Genre: Card Battle
Developer: Vicious Cycle
Release Date: May 22, 2007
As you may have gleaned from the title, which can be charitably described as "somewhat unimaginative," Marvel Trading Card Game is a computerized version of the very real trading card game. The basic premise is that you and your opponent each have 50 Endurance, and you use a mixture of heroes, villains and assorted powers (ranging from single-use "Plot Twists" to equipment cards) to reduce your opponent's Endurance to zero. It's simple enough stuff, and it's very easy to understand the idea if you've ever played another trading card game before, whether it was Magic: The Gathering or Pokémon.
In this, it excels. It provides an intelligent — if largely uncreative — opponent, plenty of deck customization options, most of the cards from the first few expansion sets and a number of neat little additions, like the Puzzle mode. That particular mini-game hands you a set of cards, a time limit, a seemingly unfavorable situation and usually gives you the goal of reducing your opponent's Endurance to zero within a single turn. It's often tricky, but it can be very helpful when learning how to play the game, and it grants you points that can subsequently be used to buy more booster packs with which to further customize your deck. You unlock more Puzzle levels every time you finish one of the game's chapters, and they usually revolve around whichever new mechanic is being introduced.
This is about the only place where Marvel Trading Card Game offers new players any help, though. I'll be fair: The game has a tutorial. Unfortunately, the tutorial is possibly the worst I've ever experienced. As you might expect, you play the game on both screens of the DS; one screen shows the playing field, while the other shows a close-up of whichever card you have selected. The tutorial bravely goes against this by showing you the playing field on one screen and reams of text on the other screen. The game then plays out a match on one screen, while the second screen laboriously explains what's going on.
In pure text.
Specifically, approximately 200 pages of pure text.
More specifically, approximately 200 pages of pure text that obscure the second screen, stopping you from getting a close-up view of any of the cards and thus uniquely hindering your efforts to understand what's going on. The text does elaborate on it somewhat, but it's still unhelpful and annoying and often requires you to remember the exact cards used several pages back, as well as the exact effects they caused. If you can't, you may very well end up confused.
If you can bring yourself to follow and pay attention to the entire tutorial, then you'll come out with a pretty good understanding of the game mechanics. If you're an actual human being, then chances are you'll give up halfway through the tutorial and go back to it every now and then for clarification of specific rules. This is eminently more sensible, unless you happen to be an insomniac. Of course, it doesn't help that after finishing every chapter of the game, you get yet more tutorials to run through, although these are generally limited to the new mechanics being introduced, so they aren't nearly so much of an issue.
It may seem odd that so much of this review is dedicated to discussing the tutorial, which is normally a minor part of the title, but in this case, it's drastically important. This is not an RTS or FPS — Marvel Trading Card Game requires a clear understanding of its rules, which are pretty much unique. Experience from playing another trading card game will only help in the general mechanics and in none of the specifics. Because of this, a tutorial of this staggering ineptitude is a rather large problem, particularly when minor changes could've drastically improved it. Merely making it playable would have aided it considerably.
Once the tutorial is out of the way, the game fares a bit better. The cards, both artwork and rules, are pulled directly from their physical counterparts, so any balance issues (which are few and far between) aren't the fault of the developers and will already be known to fans of the TCG, while the art is of decent quality, albeit slightly downgraded for the DS screen. The deck construction interface is robust and extremely easy to use, and most menu options are self-explanatory. Better yet, the game itself is absolutely gigantic, consisting of two campaigns (one for Heroes, one for Villains), each of which comprises around 50 separate missions, with each mission taking anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour. So, yes, it's big, and if you really get into it, it will keep you occupied for quite some time. This is without going into the sheer number of cards, minor rules and variations that can have you constructing and reconstructing decks for every conceivable situation. Naturally, there's a free play mode too, allowing you to test whatever deck you've constructed against a random computer opponent. Functionally speaking, it's all there.
But, despite all of this, the tutorial isn't quite the only hindrance to enjoying Marvel Trading Card Game. The actual in-battle interface itself suffers from the tiny space into which it's been compressed, but unlike the tutorial, there appears to be little way around this. Not including the cards in your "hand," there are six rows of cards on-screen at any given time, and considering the width of the DS screen, not many of these are visible. In the later stages of close games, you're constantly scrolling back and forth and trying to remember which cards are where and how they all act. Most of the time, it's merely an irritant, but on occasion, it can be a genuinely large problem.
There is one final issue which must be discussed, though, and that is how hideously unforgiving the game can be. This isn't an issue with the AI per se, which tends to be both intelligent and brutal but is ultimately fair; instead, it's another problem with the interface. You see, there is absolutely no cancel button. If you select a card to power-up a character and then discover it can only be used on your opponent because, for instance, it's not your turn to attack, then you're stuck. You have no choice but to use it on your opponent and wound yourself. If you hit the Use Card button by accident — which does happen occasionally, especially on the small screen — then you can't undo it; if you double-tap Pass, you're going to miss out on the next phase. Once you learn the ropes and know what to expect, it doesn't happen so often because you're being very, very careful about every single move you make with the stylus, but this is no excuse for a problem that really shouldn't exist.
A lot of this review has been warning the reader about the problems with Marvel Trading Card Game, rather than praising it, and this is deliberate. It's reasonably good-looking, intelligent and fun, but with a lot of flaws. If you already know the system and you want a computerized version of the game, then chances are that you'll adore it. Assuming you don't know the system, then if you can understand the tutorial, if you can get past the steep learning curve that results from that tutorial, if you can ignore some extremely problematic interface quirks and if you can work with a tiny viewing window, then chances are you'll find a surprisingly deep and involving little game. The problem is that's a whole lot of "ifs," and Marvel Trading Card Game requires a surprising amount of time and patience before it even begins to open up into the game that it should be. Beware.