Video games like to use cards for just about everything. The GameCube seemed to love them for RPGS like the Lost Kingdoms and Baten Kaitos games, where cards were used for combat. Slay the Spire uses it as part of its rogue-like game play. App games like Hearthstone, Ascension, or Magic: The Gathering Arena utilize each respective card game with a focus on online competitive play. But I want some story and characters to get invested in with my card games. Where is the Netrunner game about a cyberpunk future where everyone puts on their goggles and styles their mohawks to play Netrunner at a run-down bar or at a table in front of a ramen shop? Where is the Final Fantasy 8 spin-off where a nameless street urchin plays to become the Triple Triad champion of the world? Where have all the Trading Card Game adventure games gone?
Monster Rancher Battle Card Game GB was a Game Boy Color game about collecting cards representing the dozens of memorable Monster Rancher creatures in a world in which you fight to defeat…something. Joking aside, I never got farther than five minutes into this one as a kid. The Pokemon TCG game for the Game Boy Color was this charming world where everyone on Trading Card Game Island (that’s its real name) only cared about one thing, a kid’s card game. Like regular Pokemon, TCG Island has a resident Professor, this time it’s Dr. Mason (Oyama). People like me who cite Bulbapedia verbatim know that Dr. Mason is based on Pokemon TCG co-creator, Kouichi Ooyama, and compared to Professor Oak, Dr. Mason is flush with funding. Professor Oak has maybe two assistants, whereas Dr. Mason has fifteen, spread across two large rooms. TCG Island clearly cares more about its research of pieces of card board with images of Pokemon on them more than Kanto cares about actual Pokemon.
Instead of gyms, Pokemon TCG has card clubs, which all have uniquely designed spaces. Something to note about the earlier Pokemon card game was how many of the different Pokemon types had to play double and sometimes triple duty as the game is played by collecting and using energy tokens. For instance, Grass and Poison had to share a type, where Rock, Ground, and Fighting had to share another. Fire and Electric were cool enough to keep their own. In order to flesh out the game, some clubs had to be extensively doubled. I rather like the Science Club, which acknowledges just how many Poison Pokemon were in the first Pokemon games (one of my personal favorite types), but also maintaining that mad scientist “test tubes and tall computer terminals” theme Pokemon Red and Blue were really into with towns like Cinnabar Island and its abandoned Pokemon Mansion. You don’t have to ask, yes, the Water Club has a pool and palm trees.
That adherence to theming gives Pokemon TCG both this color but also enjoyable manic energy. It’s one thing to be into a card game, but its another to thing to combine it with a love of gardening or rocking out and making that your main personality. The dozens of other Pokemon spin-offs have to make up these world-exclusive characters, but Pokemon TCG gets away with filling its roster with literal children. TCG Island has its own elite four equivalent called the Grandmasters, and in the Japan-exclusive sequel Pokémon Card GB2: Here Comes Team GR!, their own eviler version of Team Rocket, called Team Great Rocket. GB2 reuses a lot of the environments from the first game, as the plot involves Team Great Rocket kidnapping all the first game’s club masters and putting them in cages, but details them up nicely for weird people like me who love Game Boy Color assets.
Expectations dictate that Yu-Gi-Oh! must be discussed next. I returned to the older Yu-Gi-Oh! games and bought some Yu-Gi-Oh! GX ones as well, as I assumed they were not far enough along to contain modern Yu-Gi-Oh!’s unnecessary complexity. Fusions and Tribute summons could be easily ignored, but please, none of that Pendulum monster nonsense. Synchro Monsters? Never met them. Returning to these games involved hoping favorite cards were not banned, even the ones like Mirror Force that were always being spammed by the enemy AI. A lot of the early games didn’t actually use the regular cards, so trash like Sacred Cards ends with fighting big bad Yami Marik with low level monsters. Yu-Gi-Oh! was great for one or two matches in a pre-cell phone line, which fits Elias, Garfield, and Gutschera definition of perfect atoms of play, in their book Characteristics of Games. For compulsive people like me, I always made sure to soft-reset when I was about to lose, protecting my win/lose record.
The Yu-Gi-Oh! games were great at establishing these places filled with people who only cared about card games. Early games stuck to putting you in rec-center tournaments and random matches on the streets of Domino City. Yet once Yu-Gi-Oh! GX started, the games got to go to card school Duel Academy, and went full Persona. Dorm life meant schedules and classmates, with the Tag Force games even adding in this ridiculous mechanic centered around befriending people by gifting them their favorite lunch sandwich. Best sandwich is the plain sandwich, which is just bread and occasionally a free card. Zane, the hardest character to befriend, seems to love them. The Yu-Gi-Oh! games suffer from a ton of grinding, usually involving playing against the same few people over and over again to practice and get money for card packs. In Spirit Caller, my punching bag was sweet ole Ra Yellow dorm head Professor Sartyr. His curry themed deck looked tasty, but he never put up that much of a fight. When the games were not retreating arcs of the anime, they were making up nonsense. Take Duelist of the Roses, where Yugi Moto and Seto Kaiba are reimagined as English nobles Henry Tutor and Christian Rosenkreuz in their 15th century conflict. Some of these games on paper could have had a lot of promise, but games like Duelist of the Roses, suffers from almost unplayable holdbacks like notoriously hard and unbalanced AI.
TCG adventure games might seem to be gone, but they live on in Swedish studio Ludosity’s Card City Nights games. If Pokemon is for children and Yu-Gi-Oh! is for middle schoolers and adults in their mid-to-late twenties, Card City Nights is for edgy teens. Card City Nights captures a lot of that dumb minutia TCG adventure games use to have, like having a town or (in the case of Card City Nights 2) a space station where all anyone cares about are skill ranks in a card game. The first game has a card club where school detention would usually be held. Go to the local pub, expect to find grown adults challenging you to cards. Go to the mall, what’s being sold, only card and card accessories.
Both games feature different card games that center on making at least three cards line up to either attack an opponent or provide extra health for defense. The problem with the first game is that board filling means that the game will quickly force the best out of three or five. This is common even early in the game because of the non- zero chance the AI will beat itself by filling its board up with too many cards, and losing as they cannot put down a new one. This creates lousy pacing for what was originally an app game, games that usually prioritize that atom of play that handheld Yu-Gi-Oh! was so good at. I beat the delinquent gem, I don’t want to beat him two more times in a row before he coughs up credits. Both Card City Nights games also screw up something TCG adventure games had to learn to include, which was having enough chump starter people to easily grind on, like the previously-discussed Professor Sartyr or honestly just Tristian or Tea. Valiant efforts, but the Card City Nights games both lost my attention after a few hours. They feel like competent Ludosity super-fan games, as the cards are just references to their other games, like the recognizable Ittle Dew, but also early work like Healthy Weapons and…Mama & Son: Clean House? Worth trying out but might not grab full attention.
TCG adventure games feel like relics of a past age in games where series would get yearly installments on multiple consoles, often with drastically varying levels of quality. The more recent TCG games are less focused on little plots or characters, but are often apps or browser games that work as practice places for tournaments, like the previously mentioned MTG: Arena. But there is something about them that is almost its own lost sub-genre. These forgotten cities filled with grown adults whose lives center on playing a children’s card game.
Some images were taken from the following Tumblr.