Konami may not have had the best relationship with, well, with themselves, really, but they knew when they had something that could turn a profit and thanks to this mercenary attitude from the higher-ups I’ve been able to write about the time Suikoden II was remastered, the time before that when Suikoden II was expanded upon, and yep you guessed it – I can now write about Suikoden II once again, this time in collectable card game form.
Released in 2001, a few months after Suikogaiden Vol.2 and roughly a year before Suikoden III, Genso Suikoden Card Stories once again retells the events of the Dunan Unification War although this time around it’s been turned into a heavily condensed and somewhat mushed-up version of its true self. This sounds like nothing short of a disaster but in practise it doesn’t really matter as the game’s not trying to be portable Suikoden II at all – the story exists mostly to tie the card battles and collecting into their Suikoden-themed framework. This true core of the game – the one based around deck building and using keen strategy helped by a little dash of luck to overcome an opponent – is where the game’s content lies: There are two hundred and fifty cards to seek out and as always some of them are so exceedingly rare they’re only found in treasure chests, as uncommon loot from specific battles, or traded as lucky swaps from one person so it’s going to take quite a while to complete the set. A quick dip into my in-game card list and a glance over my folder full of real cards (these were released around the same time as this game and popular enough to justify several follow-up boosters and reissues) seems to suggest this little cartridge is a fairly accurate representation of the real thing and a convenient single-player alternative (GBA-to-GBA link battles are also supported) for anyone hoping to play but unable to find a willing opponent.
Unfortunately this closeness to the card game means everyone, even the biggest Suikoden II superfans, will feel as lost as the rest of us when starting out – there’s a whole set of rules to learn and no amount of familiarity or time spent on the PlayStation game is going to help here. You’d assume in this case the manual would be the first place to run to for some pre-game instruction but it actually isn’t a great deal of use here, only explaining the most basic aspects of turn flow and character linking (I’ll talk about links in a bit) and then leaving the rest up to the optional in-game tutorials. These are helpful if you want someone to parrot a specific chunk of the rules at you (which is something that could have been in the manual) but the “playable” scenarios that accompany them felt too short and over-engineered to really teach me anything – I would have preferred more lightly constructed battles that actually tested to see if you’d understood what had been said, something that encouraged you to apply your new knowledge in a more organic way. As it stands the way cards are dealt and the way enemies (don’t) react to them means all the thinking’s already been done for you, there’s only one way to play the hand you’ve been given, and you don’t need to do much more than mash the A button to clear the segment.
The good news is that even when you consider the dubious quality of the in-game “help” Card Stories isn’t all that hard to get the hang of, especially as in cartridge form the rules are non-negotiable boundaries that cannot be fudged or forgotten under any circumstances – you’ll end up with a fair grasp of most of the game just by paying attention and keeping in mind what activates when and checking the card text if something’s unexpectedly restricted. Matches aren’t won by chipping away at a player’s health (nobody has any) or by destroying a set amount of an opponent’s characters (doing so makes no difference at all) but completing missions which in turn grant a set amount of Victory Points. The amount of VP needed by either side to win depends on the strength of the opponent – a simple random enemy might need three to take the battle while you only need one, and on the other extreme end of the scale the first time you encounter Luca Blight you’ll need to score nine points to take the match while he only needs a single one (the good news is this is a battle you’re supposed to lose – at least on your first time through the game).
There are several mission types and almost every single one of them needs players to deploy a leader character – “Leader” is a specific class of character, not “the first card brought out” – before anything can happen, and these are then backed up by other linked cards. Links are the main way to add extra party members to a mission, and can only happen if the selected character’s assigned letter (ranging from A to I) matches at least one present on a card already active on the player’s side. These letters are cumulative, so if Card 1 has A and E and Card 2 has A, B, and D then Card 3 can be anyone with either an A, B, D, or E on them. Each side takes turns bringing out characters to try and complete the mission (unless someone’s used a unite attack, allowing them to bring out two related cards – for example Riou and Nanami – in quick succession) until either the mission’s win condition’s met or both players pass and the incomplete mission sits on the battlefield (up to two can be present at any time) waiting for either side to finish it off.
The most common mission type requires each side to take turns summoning characters until the attack value on the card (the sword icon) has been met or exceeded – nice and simple. Duels are even shorter and more deadly: A single character is chosen on each side (sometimes this selection is random) and the victor – and the person who walks away with the VP – is whoever had the highest attack stat. Army battles are slightly more involved – the leader/link rules still apply but this time attack power is ignored in favour of troop numbers (represented by the flag icon), and instead of the first player to pass the card’s required value winning the mission as in a standard battle for these both sides bring out cards from their hand until they have nothing left to play and then an all-out battle is triggered, with boggle-eyed soldiers flying off in all directions. At this point the larger army wins the fight but the war’s not over yet – now the winning player has to use the troop strength of their summoned pool of characters to reduce their opponent’s forces to zero while still keeping enough in reserve to match the mission’s target troop value. The tutorial example goes like this: The mission card needs 4000 troops to claim it. The enemy used cards totalling 1600 troops. I brought out 6000 troops. This means I win the initial skirmish but to win the mission and claim its VP I then needed to select characters with a total troop count large enough to “defeat” the losing side’s 1600 while still having 4000 or more troop power left in my remaining forces to win the mission card. If the winning side doesn’t have enough the mission becomes unresolved and both sides can have another go at it next turn.
