Marvel Trading Card Game | Principal Platforms: Nintendo DS, PC, PSP | Developer: Vicious Cycle Software, 1st Playable Productions, Engine Software | Publisher: Konami | Genre: Card Game | Year: 2007
You could say that Konami was ahead of the curve following their release of Marvel Trading Card Game. This weakly-named adaptation of Upper Deck’s Vs. System arrived one year before the popular Iron Man movie and seven years ahead of Hearthstone; the most influential and flat out copied digital card game of modern times.
As you could imagine, Konami’s head start here proffered little success and shortly after its first anniversary, support for Marvel Trading Card Game ended with its online modes, store front, and web-based community all being phased out in due time.
That this would occur shortly before Upper Deck Entertainment discontinued the paper CCG is telling of the Vs. System’s wider fortunes. This card game which sought to bring together duelling superheroes from both Marvel and DC Comics (as well as a one-off appearance from Hellboy) had all the potential in the world and yet for many players, seemingly, the effort never really clicked. For all of its attempts to be unique, Vs. System sometimes comes across as a flawed Magic: The Gathering clone and when you combine that with fiddly phase-driven rules and inconsistent artwork, it’s perhaps clearer why it never enjoyed greater success.
There are subtle differences between Vs. System and Magic: The Gathering, but you’ll still find many shared concepts between the two games. The goal is still to knock out the opposing player, deployable heroes and villains all come with attack/defence values, and you’ll find colour-coded cards representing everything from locations and equipment to battlefield tactics and famous franchise events.
The dizzying array of rules and intricate card synergies are certainly present too and Marvel Trading Card Game does a near perfect job of translating this complexity into the digital realm. Nothing is watered down or simplified and you’ll find every strategy from the paper game is catered for.
Typically these strategies involve one, two, or maybe even three of the different factions that often govern how each character behaves. Build a deck featuring the X-Men for example and you can be sure of many strong synergies between heroes who all possess an affinity for the faction’s powerful location cards. The Sinister Syndicate enjoy a more aggressive approach derived from many cheap and attack-heavy characters whereas the Kang Council likes to dodge the uniqueness rule by playing many of the same villains over and over again. It’s impressive because despite only having the one comic book license to work with, Marvel Trading Card Game has more than enough variety and overall the game feels reasonably well balanced with few degenerate cards to upset its own little meta.
Each version of the game comes with the same lengthy story mode made up of several different encounters and challenges that players approach in a linear order. The difficulty level remains pretty high throughout and with two different stories to tackle (one for the heroes and one for the villains), only those who are very familiar with the card mechanics have any chance of making it to the end. This is compounded by one insanely hard final boss who makes huge demands of not only your own skill and deck-crafting acumen, but also your assembled card pool.
The single player mode has a dedicated card shop where players can use points to purchase randomized booster packs and overall this format works fairly well. It can be a pain when the card you desperately want is located in a far off booster you haven’t yet accessed, but it is a feature that keeps you hungry throughout the main story as you constantly tweak your various decks with the new and increasingly dynamic cards that get drip fed to you.
There are no deck-building restrictions with regards to factions either, so whether you’re playing through the hero or villain story mode, the game lets you use whatever cards you want. The Marvel Comics license makes this basic foundation even stronger as with such a huge wealth of characters and recognisable storylines to draw upon, it’s hard to imagine someone being unable to find a deck suiting their tastes.
If the purpose of this game was to introduce new players to the CCG system though, then it’s easy to label Marvel Trading Card Game as a failure. Like many collectible card games of this ilk, the Vs. System has no shortage of obtuse rules and complex card interactions. That the original designers considered things like card positioning and adjacency is certainly commendable, but Marvel Trading Card Game does a pretty bad job of making these vital rules extra clear. No matter what version of the game you play, the built-in tutorial is not very comprehensive and the maddening lack of an undo button leads to frequent mistakes that you have no opportunity to correct.
Team attacks will often fail on you because of their easy-to-forget requirements and the behaviour of characters on the support row will also regularly catch you out. It’s a problem because success in a CCG like this can so easily rest on the outcome of a singular moment and because of the phase-orientated design, players can often “miss their cue” when looking to play the one card that will make or break their game. The multiple phases also cause things to operate quite slowly. You can enable options for automatically skipping your unnecessary turns, only then you’ll find the problem with missing cues to be even worse, even to the point where certain cards become entirely unplayable!
Another problem is that everything lacks sparkle. The animated cutscenes are merely serviceable and the artwork for each card is curiously inconsistent with some characters looking great and others looking pretty bad. The cards sometimes have a compressed look to them (mainly on the portable versions) and for every colourful picture of Spider-Man you’ll also find some obscure and grainy-looking character where it’s not even clear who or what you’re being shown.
These presentation foibles are especially problematic because they contribute to the game’s overall feeling of impenetrability for players who are new to the genre. The puzzles that accompany each story mode chapter are a superb inclusion for instance, but novice players will be completely stumped by their intense difficulty. Likewise is the deck editor which never seems especially intuitive regardless of which format you’re playing on. There’s no card album either and if you wanted any indication of which cards are common or rare then once again you’re out of luck because the game doesn’t tell you.
Even though the PC version runs in an irritating fixed resolution, it’s easily the best looking out of the three versions. The PlayStation Portable version has similarly nice graphics and sound to the PC release, but its cramped viewing space, excessive loading times, and artworks the size of postage stamps hurts it a lot. The Nintendo DS version is much faster being on cartridge and its second screen turns out to be very handy for viewing card effects and booster pack contents in their entirety. The compressed art assets and cramped deck editor/playing space are even more pronounced on DS, however, and the music loses a lot of its clarity too.
The PSP and PC versions once featured cross platform play that integrated with Konami’s online community which was supported by paid booster packs and again, this is something that the DS version was never integrated with. This mode would either have been a fascinating boon or a ludicrous money-sink depending on your own personal attitude towards premium content back then, but considering the service’s short lifespan, it didn’t turn out to be a very big deal in the end.
The handheld versions maintain their local play via Wi-Fi to this day, though neither version supports card swapping between players. Seeing as how “trading card game” is in the name and all, it’s easy to see this for the massively stupid oversight that it was, especially when you consider video games like Card Fighters Clash were realizing this feature nearly eight years prior on inferior hardware.
The lack of trading puts a big dampener on the multiplayer component and with the online services now kaput, the game remains an unattractive prospect for returning players. Whilst the CPU-controlled AI is far from clever though, their carefully tweaked decks and diverse strategies keeps the single player mode from getting too boring and the sheer number of gameplay hours here save Marvel Trading Card Game from sliding into complete irrelevance.
Today the game remains too fiddly and too unwelcoming to recommend to anyone except ardent card game enthusiasts and without the inter-connective DC Comics version that fans briefly dreamed of, the package feels decidedly limited. It’s still a faithful rendition of an experts-only CCG though and it’s one that a defunct multiplayer mode can’t entirely deplete of enjoyment either.
Was this a game too soon? Maybe, but with the paper Vs. System recently being resurrected in accordance with Hollywood’s love affair with comics, perhaps that dream digital card duel between Spider-Man and Superman can one day still happen.