Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Pokemon Trading Card Game

As I've mentioned in the past, Pokemon was love at first sight for me. The only problem with it was the same problem that any terrific video game has -- it left me hungry for more. And in the years between the Red/Blue versions and the Gold/Silver versions, I found myself biting on Nintendo's bait more often than I'd like to admit. Spinoffs abounded, and far too many of them were simple cash-ins. Pokemon Snap? Pokemon Pinball? Yeah, I bought them. I'm not proud.

Now, Pokemon Trading Card Game -- there's an interesting story. At first glance, I was bitterly disappointed. I even wrote a terrible review of it for my old website. But instead of heartlessly reselling it, I left it tucked into the bottom of my video game library, only to rediscover it more than a year later and realize how its appeal revealed itself in layers.

Layer One -- A Tiny Adventure Game

"Ah, the days of my youth, like the scent of fresh lemons", you see. I was 19 or 20, still but a youth in my perception of the world. If I remember correctly, my respect for the genre of Game & Watch was beginning to blossom, but I had not yet learned the most important lesson about video games -- that their value does not begin and end with the length of time it takes you to finish them. (I would learn it the hard way when The Ocarina of Time, with its promised 70 hour playtime, bored me to death before I could get to the halfway mark and ended up collecting dust on my shelf.)

Still, perhaps it's understandable. After all, the main game is presented as a retelling of the original Pokemon story, only with card battles instead of Pokemon battles. After a brief, strictly-scripted tutorial match, the kindly Doctor Mason grants our protagonist a deck of cards themed after your choice of starter Pokemon (Charmander & Friends, Bulbasaur & Friends, or Squirtle & Friends) and sends him off into the world on a quest to defeat the leaders of the eight Pokemon TCG clubs so that he'll be allowed to take on the Legendary Four. The prize for winning is a set of four super-uber-OMG-rare cards. Along the way, our hero will be periodically confronted by his rival, Ronald, which will ultimately end in a spectacular endgame showdown.

Almost immediately, the problems with making such a direct parallel became clear. It made sense in the original games to meet a scientist who studies real live animals, but a scientist who studies a children's game? Keep in mind that there's nothing to indicate that the game takes place in a world where Pokemon are real -- there's some flashy special effects during the game, but your cards never come to life or anything. A bit more unsettling is the moral at the end of the game -- we're told that the protagonist achieved victory because he cared for and believed in every one of his cards equally. Now... as much as I like my inanimate objects, I find it a little troubling that the message here is ultimately that the secret to success is investing your ego into lifeless things. Then again, maybe that's the sort of poignant irony I need more of in my life.

ANYWAY! Enough of that! It seems like a good enough start for a game, doesn't it? The only real problem is that the game world is essentially a menu with twelve different locations. Each location is a building which consists of, at most, three "rooms". And you'll find people to chat with in each of the different locations. There's a couple simple side quests that you can engage in to trade or receive cards. But the main attraction here are the card matches. There are three underlings to beat in each "club". For each one you beat, you get twenty cards to add to your hoard. Defeat all of the underlings, and you get the chance to take on the club leader. Defeat him, and you get the badge. Get all eight badges, and you can take on the Legendary Four. That's a total of 36 matches, if you don't count the handful of times that you'll confront Ronald. I crossed the finish line in just about 18 hours.

This pissed me off to no end. OMFG, THIS GAME IS TEH SHORT!!! After the monstrous adventure that was Pokemon Red/Blue, it was a crushing disappointment to see the original story abridged like this. What, no giant caverns to explore? No endless level grinding and Pokemon capturing? No juggling TMs and HMs and searching for evolution items and concocting ridiculous trading schemes to CATCH 'EM ALL(TM)?!

Not, you must understand, that I didn't enjoy reaching that ending. I loved every minute of it. But where Pokemon Red/Blue offered hours of post-ending Pokemon training to do, Trading Card Game just gave you the opportunity to rematch any of the characters in the game for more booster packs. What, I wondered at the time, was the point?

It wouldn't be until much later that I would realize the beauty of this game is not in the destination, but in the journey.

