Past meets present: SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters' Clash
Two Neo Geo Pocket Color games become one Switch title in this must-play card battler.
This column is “Past meets present,” the aim of which is to look back at game franchises and games that are in the news and topical again thanks to a sequel, a remaster, a re-release, and so on. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
The late-90s were an excellent time for video game adaptations of trading card battle games, if you were into that sort of thing. Pokémon, of course, had the Pokémon Trading Card Game… games… developed by Hudson Soft for the Game Boy Color, which were the video game version of the trading card game version of the Pokémon video game franchise. Monster Rancher, which is exactly the genres you think it is even if you’re unfamiliar, also took a turn at the card battler genre, with Monster Rancher Battle Card Game for the same system.
Less widely celebrated given their original platform, though, but no less deserving of praise, are the pair of card battle titles that SNK developed before the SNK vs. Capcom crossover fighting games: instead of having Street Fighter’s Ryu and The King of Fighters’ Terry beating the hell out of each other in a 2D fighter, which was how things eventually ended up, the two were here turned into trading cards, and pitted against each other by regular folks in card battles. And not just those fighting game mascots, either, but representatives from Mega Man, Resident Evil, Forgotten Worlds, Metal Slug, Athena, Ikari Warriors, Last Resort… the list goes on, for both sides.
Really, the only issue you could come up with for SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters’ Clash is that you needed to buy two of them — one with the Capcom starting deck and exclusives, and a matching SNK-flavored game — in order to manage the proverbial catch ‘em all routine. That didn’t need to be “fixed,” per se—society has put up with this kind of behavior from Pokémon for going on 30 years now, and I have much more significant industry beefs related to the separation of a gamer and their money to be angered by—but the version of the games you would have played in 1999 have been combined into one single release in 2022, allowing you to access the entirety of the joint productions with one purchase, and for just $8. I’ll just save you some time and let you know that this is about 10 percent of what it would cost you just to get the two games on the secondary market in 2022, never mind with a working handheld system to go with it.
In addition to releasing both versions of the game together, Card Fighters’ Clash also comes with some nifty additions. It can still serve as a multiplayer game card battler, with the Switch system being held vertically instead of horizontally, and the screen split half-and-half for each player that way. It might be better to just lay it down on a table and each hold a Joy Con or Pro Controller rather than attempting to both hold it up and look at it at once, but you do you — either way, it’s easier than linking up two copies of the game together via a pair of Neo Geo Pocket Color systems. The port also features the same kind of modern tweaks that the Neo Geo Pocket Color Collection games had, like save states and the ability to rewind, or your choice of wallpaper, i.e., what style of Neo Geo Pocket Color you want to stare at so that this 16-bit game from a 1999 portable plays on your television or in handheld mode at the proper windowed resolution. All basic stuff, besides the multiplayer component, but still good to see, regardless of simplicity.
Card Fighters’ Clash is drawn in a super-deformed style, which means extremely adorable versions of aforementioned characters like Ryu and Terry Bogard, but also Cammy and Rush and Jill Valentine and June and so on — yes, the obvious series for both sides are here, but so too are characters from franchises like the short-lived Star Gladiators. The overworld you walk around in is very much what you would expect from a portable system at this time period with this horsepower, but everything has been detailed to squeeze in as much of the Capcom and SNK universes as possible, and the character portraits used for the cards really are lovely. Each location you will battle in is themed in some way, and you need to defeat the champion of each of these in order to collect the coins that gain you entry into the larger tournament that’s the whole point.
Every victory will earn you some new cards — wins against regional champs will grant you better and more cards than those against standard opponents, of course — and there are also ways to trade in some of your repeat and low-ranked cards in large bundles for a chance at a single much more powerful card. There are 300 of the things in total, and you will need a deep, varied deck, and knowledge of how to use it, in order to come out on top.
The thing that drew me in the most to Card Fighters’ Clash is the level of strategy necessary to progress. I don’t mean that it’s extremely complicated — the opposite, in fact. It’s not easy, but it is simple to figure out if you stop to consider why you’re losing, or why you’re finding success, if you pay attention to how your foes set themselves up for victory, and how you, too, can do the same.
