Welcome to part 16 of a brand new mega list for CelJaded’s Top 100 Best Video Games. This fifteenth post features entry #4 – SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash!
Be sure to read the introduction that I put together beforehand too as it gives a more detailed introduction on what I’m trying to achieve here as well as a few other random musings that you may find insightful.
If you’re looking for another post in this same series then consider visiting the associated index which includes a readout of all published entries and the posts in which they appear.
#4 – SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash
Principal Platforms: Neo Geo Pocket Colour | Developer: SNK | Publisher: SNK | Genre: Card Battle | Year: 1999
Competing with Nintendo‘s Game Boy Color console was a tough ask for any rival handheld, but it’s exactly the challenge that faced SNK when they released their Neo Geo Pocket system in 1998.
Blessed with a quality build and some equally quality games, SNK‘s underdog is often considered one of the unsung heroes of handheld gaming, but that fact alone couldn’t stop a terminally thin library of games from dooming the console to an early exit.
The Pokémon franchise was busy taking over the world at this point in time and so it was tough for competing games to get much of a look in amidst the climate of Pikachu mania.
To this day the Neo Geo Pocket Color is still fairly unknown in gaming circles, but if there’s one game that has managed to carve out a niche for itself then it’s SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash.
As with the majority of the Neo Geo Pocket library, Card Fighters was developed in-house by SNK, but it uses the backdrop of the popular ‘SNK vs. Capcom‘ angle to set the stage for the game’s action.
Card Fighters, as the name implies, is a card battle game where players construct a deck featuring characters from various SNK and Capcom franchises before facing off in duels where the goal is to simply knock out your opponent before they can do the same to you.
Owing to the Neo Geo Pocket‘s 16-bit graphics technology, the art for the various cards is drawn in a ‘super deformed’ style and features many characters from well-known brands such as Street Fighter and Fatal Fury to more obscure franchises like Last Blade and Red Earth.
Before even starting the game, the inspirations here are obvious. Card Fighters takes many cues from Pokémon and you’ll see the game leverage some of the more popular elements of Nintendo’s giant catch ’em up as you play the game.
The number of Pokémon imitators throughout history have been fairly few and far between when you consider the tendency for games to “borrow” elements from their competition. Oddly though, I’ve always considered this an unfortunate circumstance, as copying a bit of what makes Pokémon so great (its depth, longevity and RPG tidbits) is a good way to get your game noticed.
SNK recognized this fact instantly and the effect is more than evident here. Card Fighters comes in two different versions for one; an SNK edition and a Capcom edition. Like Pokémon, the differences between the two are fairly minor and the end result is merely a few exclusive cards, swapped characters and a unique starter deck at the beginning of the game.
The version split doesn’t add much to the overall experience, but the whole trading cards with other players scenario is a good approach for sharing the experience.
Like Pokémon, the game consists of a top-down adventure phase and a battle phase that occurs when you challenge NPCs (or local players via the 2 player link-up feature).
The adventure view sees your character, which in a rather progressive move can be female (the Pokémon series wouldn’t get this option until 2000), explore several locations in search of cards to collect and NPCs to chat with. Certain characters own a shop where you can trade in your unused cards for new acquisitions thus strengthening your arsenal of dueling power.
Compared to Pokémon, the adventure phase is pretty limited and rather short overall, but it never outstays its welcome and instead ends up as a fun little distraction that does a great job of providing downtime between match-ups.
Card battles represent the real meat of the game and it’s where the strength in this title truly begins to shine through. Even simpler than the likes of paper card games such as Magic: The Gathering, Card Fighters presents a table with 3 slots in front of each participant for character cards to be played.
Each character in the game has a ‘battle point’ value which represents both its offensive strength and its durability. When character cards ‘clash’ with each other, they deal damage equal to their BP value and are knocked out (or discarded) once their BP reaches zero.