Layer Two -- Streamlined Pokemon Combat

The release of Pokemon Gold/Silver came with much rejoicing and over seventy wasted hours of my life. Someday I may just yet write that review of Gold/Silver and do it the justice it deserves. For now, I'll just mention that I was struck by how much the combat system had evolved in the series' first sequel and how evident it was that the trading card game had been an influence. It made me remember how much I'd actually enjoyed those 18 hours I'd spend with the TCG. So, when I started to get sick of my repeated battles with Ash in the Gold version, I started popping in the TCG now and then.

The transformation didn't happen immediately. At first, I would just amuse myself by tracking down the mysterious Imakuni? and play against his crazy deck. I'd go around to the various club leaders and put together decks to tear them apart. I rematched the Legendary Four until I'd gotten two copies of each Legendary card. I won a few tournaments at the Challenge Cup. And, slowly but surely, everything started clicking into place. I was starting to enjoy the Trading Card Game more than the series proper. And there were a number of reasons for this.

Every match is different. Nothing really changes in the original games. If you lose to an opponent and go back for a rematch, you can expect pretty much the same results. With the Trading Card Game, an especially lucky or unlucky deal can make all the difference. You don't even know what cards you're going to get to play with until they're dealt to you. You basically have to come up with a new strategy on a game-by-game basis. This is much more stimulating than the battles in the original games.

The game is well balanced. In the series proper, you can obliterate just about any enemy simply by leveling up high enough. This is less of an issue in TCG. Just about every card in the game is balanced by its advantages and disadvantages. A card with a lot of attack power, for example, will need a lot of energy to power it, and only one energy card can be played on a turn. Evolved Pokemon can be tough to bring down, but evolution is an unreliable proposition in TCG. The bottom line? Replaying opponents never becomes a moot point. You can't simply level-grind your way to victory anymore. Strategy -- in the form of deck-building and actual gameplay -- is everything now.

Strategy is much different. Although the rules are drawn from the original games, you really need to change the way you think about the game to succeed in TCG. For example, in the original, the best strategy is to try and diversify your team as much as possible, the better to exploit weaknesses in your enemy. But thanks to the energy card system in TCG, it actually hurts your effectiveness if you try to diversify too much. Having too many different kinds of energy cards in your hand reduces your chances of getting the kind you need when you need them. And there's always so much to think about -- energy costs, Pokemon Powers, status ailments, trainer cards, random damage.

The more I played, the more I came to realize that there was more to playing this game than simply building a deck designed to beat a particular character -- through elemental matchups or otherwise. I decided to try and build an Ultimate Deck that would be effective against any opponent in the game. And with this mission, my love of the game truly began.

Layer Three -- The Search for the Perfect Deck

And now, the real reason I started this review: I want to wax poetic about the virtues of my deck. My interest in the game, like my interest in any true classic game, has come and gone throughout the past few years, and my uberdeck tends to undergo small evolutions whenever it strikes my fancy. What follows is merely the most recent version, the present state of a continuous work in progress. Not to say I'm not proud of it.

You, uh... You might want to skip to the next section.


My philosophy for the Pokemon I select is simple. I want instant gratification -- basic types with lots of hit points and very useful abilities. There are some powerful evolved Pokemon in the game, but evolution is too slow and finicky for my tastes. While you're waiting for that evolution card to get into your hand, your weakling basic Pokemon is getting the stuffing kicked out of it, and those wounds don't heal just because it turns into a Charizard. You end up with an uber-powerful card that eats up four of your energy cards and croaks one or two turns later.

No, I want my Pokemon to hit the ground running, charge up quick, and lay waste. I want to nuke my opponent's active Pokemon before he has a chance to charge up his bench and then tear them down one by one. I want moves that deliver results without the need for a coin flip. Most importantly, I want all of my Pokemon to use the same type of energy. I don't want a handful of fire cards when my arena is filled with grass types or vice versa.

Here's a breakdown of the Pokemon in my deck.

