The WonderSwan is perhaps best known as the widescreen portable home of excellent and enhanced ports of some of Squaresoft’s most famous titles: Final Fantasy I, II, and IV as well as Romancing SaGa, Makai Toushi SaGa, and Front Mission all received a warm welcome on Bandai’s handheld, and these remakes/ports are rightly well-regarded for the sheer effort and attention to detail that went into making sure these console classics felt like they fit the hardware like a glove. Looking beyond these familiar titles we can find an experimental B-side to Squaresoft’s portable efforts – completely original and still exclusive games designed from the ground up around their powerful handheld partner including the steampunk-y airplane tactics of Blue Wing Blitz and the focus of this article, Wild Card.
Wild Card has the unique pleasure of being the cardiest role-playing card game that was ever not a card game and not all that much of an RPG either, even if every Yoshida-infused screenshot here makes me look like the world’s worst liar. Unlike the genuine card-based antics of the original monochrome WonderSwan’s Tekken Card Challenge, the Neo Geo Pocket’s evergreen Card Fighters Clash series, or whichever Yu-Gi-Oh! game it was that I used to play too much of on the GBA, here the cards are more of a visual stylistic choice than a core part of the gameplay itself. I’d like to be able to call up a familiar name for comparison’s sake but nothing really fits: At best I’d be comfortable saying it’s more like playing a pared-down version of a traditional pen and paper RPG or an old 80’s computer RPG, one where the locations, enemies, and scenarios encountered are decided by drawing them from a themed pack of cards but… it’s not quite that either. Close[ish] enough, though. Maybe.
The titular “Wild Cards” are a fixed set of infinitely reusable move, search, and action icons; standard interaction choices presented as beautifully illustrated virtual cards and just the sort of little twist that you’d expect from that unconventional Kawazu style. The name and presentation may be unfamiliar but these three abilities conveniently combine a wide range of useful necessities – “search” does everything from look around for people to talk to to uncovering hidden treasure deep underground and “action” behaves as something of a catch-all confirmation/”do something” button (I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining what the move card’s for). Wild in any sense of the word? No, not really; but they do make for a quick and efficient way to interact with the world as no matter what you need to do it’s almost always going to be one of these three, safely stored together in a menu that’s only ever a quick button press away.
Like Ogre Battle, Langrisser, and other RPGs that are tickling the back of my mind but refuse to give me their names as I type this out, Wild Card opens with a scattershot set of questions covering everything from inconsequential fourth wall breaking scenarios (I seem to remember one of them being about dodgeball of all things) to morally ambiguous hypotheticals, with the answers you give determining the form of your in-game existence. The order and content of these conundrums is different every time which makes it very hard if not almost impossible to game the system and FAQ your way to a particular lead character – as with other Kawazu-led games adapting to the hand you’ve been dealt (almost literally, in Wild Card’s case) over artificially spreadsheeting your way to victory is a conscious part of the game’s design. I wouldn’t worry too much about who you end up with in any case – at the end of the day your main character is just one of up to five team members that can accompany you through their scenario, with the others found by searching around the towns and taverns you can wander through when you’re not busy adventuring. You’re under no obligation to accept the first person that shows up but as there’s a limit on how long you can spend in any single location you have to balance searching for the sort of character you hope to find with the danger of being too picky and ending up with nobody at all (not that there’s anything stopping you from heading out with a party of one). In keeping with the “adapt or die” nature of the game once somebody’s been recruited they’re a permanent part of your team no matter how much better a later alternative may look – there are no swaps or backsies in Wild Card.
Once you’ve gathered up your merry band of misfits it’s time to get yourself set up and ready to take on the rest of the game – standard-issue RPG shops will furnish you with some basic weapons, armour, and items if you’ve got the coin to pay for them but in my experience what you’ll find out in the field is better than anything sold in the marketplace… however as shop-bought gear isn’t hidden behind deadly traps or found in caves filled with monsters it might be worth having a look anyway if you’ve got a few spare coins jangling in your pocket. The next task is to search for people willing to talk to you about local rumours and hearsay: If you choose to believe the tall tales you hear (these rumours are always true if you choose to believe them – there are no wasteful wild goose chases here) – congratulations, you’ve just accepted a quest! Bar a few very, very, infrequent one-off exceptions quests follow a small set of randomly-generated formulas in favour of pre-designed experiences – “Kill the [Monster Name Here] in [Location]!”, “Find the [Thing] in [Some Place]” and so on. Just like the town sections these missions are all on a strict turn limit, expressed as a set number of card decks on the quest overview screen. Every single action you perform – whether that’s casting a spell, disarming a trap, or moving around – consumes at least one of these cards, bringing you one step closer to the end of your expedition and adding a little tension and strategy as you try to find the balance between slow-but-safe[r] caution that may not reach the goal you’re looking for and jumping into danger, deliberately prodding and poking around in search of your current target.