To make things more interesting, many characters also have their own special ability that activates either when it’s deployed or when triggered by the controlling player which, like any good card game, leads to plenty of interesting combinations to discover.
Many characters also have an SP value; that adds ‘special points’ to your SP pool when they are played to the table. SP can be spent on action cards that deliver powerful one-time effects or union attacks that allow characters to combine their BP values together in a coordinated strike that has a greater chance of breaking through to the opponent’s HP value.
The strength in the game’s battle system comes from both its speed and simplicity, as you draw and deploy wave after wave of fighters to constantly fling at your opponent in the hopes of finding an opening. Depending on your strategy, battles can last anything from 5 minutes to 60 seconds and because of the quick pace the game becomes extremely addictive.
The game’s tone is fairly tongue-in-cheek too with plenty of cameos, gags and references littering each adventure area. Although the graphics are of the ageing 16-bit variety, you’ll come to find quite a lot of charm in the game’s presentation.
Card Fighters is an exceptional title, but there are a few mistakes made here and there. The biggest weakness by far concerns the game’s balance. Each card in the game is graded via a rarity system from D to S with D cards being the weakest and A to S cards being the strongest.
The game doesn’t enforce any deck building rules outside of a 3 unit limit on individual cards, meaning that the easiest strategy is to simply fill your deck with the rarest and hardest hitting cards you can find and simply overwhelm your opponent from the offset of a battle.
The rarest cards are also absurdly powerful with characters such as Geese Howard, Wild Iori and especially Akuma, causing huge swings in gameplay whenever they appear.
Alternative strategies do exist within the game’s framework and you’ll often catch glimpses of the AI using them, but such approaches require many specific cards and careful crafting whereas the all-out rush requires very little effort in order to achieve.
The English translation job leaves a lot to be desired at times and also disappointing is the aforementioned computer AI which is governed by a set of simple rules that are all too easily manipulated in the heat of battle.
It also has to be said that while the music is actually pretty good for a handheld title, the number of tunes is a bit small and it does start to grate after a while.
But this is about it in terms of negative points and with a bit of restraint or house ruling on your own deck building, you can ease the balance problems somewhat and set up some interesting repeat plays.
Card Fighters takes another page out of the Pokédex by offering plenty of gameplay hours for keen players with a large card album to fill out and an excellent post-game scenario that features tougher challenges, new dialogue and a grueling gauntlet that pits you against every NPC in the game. Damn!
An enhanced sequel with the subtitle ‘Expand Edition‘ would be the final game released for the Neo Geo Pocket system. This title takes great strides towards fixing the balance problems with the original by tweaking certain card values and adding an inspired focus towards facing on the table.
There’s also the stunning new 16-bit card art that eases up on the super deformed style of the original game in favour of slightly more traditional portraits from the brands in question.
In many ways Expand Edition is a better game, but time constraints seem to have severely reduced the adventuring elements leaving the title with a somewhat repetitive feel.
An impenetrable Japanese storyline hardly adds to the proceedings either and as a NTSC-J exclusive release, all screen text rendered in Kanji.
Luckily a crazy-good English translation patch exists for Japanese ROMs where, once again, the fans have done some truly amazing work in making the game playable for Western audiences!
Although all of this constitutes a really good sequel, there’s just something about Expand Edition that doesn’t feel quite as special as the first game. Aside from the sparkly new animations, there are new characters and a new card type in the form of ‘reactions’, but little else.
Overall this now incredibly rare sequel is extremely impressive in many ways (if you can get by the language barrier), but the original is still the better game in my humble opinion.
I’m not even going to mention the 2006 Nintendo DS remake, by the way. It’s too painful to talk about.
Games like this don’t always need to be complex or flashy in order to be good and SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash is one of the best proofs you’ll ever find of that fact.
To this day, I own at least 8 original cartridges for this game and with very good reason. This is one of the most playable and addictive handheld titles ever made, card battle or otherwise, and it’s been a measuring stick that I’ve used for every digital card game since.