent’s Pokémon) aside. You each have one Active Pokémon card battling, with a bench of up to 5 waiting to pick up the pieces when your formidable Dragonite finally gets taken down. You attach Energy cards to your Pokémon to satisfy attack Energy requirements.

Then, screaming your Pokémon’s attack names at the top of your lungs and optionally impersonating the Pokémon’s cry as well, you launch a fierce attack on your opponent’s Defending Pokémon, before it’s their turn and they respond in kind. Trainer cards complete the package, which grant all sorts of useful abilities. It’s beautiful; with no need to suffer through putting physical damage counters on Pokémon, no chance of giving your hand away by accident and not having to touch dirty cards in terrible physical condition, the GBC game already offers significant advantages over the real life version. Having hundreds of cards easily accessible really caps it off.

With seven different elements of cards in the game (Water, Fire, Electric and all that jazz), you’ll be pitted against a wide variety of opposing decks. This makes customisation a fun priority, which then means you’ll need to make sure that each of your four possible decks are fine-tuned. Beyond that, the coin tossing is predetermined and the AI certainly do a bit of cheating anyway, to cover up for their sometimes staggering foolishness. But that’s okay, because would it really be a Pokémon game if the CPU didn’t take liberties?

There was a fairly odd sequel to this game, also on the Game Boy Color, which added a lot of Team Rocket cards. It was never released outside of that strange Oriental place where all the food is white, but it’s finally been fan-translated and can be acquired in the usual places, not that I’d ever advocate that sort of thing. Us Engrish speakers will have to content ourselves with tracking down each and every one of this game’s 226 cards. It takes a bit of repetition to nab every last card, since the Booster Pack contents are obviously random, but at least having the game and every card available within it means it’s no longer a case of “Gotta buy ’em all!”

It won’t get the recognition of the mainline Pokémon games or even those Mystery Dungeon curiosities. And it probably won’t even take the crown of Most Underrated Pokémon game ahead of the fantabulous Pokémon Snap either. In fact, the very notion of a trading card game can cause mild disgust in jocks even more masculine than I.

So there’s a very small and very specific niche for Pokémon Trading Card Game to fill. But whatever that odd niche is, the game fills it beautifully. You can run through this slice of fried gold again and again, possibly with even more frequency than you’d run through a flagship Pokémon game. After all, what other Pokémon game allows you to come face-to-face with the typically Japanese, unstoppable force that is Imakuni?

07 November 2014

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