A little exploitable, but probably one of the most well presented card games on a handheld for perhaps two generations.
My history with this game
I only found out very recently that the Pokémon Trading Card Game was originally released to Japan in October 1996 (8 months after the release of Red and Green), but was released in Western countries by Wizards of the Coast in January 1999. This video game version was released in December 1998 in Japan, and April 2000 in the USA, and more importantly, here in Australia (they seemed to skip localising for multiple languages for the Australian release, which probably explains the spellings of color in the game). The game was also made after the Jungle and Fossil expansions to the card game were released, and includes some of those cards, as well as a few promotional cards, and some exclusive cards only ever created for the game and never actually printed.
I cannot remember how much of the game I actually played; I don’t think I got too into it as a kid but I do somewhat remember getting the two player starter deck at the time. It was a fun idea to have two full decks that you could mix and match between: one a fighting typed deck, and the other a fire type. I don’t remember getting any booster packs though, I think my parents probably thought it was a money sink right away, and unfortunately I never knew anyone who got into it while growing up (it was more a Yu-Gi-Oh kind of place). That being said, I also got this game way back then probably close to when it came out, and I remember enjoying it so much. I also did a playthrough of it for my YouTube channel back in 2012, so I must’ve enjoyed it a lot.
The first impressions
Immediately off the bat, you can tell how well this game’s presentation is. The game features an overworld system similar to the actual Pokémon game (singular since this was made before Gold and Silver), but interestingly, it feels buttery smooth, and features a run button (which wouldn’t appear in a main Pokémon game for another five years). Once you’re in battle, there’s tonnes of information available on screen at all times. I also love how hitting Start in the battles shows more detail about your own Pokémon, holding B and pressing Start shows info about your opponent’s Pokémon, B and down to show your bench, and B and up to show your opponent’s bench. Lots of quick subtle but intuitive shortcuts to easily jump around the field and quickly understand the situation, rather than constantly digging through dialogue menus like later Yu-Gi-Oh titles.
The actual gameplay of the TCG though? It’s a little simple, and sometimes a bit too easy to exploit unfortunately. You effectively play the game with a 60 card deck each, drawing 7 to start off. Pokémon at the beginning of their evolution chain are Basic Pokémon and can be played immediately, but any evolution card must be played in subsequent turns on top of the Basic Pokémon. Pokémon also need energy cards (one can be played per turn), and once they have enough cards to meet a threshold, they can use a move listed on the card. Pokémon have either one or two moves so your options with one Pokémon are fairly simple, as it usually means you have either the weaker move with fewer energies required, or the better move with more energies once you have more later on. Some cards have two moves that operate under a little bit of luck or strategy (in Nidorino’s case, one move does two coin flips, and deals 30 damage for each heads, the other move is a flat 50 damage), but usually it’s not too hard knowing what move to use.
You can also retreat your Pokémon by discarding energies equipped to it (the number is listed on the card). I didn’t find myself using this often; it’s often better to just stick it out until your Pokémon runs out of health, but sometimes you’ve set up something better on the bench that you’ll sweep the rest of the match with. Finally, Pokémon have an associated type, and can have one type marked as a weakness (where all incoming damage from a Pokémon of that type is doubled) and a resistance (which reduces that type of incoming damage by 30). You can cheese some of the game by using a deck that favours Pokémon with certain resistances or exploits an opponent’s primary weakness. Almost all of the opponent decks in the game are strongly typed (and frankly, because you can only use the specific energies listed on each card, you’re usually forced into doing that yourself as well).
But the game itself is a fairly faithful adaptation of the TCG rules, warts and all. There will be some matches where you will lose because you had a bad draw, and some matches that, I’m not even joking, are over in one turn in your favour because your opponent had a bad draw. In my run-through, the final battle of the game went that way; he only drew three energies early into the match and could never attack afterwards. There’s unfortunately not a lot of depth to the actual gameplay, but what makes it engrossing is having these sub-optimal but at least working setups early on in the game, and slowly picking up more of the cards you’d want through the game. There’s four booster pack pools in the game, and different trainers give you 20 cards from a certain pool every time you beat them. But there’s enough trainers that you’re never really refighting the same person often much to beat the game.