If your raw power isn’t enough to overcome your opponent you might want to build a facility or two to enhance your team, as these grant permanent enhancements such as a reduction in further facility build costs, being able to look at some of your opponent’s cards, and other more exotic effects. Unlike missions facilities use a character’s construction power to build (the value next to the card’s hammer icon) – and to keep things interesting the other side can try to use their attack power to tear it down before it’s finished. Once any mission or facility other than a duel has been completed a character must be selected to remain with it – these become attached to the mission/facility itself for the rest of the match (this distinction is important as some cards can reshuffle discarded ones back into the main deck or switch stationed cards and then return the swapped one back into a player’s hand).
And when you’re not deck-deep in Suikoden-themed card battles you’ll either be watching a heavily edited version of Suikoden II’s story unfold (there are a lot of either/or dialogue choices along the way, although the two options either result in the same/extremely similar outcome or the wrong choice “But thou must”-ing you until you go for the other one), or spending time in a town or dungeon. In Card Stories towns serve as menu-based locations offering a varying array of deck-building facilities: They’ll always at least allow you to save the game and alter your deck, but others can offer trading, battles, card shops, and if you ask the (again, menu-based) locals for information perhaps unlock the ability to wander around a nearby dungeon. These dungeons are again different from those found in other Suikoden titles: They’re randomly generated for starters, not intended to be places you travel through with purpose but areas you casually wander around, getting yourself into random battles, finding treasure chests, meeting card-gifting allies, and fighting monsters that are visible on the field. To exit these places you only have to push the select button when you feel you’re done, instantly taking you back to the last town you were in.
The graphics used on these unplanned treks are wholly unique to this GBA game – as are the squat character sprites in the battle portions – but just about everything else has been pilfered from elsewhere: dialogue portraits are taken from the PlayStation game, art used on the physical cards has been shrunk to fit, and some backgrounds are cut down and compressed versions of Suikogaiden scenes. These all appear to have been batch converted, not redrawn by hand – it’s not a look that’s aged well, with lots of heavy best-fit dithering everywhere on what is in its better-known original forms beautifully clean artwork, and far too often most of the fine detail – heck, sometimes even just the basic shapes, present in the images gets lost on the GBA’s 240×160 screen. It’s an unfortunate but understandable decision: It’s got to be easier, faster, and cheaper to auto-convert something that already exists than redraw hundreds of illustrations for the sake of a single Game Boy Advance game.
This is a game whose initial draw is its relation to a particular franchise and anyone playing is bound to have favourite characters they’re looking forward to seeing again, cards they want to have in their decks because they like the people in the artwork even if they have access to a more effective match-winning alternative. So it’s a bit deflating to win a tough battle, open an unexpected chest, or pay a load of potch only to receive a small pixellated image that’s been largely stripped of all its original charm, one where half the card’s screen space is still taken up by the card’s surround even though in the game those spaces are always left blank (a card’s details and any additional effect text can be displayed on another screen if you click on them). The end result doesn’t hold up well when compared to similar games on less popular handhelds: The Neo Geo Pocket’s SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighter’s Clash and the WonderSwan’s Wild Card both show how good card art can look on a low-resolution screen, and how much personality they can bring to a game when done well, and it’s frustrating to know Card Stories already has art of a similar level but the game is incapable of displaying it.
Even with this stumble it’s still a lot of fun and great to play on the go – matches don’t take long to resolve whether you win or lose and you can’t get stuck into the more technical deck-crafting side of things unless you’re only a few button presses away from a save menu, making it almost impossible to find yourself forced to suddenly abandon a lot of number-crunching hard work. In play the mechanics do feel like an uncommon approach to card-based gaming and I enjoy spending time with it – I am far from being a deck building genius (I have left useful cards out of my Magic the Gathering decks on… OK, every occasion just because I can’t be bothered with the mental organisation that comes from all the tokens generated or tracking whatever clever effect they create) but the basics feel easy to grasp and for those hoping to dig a little deeper synergy and strategy can be found in here if you seek it out. It’s just a pity Card Stories never quite sings the way better known made-for-handheld card games have done before it, the combination of poorly reproduced card art and pretty loathsome downgraded renditions of recognisable Suikoden tunes (do bear in mind that I’ve never been a big fan of the GBA’s aural output) do too good of a job of mangling a lot of what should have been some of the game’s biggest draws.