Soup can warriors

I vaguely remember the Barcode Battler being sold in the UK in the early Nineties backed by a sort of “Warriors everywhere!” kind of sales pitch; the idea being that a pack of biscuits, or favourite book, or a loaf of bread, was “hiding” a powerful hero or fearsome beast. History shows the device had the lifespan of a mayfly, nobody really took to the art on the pre-packed cards, there were no extra packs released tying in to obvious big deals of the day (such as a certain group of teenaged turtles) – they didn’t even bring over the Japanese Mario and Zelda themed decks), and at the end of the day imagining a pair of your dad’s socks were in reality a mighty wizard… well, it took more mental effort than most of us were prepared to put in, especially with the Game Boy now a globally successful household item. It didn’t help that the machine itself wasn’t all that exciting to watch either, it’s large LCD display dedicating most of its space to three lines of numerical output, like a calculator with delusions of edutainment grandeur.

Suffice to say, Epoch’s electronic card swiper didn’t do well over here and nobody really minded when it inevitably faded away.

The reaction in Japan however couldn’t have been more different: There were tie-in comics, special separately purchased “hubs” enabling new play modes, connectivity with several Famicom and Super Famicom games, themed decks and story expansion packs… as a children’s toy – which is exactly what this is – it did well for itself.

It was the vast gulf between these two very different responses to the same device that have kept me curious about it: What did I miss at the time? Were the themed decks really that great? Was it just a case of better advertising? So the only thing to do was to bring this relic from the past back into my home, with a minty-fresh deck based on Falcom’s Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes (just so you know – there’s an official Lord Monarch set too, although I believe these are just printed cards for you to attach your own barcodes to and not a playable set in their own right) included for good measure, and find out for myself.

Between the included instructions and the beautiful artwork on the cards it soon became clear that I’d been looking at this the wrong way for decades: the Barcode Battler itself isn’t the game, it’s more the facilitator, like the companion app to a modern board game, or the old VHS tape included with Atmosfear (and others) – it’s the tech-heavy part of a broader package rather than the whole. The pleasantly tactile device may handle all the numbers for you, but it’s always supposed to be a game where Hero A fights Monster C.

The main way to play using the Legend of Heroes deck I bought (contained within what can only be described as a beautiful oversized cassette box) is with the Barcode Battler in “C-2 mode”: Scan in a warrior-type hero, then a wizard-type hero, then an enemy (I wouldn’t recommend starting with an end-game boss card unless you want to lose in a single hit), choose which hero will face them, scan a beneficial item, and away you go!

The epic clashes that follow use a typical RPG-like turn system, and as with any typical RPG-like turn system it’s a lot more entertaining in practise than the simplistic rules make it sound. Everyone has three stats – health, attack, and defense – with them all interacting with each other in an obvious way. And… it feels pretty good, actually. Landing an unexpected critical hit’s always fun, and there’s real thought involved in when to use a spell to lower your opponent’s defense (a total of ten spells are available for your wizard, with varying MP costs and effects) or consume a precious healing herb (or two) to recover health during a fight. It’s not so good that I’m desperate to play more, but the physicality of the cards combined with that little space for your imagination to get some exercise in as well as genuinely not knowing how a match will play out does make it… yeah, let’s say exciting.

There’s even an alternative way to play – “dice mode”, a special game type that doesn’t actually require a Barcode Battler at all. Really. You can buy any of the licensed game packs – I believe that’s just Mario, Zelda, and this – and play “dice mode” in full without ever owning the hardware at all (I should mention here that each game has its own “dice mode”, each with their own unique and non-transferable rules). The Legend of Heroes’ version has to be played alone, and you’ll need to run off and find a standard six-sided dice before doing anything else.

Play goes something like this: First of all the enemy cards from the first four “chapters” (a carry over from the game) are gathered together, with earlier ones naturally being weaker. The fifth and final chapter enemies are then put aside (that’s your final battle) and the rest are shuffled into a pile. All four hero cards are laid out in a vertical line, and three enemy cards are drawn to sit on the left of them in another vertical line. Heroes are equipped with individual items – these sit on the right of their respective character card. Basic combat works by ignoring every value printed on a card that’s not specifically marked as a “dice mode” number, and then rolling a dice – if an enemy’s attack value matches the roll (for example: 4, or 1-2) then they attack the hero and that hero card is flipped over – if all four are flipped it’s game over! Hero attacks (dice mode is again politely turn based) are a combination of their dice roll plus item value – if this is greater than the enemies endurance rating then the enemy is defeated. Joint attacks are also possible, two heroes combining forces and gaining an additional +1 to their assault against a single target that turn. It’s also possible to run (if successful the enemy card is discarded and replaced with another) and use restoratives too, so there’s a bit of depth in there but… I can’t decide if this is a clever way to eke more use out of the cards or a mildly irritating case of misdirection, a bit of a cheat to call it a “mode” when it’s just a little extra game to play with the cards. On the other hand it is truly different from the main game and I want to applaud them – begrudgingly – for coming up with a whole new way to play even if it doesn’t actually require the product they’re supposed to be trying to sell.

Revisiting the Barcode Battler has been a pleasant surprise. While not especially in-depth (although I would stress again this was always intended to be a children’s toy) the battles are oddly engaging and do require skill and thought to win, and the cards themselves are thick, glossy, and interesting to look at. It’s a nice combination of the physical with the digital that goes beyond later trends of buying strangely-shaped lumps of plastic in blind bags for the sake of completing the set, and I do wish it had caught on over here when I was younger. Prices seem to vary wildly depending as much on the auction day as they do the included goodies, so if you like what you’ve seen I’d recommend a little patience – a bargain may be just around the corner!

[I wouldn’t have been able to research this without the support I receive through Ko-fi! Thank you so much!]

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