For instance, your instinct might be to defeat an opponent’s card entirely, wiping it from the board, but it might actually be better for you to simply weaken it, and leave it sitting there, in play but unable to be utilized to its prior full potential. That’s because attack power and hit points are the same number in Card Fighters’ Clash, and counterattacks occur, so long as you choose to enact one, whether a first blow wipes out a card’s hit points entirely or not. So, maybe a good strategy for you, depending, is to start out with some weaker cards that won’t completely defeat your opponent’s attacking cards, but simple reduce them to the point where they can only do 100 or 200 points of damage at a time. Then, your own character — the one you’re controlling, who is playing the deck you’re building — can weather a far higher number of attacks, and your own cards can avoid losing their own hit points to counters, saving all of that for their own assault on the opposition’s character.
Maybe this will all make more sense with a more detailed description of how the card battles actually work. You can place up to three cards at a time, one per turn, and they can’t be removed from play unless they are defeated, or a special ability or ability card is utilized in order to remove them from play (be it by simply wiping them out, or discarding them, or using their remaining life energy in what amounts to a sacrificial final attack). You can actually play more cards than the one per turn, but only under specific conditions. One, if you have the banked skill points needed to play an ability card, which can do things like recover your discards, or add a card from your deck to your hand, or cause damage to either opposing cards or even the character you’re facing off against. And two, if a card can serve as “back up” for one you already have in play. “Back up” Mega Man with his robo dog Rush, for example, or have M. Bison’s brainwashed assassins, Juni and Juli, partner up to increase the attack power/HP of whichever you have in play. You can make these sorts of moves independent of placing another card.
Each card is worth a certain number of SP, which the banking of can allow for more than just the use of ability cards. Five SP will allow you to perform joint attacks between two cards, and 10 SP will let you “Unite” all three of your cards together in one attack. These are extremely powerful, and often the difference between winning and losing a card battle.
Normally, you can attack with two or all three cards at once, so long as they didn’t just counter on the turn before or were just played that turn and are now “frozen”, but they are two or three independent attacks, with each cards’ turn ending immediately after they attack. When united, though, you can, for example, see a card with 500 Battle Points (the combined health/attack measure) defeat a counterattack of a card with 200 BP, and then use their remaining 300 BP to deplete the HP of the person you are facing off against in this card battle (which is how you actually win these battles). Then, the second card that is in this united attack will also go after this person, and if there is a third, they will, too. Deployed correctly, these attacks can be absolutely devastating, especially if you managed to somehow work it so that you have multiple 700 BP and above characters all sitting in play, at once. You can absorb a lot of small attacks and then all but defeat your opponent in one go, but it will take careful planning and quite a bit of luck for that to happen, too.
All of this serve as points in favor of keeping a diverse deck that isn’t exclusively made up of high-rank cards, especially since a number of low-BP cards also happen to be high-SP cards, which means you can achieve your strategy of banking SP for later unite attacks at the same time you’re weakening the attack power of your opponent’s hand. So, trade in those low-level cards and duplicates to get better cards, sure, but don’t empty yourself out entirely, as they will retain a value even beyond the early going.
You will lose in Card Fighters’ Clash, especially at first, and maybe even often deep into it, but you learn something in these losses, at least. And the bouts are often relatively short, especially when they’re just against randoms and not named characters or “boss” ones, so it’s easy enough to just try again and hope for a better shuffle and draw the next time, if not going first or making one big mistake or simply some bad luck in the shuffle is what caused you to lose. It’s cards, you know? These things happen.
Maybe all of this is obvious stuff to people who are super into Magic: The Gathering, or are very experienced at card battle games, but not everyone is one of those people. And even if you do have experience within the genre, there is a charm and joy to be found in Card Fighters’ Clash that makes it worth your time, even if you’re a hardened veteran. I didn’t plow through the game, really, but it’s one I keep going back to when I’m not playing something else, or when I just have 15-20 minutes to spare before my kids wake up or in some kind of pick-up-and-play situation. Given how well it works in these short bursts, it’s no surprise it began it’s life on a handheld, or that sequels eventually made their way to the Nintendo DS, or that there has now been a revival of the series on the dual-mode Switch.
It’s also a joy to see SNK’s catalog of games from their own handhelds and systems being represented with something other than more fighting games or Metal Slug. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those, says a guy who has bought multiple Metal Slug compilations in his day, but the company developed and published more than just those two things, and it would be wondrous if more of that — and more of the third-party stuff from the Neo Geo and its Pocket cousins — made their way to modern systems with the kind of care, attention, and price point that Card Fighters’ Clash received. Maybe Neo Geo Pocket Color Collection Vol. 2 will address some of that, or maybe we’ll just keep seeing some individual releases like this one. Either way, more, please.
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