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Pokemon having been a huge hit a year and a half before in Japan, its first generation of video games and its Trading Card Game were released in the US in late 1998. The marketers were confident, and rightly so. The trading card incarnation of the franchise's elements would be successful just like Pokemon Red/Blue. The idea men behind Pokemon were quick on the draw, as during this time, another generation of the main series and a video game adaptation of the card game were released in Japan, both of these being made available in the United States in 2000. Since Game Freak was otherwise engaged with the former at the time, the latter was developed by Hudson Soft, those responsible most notably for the Bomberman series. It features many similarities to the main games, but deals out a good amount of originality, partly because of its nature as a card game adaptation and partly because of a great job overall on Hudson Soft's end.
The story's nothing too complicated. The main character is a Pokemon Trading Card Game fanatic, and his mission is to inherit the 4 Legendary Pokemon cards. In order to do this, he'll need to defeat the masters of the 8 clubs - and in order to do this, he'll need to collect a variety of useful cards and use them to build strong decks. There are people like Dr. Mason and Ishihara who are ready and willing to help the ambitious amateur, and others like his rival, Ronald, who haughtily hinders him at every turn. There's a rough road ahead for the unproven protagonist, but he's not discouraged: if victory isn't in the cards, then that'll just be the hand he's dealt!
There are three kinds of cards in the Pokemon Trading Card Game and this simulation of it in particular: Pokemon cards, with which one does battle with an opponent; Energy cards, which fuel the attacks and abilities of Pokemon; and Trainer cards, which each have a unique effect on one specific aspect of the game. Each match begins with both players drawing 7 cards from their 60-card (60 being the mandatory number) decks. Each player selects 1 Basic monster to play in the field as Active and up to 5 Bench Pokemon of the same category. If there are no Pokemon in the player's original hand, it's shuffled back into the deck and another hand is drawn, this process repeating until the player has at least one Basic Pokemon card. Then Prize Cards are placed on the table - anywhere from 2 to 8. A coin flip decides who goes first. Each player alternates, placing at most one Basic Pokemon each turn and occasionally evolving one in the field to its Stage 1 form and then to its Stage 2 form, attaching energy cards 1 at a time to any Active or Benched Pokemon, and further affecting the game with Trainer cards. Each Pokemon's attack has a number of damage that it does, an effect it has on the game, or both of these (the outcome is sometimes determined by flipping a coin). When attacking the enemy's Pokemon, the damage counter is what gets reduced from its health, this not always being consistent as Pocket Monsters tend to have a weakness and a resistance. Each turn ends when a player attacks or chooses to end the turn without attacking. Once the enemy's Active Pokemon's health has been depleted, it and its attached energy cards are sent to the Discard Pile, the player with mastery over the winning Pokemon adds one of the Prize Cards to his or her hand, and the player who had mastery over the losing Pokemon must select another one from the Bench to take its place. The game continues thus until a player loses by: having no Active or Benched Pokemon, having no cards in his or her deck when it comes time to draw, or losing enough Pokemon in battle so that the opponent draws all the prizes. The setup for playing this game on the Game Boy Color is nothing too fancy, but is well organized and easy to navigate; it's basically a series of menu displays from which all action is carried out followed by the result of each move being shown. Tips on the basic aspects of the game can be viewed at any time. For one of the first attempts to adapt a TCG into video game format, this title succeeds quite well.
The game progression revolves around collecting cards (226 in all) and building decks while dueling other characters and progressing through the clubs. There are 8 of them: the Grass, Science, Fire, Water, Lightning, Psychic, Rock and Fighting clubs. Each one has a lobby, a room with NPCs to talk to and trade with and where battles and trades with other players via link can be accessed, and a room with three NPCs that must be defeated before the Club Master. Each Club Master gives the player that club's medal upon defeat, and collection of all of them grants access to the Pokemon Dome's Grand Hall where the four Grand Masters can be challenged. There are more areas: Mason Laboratory, which introduces the card game to the player and offers auto-deck creation and deck saving; Ishihara's House, which allows the player to trade with and receive tips from collector and expert Ishihara; finally, the Challenge Hall, where tournaments take place with a rare card being the victor's prize. Though the areas are connected by an over-world map rather than routes and dungeons, the formula is familiar and any Pokemon fan will pick up on this fact. There is a little Mega Man thrown in as well, since any club is available from the start and once its leader is beaten the corresponding machine in Mason Laboratory becomes usable for an easier time with a disadvantageously-themed club. Pokemon Trading Card Game is ultimately much more straightforward than Red/Blue or Gold/Silver due to less in-between, but its card battling and strategizing prove easily more satisfying than in the grind-based RPGs. Though not a Game Freak production, the classic Pokemon charm definitely comes through.
The overall look of the game is just like in the main series of the franchise: a top-down view, little square people (one model being essentially identical to the protagonist of Red/Blue), and bright and basic environments. The card battle sections have little animations whenever a Pokemon attacks or uses a special ability, and the pictures of each card's art is rendered well. The score by Ichiro Shimakura is catchy and energetic, from the funky Battle Theme which plays during duels, to the intense track that is hear while battling Club Master, to the chipper song that is heard in Mason's Laboratory and the World Map, to the themes that play in the clubs, one of which is happy-go-lucky (Grass/Lightning), one relaxing (Water/Rock/Psychic), and one menacing (Fire/Fighting/Science). The graphics follow the standard Pokemon aesthetic, which is nice, but the music is much more memorable and overall marvelous.
Likely, many bought the release to get the exclusive Meowth card, as it would be tradition with other card games like just about every Yu-Gi-Oh! game, and likely, they got a lot more than they were expecting. A sequel, Pokemon Card GB2, was released, but only in Japan. Pokemania would die down and the card game wouldn't maintain its popularity, and though the series would continue to have sequels and spin-offs, said spin-offs would not involve the card game. For many, it would be hard to collect many of the rarer cards, find people to play against, and keep track of the intricacies of the game, and thus this title is very convenient. Unlike many of the contention-creating card trades between children at the time - quite a few resulting in full-blown lawsuits - the trade-off of attaining a copy of Pokemon Trading Card Game for spare cash will not soon be regretted.
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