Even 20 years later, the Game Boy Color’s Pokémon Trading Card Game is utterly captivating. It remains a fantastic easy-to-understand card game. More importantly, it seems to be the perfect distillation of the core spirit of a Pokémon battle. By stripping out the leveling process, making life and death so precarious, and bringing trainer tactics to the forefront, it invigorates the fighting spirit like no other Pokémon game.
After playing the card game, I feel as though there’s a lot of bloat in the main titles. Grinding tedious battles to get stronger. Fussing with useless moves. Softball trainer battles that slow you down. The Pokémon Trading Card Game does away with this stuff in ways that are terrifying, yet absolutely electrifying.
For starters, you get a deck of cards at the beginning of the game, and that’s your only tool for beating other players until you win more cards to add to it. You’ve got Pokémon you can play, trainer cards to tweak your strategies and cards, and energy to fuel your Pokémon moves, all compacted into a sixty card deck and a seven card opening hand. It offers a ton of room for strategy and flexibility in your tactics when you know it inside out.
It’s also highly limiting, because if you don’t use your deck well from the start, you’ll be hard pressed to make any progress. Not that it’s terribly daunting to start pulling wins in the Pokémon Trading Card Game with the basic cards, but it’s a whole lot harder than just spamming an attack in the main games. It’s instantly tactical and thoughtful, and your most basic opponents will likely stomp you while you figure this out.
Not only that, but as it’s a card game, you can’t go into battle with a set plan. You have to work with the cards you’re dealt as best you can, resulting in some chaos that really forces the tactician out of you. This ability for things to go wrong that are outside your control was something new to Pokémon for me. This didn’t feel like getting hit with a paralyze at a bad time, but rather a chance to try to finesse my way through the battle using what I had on-hand and had previously built into my deck.
I lost far, far more matches than I won at first. That didn’t just come from card choice, too, but how the cards in Pokémon Trading Card Game really don’t have much health. Even the legendary birds can go down in just a few hits in the Game Boy Color game, putting a massive focus on making smart moves quickly. It also meant that type weaknesses would really crush you if you weren’t careful, or that you could demolish your foe if you could take advantage.
Type rules are in the main games, sure. And there were fifteen different types in Pokémon Red/Blue. But there are only seven in the card game. That seems like a minor quibble, but when you only have a handful of types, your odds of having something on-hand to deal with a type weakness, or something that would suffer from one, is much higher.
That you can do so without leveling really sped the game up for me and made Pokémon Trading Card Game feel more streamlined. You get a card, and it does what it says as soon as it’s in your collection. There is no messing around to make it better with time-consuming leveling. You can evolve them with other cards, but other than playing against foes for more cards, there’s no leveling once you have what you need. Even if I am leveling in a sense through fighting trainers for more packs of cards, the returns are just so much greater than normal grinding. You get two new packs of cards per each opponent you beat, giving you a stack of new options.
Also, Pokémon Trading Card Game’s card choices felt more involved than choosing a party in the mainline games. Having to figure out which Pokémon to bring, how many energy cards I should put in so that I can hopefully power their moves, and which trainer cards should I use to bolster my plans made for some compelling strategy. You can’t spam items to heal through a flawed plan or use a specific Pokémon to counter the trainer.
As such, a lot of deck building focuses on not just your Pokémon lineup, but also what specific tools you need to deal with a problem. You can fix these issues with items in the main games, but when you can only carry four of any one card in the Pokémon Trading Card Game, you need to start weighing risks.
This places the trainer in a vital tactical role. It’s not just a matter of putting the right Pokémon in front of my opponent, but of preparing for anything they might do or any situation I might run into. I would have to re-route myself based on my plan, as well as build my deck around having multiple ways of fighting and surviving. There’s more to it than picking one Pokémon and repeating the right move. Every round felt thoughtful and tense.
When I imagine the ideal of a Pokémon battling experience, it’s not me grinding out levels so that I can overpower the other trainer. It’s not me using healing items to get through status effects or high damage. In my ideal, I envision a trainer making difficult decisions of how to proceed each round. It’s about high-pressure moments when dealing with type damage because a fight could end in seconds based on one bad call. It’s about constructing a plan that can come together in numerous ways in case things go bad. It’s precise and quick and ruthless, and arguably what makes the Pokémon Trading Card Game such a stunning title.
Pokémon Trading Card Game is available for the Game Boy Color worldwide. It is also on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console.