Scyther lv25 x 4
Forget all that crap I said about this game being perfectly balanced, every card having strengths and weaknesses. As far as I'm concerned, this game is "Scyther presents: The Scyther Show, starring Scyther". Everything else in my deck is simply there to support Scyther. In my experiments with the game, no other card has demonstrated itself to be so useful, so versatile, or so deadly in the right hands. I mean, look at this thing! It's a basic Pokemon, and it comes out swinging with a whopping 70 hit points. It has a deceptively useful attack called Swords Dance that doubles the strength of its next attack. It has a resistance to fighting types, and quite a few of the fighting types (mostly the ones that would be ground or rock type in the original games) are weak against its grass type attack. And best of all, unlike many of the useful Pokemon in the game, you don't have to sacrifice any energy cards to get it to retreat.

Put it all together, and you have a ninja bastard of a card that laughs in the face of the rules as it keys in on the enemy's weaknesses. Look at what this thing can do:

SIZING UP THE ENEMY -- It's rarely a bad idea to put Scyther in as your first active Pokemon. With 70 hit points, there's no way he's going down in the first round even if your opponent wins the opening coin toss. If the situation looks hostile -- the enemy's filled his arena with fire types, for example -- you can retreat him at zero cost.

THE SECOND ROUND KO -- This is always a wonderful situation. I lead with Scyther, I have a grass energy and a double colorless energy in my hand, and I win the opening coin toss.

On my first turn, I play the grass energy and have him perform Swords Dance.

My opponent gets to play an energy card. Maybe he even gets to strike back. Most basic Pokemon will do a maximum of 20 hit points with a one-energy attack. I'm not worried.

My second turn. I play the double colorless energy and do Slash. Thanks to Swords Dance, I deal 60 hit points of damage. My opponent's active Pokemon is either knocked out or mortally crippled -- another Slash will almost always knock them out. If Scyther was hit at all, it was barely a scratch.

The best case scenario for my opponent is that he has to face the problem of whether or not to waste another energy card on this Pokemon before it's knocked out. Energy is a precious thing in the game. While he's busy scrambling to power up his next Pokemon, I still have an almost completely healthy, fully-charged Scyther, and I'm already powering up his successor on the bench.

THE TAG TEAM RECOVERY -- There are a lot of status afflictions that end when a Pokemon is on the bench. Besides the usual suspects -- confusion, poison, sleep, paralysis -- there are also a number of effects that you can end by benching your own or your opponent's Pokemon. Since it doesn't cost any precious energy to retreat Scyther, you can end any number of harmful effects by having a Scyther on your bench and playing a Switch card. Switch Scyther in, then have him retreat and replace him with your original Pokemon. Even better, if both Pokemon are Scyther, you can simply retreat the active one, then put him back in. (Of course, a number of afflictions will prevent the active Scyther from retreating to begin with, so it's best to keep some Switch cards handy if you depend on this strategy.)

DAMAGE STORAGE -- As I've mentioned before, Swords Dance is deceptively valuable. On the surface, it seems pretty dumb. Swords Dance followed by Slash delivers the same amount of damage as Slash followed by Slash. You can't even stack the effect; you get only one double, no matter how many times in a row you use Swords Dance. So what good is it?

Well, for one thing, there are a number of reasons why you wouldn't want to attack an opponent on a particular turn. Maybe the opponent has just played a "Defender" card that'll weaken the attack. Maybe the opponent's Pokemon has just performed a move that'll prevent it from receiving any damage on its next turn. These are the perfect opportunities to abuse Swords Dance. Instead of stunting the damage that you'll do on one turn and doing full damage the next, you get the effect of two full turns of damage (provided your opponent's protection has lapsed on the next turn).

Another case where it's useful to store damage is as follows. Your opponent is on the ropes, but he keeps switching out, scooping up, and healing his Pokemon to delay long enough for some sort of miracle to happen. Thirty hit points of damage on a single turn is easier to recover from than sixty hit points of damage on a single turn. "Wasting" a turn to do Swords Dance sends a message to your opponent: "Go ahead and switch out. Whatever's in front of my on my next turn is going down."

And, of course, Swords Dance lets you up the ante a bit when you don't have the energy for a Slash attack, but you anticipate having it on your next turn. See "The Second Round KO", above.

