Flashback: Game Boy’s Pokémon TCG is broken, fun

August 16, 2013


Can you like a game because it’s broken? It’s a strange concept, but sometimes it’s fun to go against what the designer intended and turn the mechanics of the game against themselves, subverting the rules and pushing to create a completely different experience.

Not all games crash beautifully, but Pokémon Trading Card Game does.

The Pokémon trading card game was released in 1996, and can best be described a simplified Magic: The Gathering variant with a different combat system. That didn’t prevent it from overtaking it in popularity, and subsequently getting a Game Boy Color conversion by Hudson Soft two years later. While apparently patterned after the Pokémon RPG, the digital card game really makes no pretension of being anything but a continuous flurry of card battles and booster pack grinding. Sure, it has crazy people obsessed with monsters and there’s a cackling rival, but there’s no overworld, and the gyms are excuses to steal boosters from the local kids.


As I said, the game is broken. You see, the computer plays honest. It has fun, well-made decks, but it doesn’t understand power. It tries to evolve its monsters. It plays coin-flipping effects and uses cool cards like Charizard. It plays fair decks. And you don’t have to.

This is a ridiculous advantage, because many of the cards are downright unfair. Using Professor Oak allows you to draw a whole new hand of seven cards at no real cost, and those cards can be anything equally broken. You can stuff your deck with disruptive cards like Energy Removal to destroy your rival’s resources over and over again. You can draw a lot of Pokémon and use the otherwise-awful Wigglytuff to wreak havoc, because its damage scales with the number of monsters you have in play.

Instead of evolving and taking care of your monsters, you can simply play the best ones available that don’t need any work and pound the enemy before he has a chance to react. You can recycle your tricks and screw with their hand, and proceed to steamroll them on the fifth or sixth turn.


This all looks like it would make the game pointless, but it doesn’t. At the beginning of the game, you don’t have access to all that power. You have an awful, inconsistent deck full with garbage, and cards that don’t work with each other. You only have one Professor Oak, and there’s no sight of that powerful Wigglytuff. You are forced to play it mostly fair.

So when you arrive to the first gymnasium, you have to rely on actual skill more than raw power. You have to economize your brokenness and use it at the right time. You may have to settle for weak monsters and feed them more power than they would normally accept. It’s all in your hands, and beating each kid gets you more cards to get progressively better.

And when you are the best, the game is over. It’s actually a short game, no longer than six or seven hours, and without any meaningful dialogue, puzzles or plot you can simply rush through the mechanics and speedrun the game. Why care about what they say? You came to break the game.