SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters DS | Principal Platforms: Nintendo DS | Developer: SNK Playmore | Publisher: SNK Playmore, Ignition Games | Genre: Card Battle | Year: 2006

A catastrophic failure of CCG design, and a serious contender to be one of video gaming's worst sequels ever.
SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters DS Box Art

SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters DS

Well, it does have nice box art …

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I want you, dear reader, to relax. Come closer and listen carefully because if there’s one thing that we should all take away from this infamously terrible game, then it’s yet another reminder that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing indeed.

But first let us rewind to the days of the Neo Geo Pocket and consider what is arguably its best game; SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash. This was – and astoundingly still is – one of the finest digital card games you’ll play on a home console. It’s a game dear to many hearts, so you can imagine the excitement fans must have felt when they learned that SNK were releasing a follow-up on the Nintendo DS.

Nintendo’s hardware was several years ahead of the defunct SNK handheld, of course boasting 64-bit graphics, dual screens, and touch screen functionality. The titular developers had surged into the new millennium too with SNK being reborn as SNK Playmore, and Capcom scoring critically acclaimed hits like Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. This stuff writes itself. You couldn’t have imagined a more suitable time or place for an underdog franchise like Card Fighters to make a comeback.

However, by the time Card Fighters DS reached the West, it became apparent that something had gone horribly wrong. Amid all of the negative reviews and disappointed fans were even reports of a game-breaking bug exclusive to the NTSC-U version. With or without SNK’s decision to recall the glitched cartridges, this was just another serious black mark against an already horrendous production.

It’s strange because in a very basic sense, Card Fighters DS remains faithful to its predecessors. The single player mode still has lots to do, the cards feature the same beloved characters from classic franchises, and the 2-player mode now allows friends to battle and trade over a local wireless connection. The crucial problem though, is that all of these potentially nice features are compromised by the reworked battle system.

SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters DS Gameplay Screenshot

The later stages are plagued by “quests” that force you to collect specific cards before access to the upper floors is granted. Since cards are acquired from random booster packs, these quests become aggravating tests of your luck.

Players begin by assembling a deck of character cards and action cards, but whereas before characters could be freely deployed to the board, in Card Fighters DS every card and ability must be paid for using a resource called “Force”. Additionally, characters now have separate ratings for their health and power, thus further nudging the gameplay closer to contemporary card games like Magic: The Gathering.

These changes result in a game that feels less unique and far less beginner-friendly, but they were made for a good reason. Being able to immediately play your most powerful cards upset the balance in Card Fighters Clash, so the addition of a resource system could have made things less swingy.

There weren’t many competitive builds in the original game either. With over four hundred dynamic character cards now being divided into colours that each have their own theme and mechanics, there was much greater potential for interesting deck-building here.

And yet all of that potential is destroyed by the game’s new economy. Without getting into the complexities of it too much, playing cards that require a high amount of Force is almost always a bad idea. Active character cards generate Force at the beginning of every turn, and since they enter the battlefield frozen – i.e. unable to attack or defend (!) – the ideal approach is to simply spam your zone with as many characters as you can.

What’s worse is that the player who goes first gets an incredible advantage over the one who goes second. In 99% of cases, the second player will have no means of defending themselves on turn 1, meaning the best strategy is to simply overwhelm your opponent as quickly as possible.

Because the Force requirements are so strict in some cases, players can also pitch cards in order to generate a single Force orb of the matching colour. It’s wiggle room for those times when you draw badly, but it only leads to further abuse where a player can discard their entire hand in order to field a powerful character as early as the first turn.

You’ll see the computer doing this all the time during solo play, and yet don’t go in expecting any sort of challenge. Honestly, this is the worst AI that I have ever seen in a digital card game. Even when it draws a lucky hand, the AI is way too passive and will often leave its best attackers sitting on the board like potted plants.

The boss battles are a touch better in this regard, but the AI suffers because its assigned decks feature abilities and synergies that it has no idea how to use properly. This connects to a deeper problem with the card pool because unlike Card Fighters Clash (which used a separate resource for action cards), the vast majority of actions and character abilities also need to be paid for using Force.

But it typically doesn’t make sense to pay for these when you could just field another character instead. Characters can attack or defend whilst generating even more Force, and since the battlefield has been expanded to eight slots (up from three), there’s not much risk of you running out of space.

There are many cards in this game that feel useless as a result, and as stated; the AI struggles to put up a fight with them. If you need further proof then consider this: I completed my first campaign – New Game+ mode included – without losing a single battle!

The hobbled systems produce very low expectations that the rest of the game continues to soar beneath. Players no longer get a choice of starter deck, there’s no way to undo mistakes, and neither is there a way of forfeiting or exiting a battle in progress. The localisation, plot, and characters are awful too, with cards being so poorly translated that their actual usage can be misleading.

SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters DS Gameplay Screenshot

Almost every character ability comes with an extortionate cost, sometimes for the simplest of effects like bestowing a HP boost. Other abilities are even more situational, so sticking with strong vanilla characters tends to be a much better (and less interesting) idea.

Card Fighters DS is mostly enjoyment free, and its story only twists the knife. This is no longer the tale of a plucky card fanatic trying to win big in Las Vegas, now it’s about a plucky card fanatic battling a megalomaniacal computer system atop a tower of brainwashed minions.

It’s less The Raid and more The Room, however, as you laboriously ascend floor after floor of septic, featureless areas full of palette-swapped baddies and cringeworthy cutscenes.

“I can’t forgive anyone who’d use card battles to control the world”, says the idiot protagonist without even the barest hint of irony. And that’s one of the better lines of dialogue!

Even then, it’s difficult to state just how unremarkable the setting is. Compare it with those lovely snippets of adventuring which pleasantly broke up the action in Card Fighters Clash. In Card Fighters DS this approach has been gutted to make way for an utterly insipid movement system that’s akin to being shoved onto a treadmill leading to nothing but the same boring encounters.

The superiority of the prequels isn’t the only reason to be disappointed though, as there are some good things about this game that have gone to waste.

The card artwork is beautifully rendered and consistent for one. No blurry images here; just crisp-looking character portraits with their additional data and flavour text intact. The playing space is also quite well presented compared to other handheld Nintendo DS CCGs like Marvel Trading Card Game. Furthermore, the distinction between a character’s printed and boosted statistics is clear, you can easily tell cards apart at a glance, and the deck editor is perfectly serviceable despite its lack of filters.

Shame that none of this has a chance to matter against gameplay that is so poorly realised, even when compared to duds like Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 (where at least the cards worked properly).

And whilst we’re talking of comparisons, try this one on for size: Card Fighters DS is to card games, what Rise of the Robots is to beat ’em ups. It’s a colossal waste of potential, and a disappointment so dire you would not have believed it possible.