Should you happen to be someone eager to dive in to Youfu Makai‘s card battling action, leaving the manual and the rest of the box’s content aside for later, you’ll definitely come away from your brief time with the game confused and disappointed. The game will crash – garbled screen, BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP music, and all – at the slightest provocation, your thirty-card deck will impossibly consist of just two different types of card (normally only three of each are allowed), and if you do carefully tap your way past this bizarre and unstable point you’ll be in for nothing more than another round of WonderSwan resetting action. Just a cranky Kimimi complaining about a dodgy old cart in need of a good clean? Not when an emulated ROM behaves in exactly the same way. Just one of those games that doesn’t emulate well? Not when an original cart on official hardware, etc. etc. Thankfully there’s an easy fix for this: You need to initialise the save data (the bottom option on the main menu) before playing, and once that’s done the game’s as stable and reliable as any other. Assuming your copy is complete – and twenty two years on there’s a real chance it won’t be – you’ll find this vital piece of information written on a plain slip of paper included in the box but entirely separate from the manual and absolutely nowhere else at all (the manual tells you how to format data, but not that you need to). It’s just about the worst first impression any game could give, and one of the worst I’ve experienced in a very long time. I’ve had old cart-based titles ask me to create and organise entire parties of adventurers before setting off, give my name, or clear out an old save to make room for a fresh one, but I’ve never had one fail to function correctly unless I perform the One Weird Trick it doesn’t actually prompt you to do.
Once you’re past that avoidable unpleasantness you can finally concentrate on the game’s alluring combination of Ayami Kojima’s (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) unmistakeable artwork with a setting loosely based on Hideyuki Kikuchi’s (Vampire Hunter D, Wicked City) “Demon City” series (Kikuchi is credited as the script supervisor here), all wrapped up in a demonically-inclined monochrome WonderSwan card game.
The “novel” segments (in reality anything from a few short screens worth of swords-n-demons-but-in-a-modern-city plot to what amounts to “Oh! A monster!“) are used to give the battles in the main scenario mode some structure and sense of progression, aided by the odd piece of full screen artwork. Unfortunately the lack of personality exhibited by your opponents (even just a pre/post battle quote would have helped immensely) coupled with the absence of any strong Pokémon-like deck theming render the text largely irrelevant. If there is no appreciable difference between fighting a demon-woman whose body has split straight down the middle and Some Guy then why spend any time trying to invest in a story that has little to do with anything I’m actually experiencing? The otherwise striking art sadly suffers a similar fate to the photographed imagery used in Terrors 2: The base image is clearly far more detailed than the WonderSwan’s screen can (or was ever designed to) handle, too often leaving you squinting at the energy efficient handheld and trying to decipher the pixels before you. The WonderSwan has a brilliant screen and can produce sharp, clean, images but Kojima’s extraordinary art – and it pains me to say this – is just a bad fit. None of it has been created with the handheld’s small monochrome screen in mind, the flowing lines and fine detail present in the original pieces used to decorate the manual frequently lost within just eight dark shades.
Begin any match in scenario, VS CPU, or even two player mode (via a pair of connected WonderSwans) and you’ll find yourself looking at a playfield with one card slot in each corner, the aim being to have your cards occupy all four spaces at once and your opponent naturally trying to do the same. The playfield has a rotating marker in the centre to indicate the current direction of attack (clockwise by default, although dedicated spell cards can reverse this) – cards can only attack the card following them in this circular pattern, never diagonally (they can’t counter or retaliate in any way either). Cards can usually only attack cards of the same type (there are three types in total) regardless of how powerful they are, although this rule is altered slightly based on the current playfield type (the field always reflects whatever card type there’s the most of out at that time, and in the case of an even split the current field remains) – if the card you place down matches the field type then it can always attack your opponent’s card, even if the two cards themselves don’t match. The numerical value shown on a card is its health and attack power all rolled into one with any damage taken remaining for the duration of the match (or until the card is defeated), in theory allowing a much weaker card of the same type to gradually chip away at a more powerful one from behind – although as the rules also allow you to overwrite any of your placed cards with another (of any strength or type, and without a summoning cost or any form of penalty) in practise this little tactical possibility doesn’t happen, or at least doesn’t happen long enough to be of real use. To make this type-led gameplay easier to manage all cards have a reverse side you can flip over to before (but not after – barring a special card effect) playing them, their opposite side having their own power rating and often a different element too.
Youfu Makai may have concocted a novel way of tackling this popular genre but it never really gets strategic to the level of either real card games (Magic the Gathering, to give an obvious example) or strictly digital fare like the Neo Geo Pocket’s wonderfully accessible SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighters Clash, and it doesn’t really embrace its game-y home the way the likes of Suikoden Card Stories do either. There are no traps to set up or reactive cards to activate, no buffs or heals, no real clever trick bar “And now we’re all playing to the left instead of the right“, and no way to cycle cards if you get a bad hand (and a full hand is only three double-sided cards – enough to leave you dead before you’ve even started in too many matches) beyond throwing them out onto the battlefield and ruining what little strategy you’re trying to eke out of the game’s shallow battle system. To make matters worse, the vast majority of cards are plain attack sorts with no active, reactive, or passive effects, which even aside from the lack of tactical depth makes some weaker cards utterly worthless very quickly, especially as the concept of summoning or maintenance costs simply don’t exist here – there’s no reason to not use your most powerful cards as often as you draw them. Even building your deck is a pain, the screen displaying a mere five cards at a time with no option to sort by type or strength, and the interesting (if superfluous) flavour text found only in this one specific menu remaining completely hidden from view unless you consciously choose to go looking for it.
I’m all for unusual takes on card-based gaming – the WonderSwan’s own Wild Card is a fantastic game I urge everyone with the ability to play it to do so – but Youfu Makai doesn’t succeed at anything it tries to do. The storytelling doesn’t mesh with the gameplay, the art is often too crushed to enjoy, and the actual battling is overly simplistic.