Pinsir lv24 x 3
Sometimes you need a little less nuance and a little more unstoppable killing machine. That's what Pinsir is all about. His Guillotine attack can turn any match into a bloodbath, mowing down opponents with 50 hit point attacks. The only problem is, it takes him forever to charge up -- three or four turns -- and with only 60 hit points, just about any basic Pokemon will be able to take him out before he's reached his full potential.

Pinsir's a good Pokemon to keep quietly on the bench, slowly nurtured to maturity while a Scyther softens up the competition a bit. I only lead with Pinsir when it's absolutely necessary. Even then, I'm not likely to bring him up to full power -- that's energy that's better saved for his successor.

Koffing lv13 x 2
Koffing is the new face in my deck, and I'm still trying to assess exactly how useful it is. With only 50 hit points, it's the lightweight of the bunch, but I'm intrigued by its Foul Gas attack. It takes only two grass energy to power up, and delivers only 10 hit points of basic damage, but it always inflicts a status change on the opponent.

The consolation prize is Confusion, a status that makes your opponent's attacks and retreats subject to a coin flip. If he gets tails, it's twenty damage to himself. It's a nasty, nasty condition to be in.

But the grand prize is Poison. Poison is the gift that keeps on giving -- 10 points of damage at the end of each player's turn. He gets to attack, he takes 10 damage. I get to attack, he takes 10 damage again.

Understandably, most opponents will try to bench their Pokemon rather than deal with these afflictions. But that's okay too, because benching their Pokemon costs them their precious energy. Koffing can really hit them where it hurts -- if only for a while.

Kangaskhan lv40 x 2
Sometimes you need to take a breather. Just spend some time weathering the storm and regrouping. Spend some time playing defense and letting your heavy hitters power up.

Chansey is probably the queen of delay tactic Pokemon. With an unheard of 120 hit points and a Scrunch attack that could prevent your opponent from dealing any damage, facing off against a Chansey is roughly the equivalent of repeating the same long line at the DMV over and over again.

Still, I decided to go with Kangaskhan. Chansey is a hell of a brick wall, but that's all she is; I'm not overly fond of self-afflicting damage moves, which is all she has to fall back on. What Kangaskhan lacks in sheer resilience (only 90 hit points), she makes up for with her Fetch attack, a low-cost move that lets you draw a card. Not only are you preventing the enemy from dealing any damage on your more important Pokemon, but you're doubling the speed at which you can call on reinforcements. A single card can be the difference between life and death in this game. Anything -- anything -- extra that you can get your hands on is a bonus. (Just as long as you're not in danger of running out of cards to draw, of course.)

In a pinch, Kangaskhan can be a warrior too, but I rarely bother. Comet Punch takes a crapload of energy to power up, and the damage it does is randomly determined. (Okay, so the coin flips in PTCG aren't exactly random, but as well as I'm able to do them, they might as well be.) That's energy that's better spent on more reliable Pokemon.

Snorlax lv20 x 3
The only problem with Snorlax is that it takes forever to charge him up. The good news is, if you luck into a pair of double colorless energy cards, you're golden. Fully charged, Snorlax is a very capable all-around Pokemon, with some impressive offense and defense. The thirty hit points of damage you get with Body Slam is nothing to sneeze at -- the occasional Paralysis it deals is just the icing on the cake.

Even better is its resilience. It weighs in at a healthy 90 hit points, and it has one of the best Pokemon Powers in the game -- it can't be poisoned, confused, put to sleep, or paralyzed. You can't stop it with dirty tricks; you have to pick away at it, one hit at a time. I love pulling this one out at the Science Club, where all of their strategies focus on status ailments.


Grass energy x 26
My Pokemon are energy gluttons. For this reason, I've dedicated half of my deck to energy cards rather than the recommended 1/3. I simply can't function without it.

And, thanks to my careful color type selection, my grass energy will be compatible with any Pokemon I have out.

Double colorless energy x 4
Oh, if the rules allowed for more of these things, I'd have 'em. Scyther, Pinsir, and Snorlax alike jump for joy at the prospect of doubling the energy they can get in a single turn.