To make your way around these areas you have to pick the next location card from anything from one to three themed choices, each one given a descriptive name like “Desolate passage”, “Mysterious trail” “Worn out ladder”, or “Path of the dead”. This isn’t a snazzy replacement for a typical dungeon map though – the options presented to you are all drawn at random from a set pool of cards, and that is why it’s possible to go down three different wells and come out in a river by a field or battle your way through a monster-filled house that seems to have seven basements filled with extravagant bedrooms. This isn’t to say your choices are meaningless filler though – taking dangerous routes (“Blood-smeared door” vs “Normal corridor”, for example) is more likely to lead you to your quest’s goal faster, even if you will probably encounter more dangerous enemies more often along the way. Likewise if you’re down to your last party member and you’re faced with a choice between a dark and mysterious road and a pleasant trail dappled with sunlight picking the latter’s definitely going to help you live longer.
As you may expect from a game as unusual as this one when you are attacked you’ll find battles work a little differently to standard JRPG fare – you get to choose not only who you’re attacking but also who’s defending too, encouraging you to set up a “tank” like character to bear the brunt of enemy onslaughts (you’ll likely need two – one to deal with regular physical damage and another to take on magical attacks as the damage is calculated off different stats). Attacking for both sides works in an all or nothing kind of way, once you’ve chosen a skill or spell from a character’s “hand” a simple formula then compares the attack’s slightly randomised power (the range is visible before deciding) against the target’s defence ability – if the defence is higher than the attack, nothing at all happens. If the opposite’s true damage occurs, with the severity depending on the difference between party member’s defence stat and enemy’s attack stat. If the worst should happen and a team mate falls in battle they’re only dead for the remainder of the mission and auto-revived for the next with no penalty – they even still get awarded the same post-quest points as everyone else (used to purchase new skills or upgrade existing ones, from a small random selection)! This anti-frustration feature ensures the gap between naturally more delicate characters and the tougher meat-shields doesn’t grow into a gaping chasm over the course of a character’s scenario as no matter what happens everyone gets an equal share of the same rewards. As if to make up for this kindness if everyone’s incapacitated in a fight (not just dead friends, but anyone asleep, paralysed, or otherwise unable to fight) then you’re awarded an instant game over and sent straight back to the title screen – the slender silver lining here is that all status effects bar death are automatically cleared at the end of every battle, so if you can survive or escape you can at least start the next encounter with no inherited disadvantages.
Although battles aren’t the only place you’ll encounter danger: some areas have unique and hazardous environmental effects that may trigger as you move from one location to the next – expect to encounter blizzards, sandstorms, rockslides and even Indiana Jones-style spiked ceilings as you stumble around. To stop every random occurrence from being an unfair chance to kick people for doing what they’re supposed to sometimes you’ll get a more positive outcome from your wanderings, like finding a working minecart to zoom you through a few areas without incident, item-filled pots floating in rivers, treasure-filled caskets hidden behind bookcases, or powerful swords trapped in ice that can only be retrieved if you thaw it out with a fire spell. Wild Card’s tantalising lack of information combined with its extraordinary pixel art and relentless journeys into the unknown transform all of these little moments into exciting micro-adventures: Walk down the “Owl’s trail” in the dark forest and then… unexpectedly stumble upon a bright clearing filled with flowers! You decide to search the area and… a monster launches a surprise attack! Another? During an arduous trek you spy a corpse in battle gear – do you leave it be or investigate? And if you do dare to take a closer look – are you about to disturb a violent skeleton or relieve a dead person of some useful equipment? These micro-adventures are obviously shallow, completely accidental, and ultimately meaningless – the most exciting parts of these scenarios are literally all in your head. But there is real power in your mind spinning its own little yarn, filling in those glorious blank spaces where your imagination meets the writer’s terse descriptions with anything you can come up with – the game will never do anything to contradict you. The paper-thin personalities and virtually non-existent plot found here are just a frame for the game’s existence, like so many “Rescue the princess!” and “Defeat the dragon!” experiences of old. But they’ve been crafted in way that encourages you to make something of them for yourself – not by stitching back together deliberately scattered scraps of the script writer’s lore but just from giving you yourself a little space to be internally creative.
This is a game that really shines in its natural environment, it’s absent story and rigidly structured gameplay becoming clear strengths when viewed in the light of the intended play experience as no matter how long you’ve been away or how long you’ve got free (you can suspend-save at any time) when you do come back you’ll always know where you need to go and what you can do with everything in your possession thanks to the simplicity of the quest system – getting lost mid-way through a dungeon or forgetting which NPC in which town you needed to talk to to progress is an impossibility. To complain about Wild Card being story-free and mechanically light would be like staring unblinkingly at an original Tamagotchi for five hours and saying it wasn’t worth having because there wasn’t enough to do with it – that’s just not how it was intended to be used. It’s an odd one for sure: Wild Card is an RPG for people who don’t have the time for RPGs but still long to take a band of adventurers into the unknown with monsters nipping at their heels and traps blowing up in their faces thanks to an unlucky roll of the dice; and a lot of the title’s charm comes from what you choose to bring to the game yourself, how your own imagination plays with the gaps the game deliberately leaves open for you to fill in. The game has a clear if unconventional vision and has the courage to cut out everything that would interfere with it, a vaguely RPG-like snack that’s perfect for some casual time-killing while you’re out and about.