The grander picture
So to contextualise these duels, the game effectively is a gym-only version of the main Pokémon game; you need eight badges to be able to challenge the four Grand Masters, and claim the Legendary Cards, all while having a rival meet you at various points in the game. The overworld is just a map select to go between the various locations; most of which are just the gyms. And the gyms are all just rooms with various duellists in them. Some gyms allow you to challenge the leader immediately and some require you to fight the other three people in the room first, but the formula is fairly simple, and the pacing is surprisingly fast (you’ll be done with each gym in about half an hour each). By being so fast, you get the opportunity to change your deck styles fairly quick between the gyms, which is nice. I went between four decks throughout the game with some minor improvements in each when I needed to jump back to a certain type.
This rhythm is slightly spiced up by having to fight your rival after the 2nd and 5th badges, and also optionally doing a tournament where you fight two random other duellists…and the rival after the 3rd and 5th badges. Here in lies a bit of an interesting issue though; nothing tells you explicitly that the tournament runs at those times; you just have to wander into the building and hear the music to know you can enter, but if you get one more badge before doing it, you miss the opportunity to get the exclusive card earned from there. Also losing to the rival at any point also means you lose your opportunity to get an exclusive card. The cards are never needed but it’s a bit of a bummer once you first find out. Interestingly, there’s a few trades in the game as well with NPCs; one of which takes all your unused energy cards if you say yes, and if you say no, he leaves and the card he reveals never appears. Every other trade card can be gotten at whatever point later in the game, although I found that the very last cards I seemed to randomly find were the ones that were required for these trades (bad luck on my end).
There’s a little bit of the can be cheated a little bit. The game allows you to quickly save the game at any time between duels, which also includes these multi-duel tournaments. If you’re losing a match, you can just hit A, B, Start, and Select, and immediately mash A a few times to pop yourself back at the beginning. But you’ll also notice an option called Continue Duel, and to my surprise the first time I played the game, it returns you back to your duel at the exact point you left off as a player. You can place an energy on your Pokémon, reset a frame later, and the game will have saved that. You get one catch, as the game doesn’t save your attack step until you start your next turn. You can’t reset the game to cheese coin flips though, as all the coin flips follow a randomised, but deterministic pattern once the duel starts. However, this means, if you have a move that fails because of a bad coin flip, you can reset and opt for a different strategy. I usually relied on delaying those bad coin flips for my opponent so he would also fail. It’s very easy to exploit, and, while saving time, it’s something you would easily find yourself if you were playing.
The AI never particularly seems to cheat in this game; mostly because you can’t do too much to throw off your opponent. You have to play your deck’s strategy using the cards you manage to draw that game. That fortunately means there’s not too many moments where the game feels cheap, although you’ll feel it a little bit of a match starts going wrong because you never drew that certain evolution card, or your opponent used Scoop Up on his Chansey for the third time when it had eleven of its twelve damage tokens.
Lastly, the music is very memorable. All of it sounds as GameBoy as you’d expect with its 8-bit tones and fairly simple instrumentation, but each track is fairly distinct, and, again, since the game isn’t too long, they never feel like they get old. I particularly love how the Grand Master music works in two sections; both using a common ostinato-pattern melody, but differing by their basslines and density in the percussion voice. It builds up drama at the point in the game that needs the drama most, which is definitely a feat for a card game where the drama could be at any point in the match.
The RetroAchievements set for this game is fairly standard; most of the achievements are for clearing through the game, or doing the optional trades and tournaments. I’ve still yet to collect every card just yet but it should be doable after fighting various quick to beat duellists again until those cards randomly roll. However, there’s one achievement which involves collecting 99 of every energy in the game, which is an absolute pain. You start the game (after talking to someone) with about 20 of each energy, and every duel gives you…about 2 energies total. There’s a very specific duel at the beginning of the game that lets you play out a deterministic tutorial duel, and you’re rewarded with 10 energies at the end of that. That means, you’re effectively delegated to playing that tutorial duel at least 60 times, all with very little effect for the rest of the game. It’s long and doesn’t really add any challenge to the set since it’s just the tutorial.
But overall, I had a great time beating this game again in 6 hours. It surprised me how quick this game actually was, but I think it’s due to how smooth and immediate the presentation is, how little downtime there is between duels, and how much opportunity you have to succeed without grinding or blindly throwing yourself at opponents. It’s strange as well given how its strengths were never quite replicated in other Pokémon games, or other TCG-styled games on handhelds. And, very oddly, it has a sequel I’ve yet to experience that was only ever released in Japan. But for what this game is on its own, despite maybe some very easy exploitation to speed things up, it’s definitely a nice fun and short play, it wasn’t frustrating, and it’s got some great music tracks with it.