I don't like to leave things to chance. I've selected my trainer cards with one basic objective in mind -- to alter the shape of the playing field to suit my whim while sacrificing as little as possible. I rather like the results.

Bill x 3
Every day is Christmas when you have a Bill card! Whether it's part of your opening hand, a prize for defeating an opponent, or a drawn card at the beginning of your turn, getting a Bill means doubling your pleasure and doubling your fun. You get to draw two more cards while sacrificing nothing. This card has gone into every deck I've ever made.

Pokemon Trader x 3
When you're playing against the Challenge Machine, you don't always get the sort of elemental type matchups that you would like. That's when you reach for your Pokemon Trader card. If there's a Pokemon in your hand that you're reluctant to play, simply exchange it for one from your deck that's more to your advantage. It'll even the odds for you real quick.

Energy Removal x 2
Energy is probably the most precious resource in the game. A Pokemon can't attack unless it has enough energy cards attached to it, and under normal circumstances, you can only attach one per turn. If you want to hit an opponent where it hurts, hit him with an energy removal. This is especially effective if one of your opponent's Pokemon is holding a double colorless energy. Even if your opponent simply adds another energy card to that Pokemon on his next turn, you're still forcing him to use up one of the precious energy cards in his hand and a precious turn's worth of energy charging to do it. And there's always the possibility that he doesn't have enough energy left in his hand...

Switch x 2
Switch is neat. It's a retreat with no energy cost and no chance of failure. Especially useful as an ingredient in Scyther's Tag-Team Recovery maneuver.

Scoop up x 4
This is an essential ingredient to any "delay tactics" strategy. You sit a big, fat Kangaskhan or Snorlax in front of your enemy and let him slowly gnaw away at its hit points, and then before the killing blow lands, you simply pull it back up into your hand. The only penalty is that you have to forfeit any energy cards that were attached to it -- great if you never attached any energy cards to begin with! You can put it straight back onto your bench and start powering it up again, and best of all, your opponent doesn't get to draw any of his precious prizes.

Gust of wind x 2
One of the nastier trainer cards in the deck. Say your opponent has just retreated a Pokemon that was about to be KOed, or he's trying to hide a very powerful Pokemon on his bench until it has enough energy cards to be useful. Hit him with a gust of wind, and that vulnerable Pokemon will be forced into play. This is the ultimate card for people who like to take cheap shots -- I've won so many matches by switching a very powerful Pokemon for a Pokemon I could take down in one hit and nabbing my last prize.

Layer Four -- Eternal Replay Value

As much as I loved the Gold and Silver versions of Pokemon, I never play it anymore. I don't want to start a new game, and my team has gotten so high-leveled that combat isn't fun anymore. But the Trading Card Game? Every single match is a new and exciting experience, and there's always a roughly equal chance of victory or failure. And it's instant gratification; when I turn my game on, I never have to worry about where I am, if I have enough supplies, if my team has enough hit points and PP -- I can just jump straight into the foray. Even better, the game has an automatic save feature. If you turn the game off in the middle of a game, you can return to that exact place the next time you turn it on.

I remember when I was very little and I had to depend on Christmas and birthday gifts for most of my new video gaming input. These were mostly NES games, and they were mostly bad. And yet, my brother and I went back to them over and over again because that was all we had. Funny thing is, we actually had fun with them. At least a little bit.

Flash forward to today, when I have the money and consumer savvy to pick up mostly good games. And here I was, ready to dismiss one of my favorite Game Boy Games, one of the only Game Boy games that'll still inspire me to put down my DS and pick up my SP for a couple hours of quality time, just because it didn't immediately strike my fancy.

There's something to be said here. I've gotten so spoiled, or the market has become so inundated with content, that really good games go unnoticed simply because they're not the best of the best. I think there's something to be said for the "less is more" school of thought. When we're so bombarded with good new games, we rarely stop to appreciate what we already have.

Maybe I don't need a Wii right now after all. Maybe all I really need is a tour of my Game Boy box.


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