Once upon a time SNK tried its hand at the portable market and introduced the NeoGeo Pocket hardware, a muscular system that was home to some of the best portable games of its day. Unfortunately, Nintendo's already established Game Boy and Game Boy Advance were not to be messed with, and the NeoGeo Pocket system passed into history. Though the bulk of the system's library has never seen conversion to any other platforms, one of its best, SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighter's Clash, is getting a sequel on the Nintendo DS. We got our first look at the game--dubbed SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters DS--at last year's Tokyo Game Show and have finally gotten our hands on a localized version of it to see if it lives up to its predecessors.
The game's story is pretty straightforward and plays out via static screens with text. The tale focuses on a character you'll be able to name who gets pulled into a deadly game of card battling where the stakes are nothing less than the lives of his friends and the stability of creation itself. OK, maybe it's not that dramatic, but the fact remains that you'll play as a young boy who has to climb to the top of a tower to face off against a megalomaniacal computer named Max, who has brainwashed all the attendees of a card battling tournament. So that's still pretty bad. To stop Max and his nefarious card-centric plans, you'll have to travel to each floor in the tower and face off against the brainwashed card battling masses. You'll be joined by a handful of friends, including your rival, whose father is among the brainwashed.
The action is basic and revolves around card battling. You'll travel to each of the tower's 21 floors, separated into Capcom and SNK variations, and fight a handful of brainwashed card battlers before taking on that floor's boss. As you defeat foes you'll earn card points and in some cases decks of cards to use in battle--you can use the entire deck for a fight, cherry-pick cards to supplement your current deck, or make an entirely new deck. When you defeat enemies you'll free them from Max's brainwashing, and they'll hang out on their respective floors safe from the crazy computer's influence. A handy side bonus of this is your ability to come back and fight them again for practice. Besides the brainwashed masses, you'll meet up with an industrious shopkeeper who's looking to do business regardless of any brainwashing going on. You'll be able to spend your card points in the shops for new cards that will come in random packs. You'll open each pack by "slicing" the top of the pack off with your stylus and "scratching" off a marking on it to reveal the card you've earned.
As for the card battling, which is central to the whole experience, Card Fighters expands on the inspired system introduced in the NeoGeo Pocket Color game. The result is coming across as somewhat mixed. You'll be working with decks that have a blend of three card types: character, action, and counter. Character cards are the staples, and they feature a cast drawn from the SNK and Capcom stable of characters. Action cards offer various unique ways to put the hurt on your opponent's cards. Finally, counter cards let you use them to minimize or avoid damage when you're being attacked. The basic battle system is simple. Each match starts with a virtual roll of the dice. Whoever wins determines who can start the match. At the beginning of each battle you'll start out with three white force icons, and once the game gets going, you'll get one white force at the start of every turn. The other four force types are red, yellow, green, and blue. The icons will come into play when you're laying down cards, because each card has a cost associated to laying it down and, in the case of cards with special abilities, using its abilities.
When you're laying down cards you'll notice that each character card has a specific force type associated with it. This is important at the start of each turn, because in addition to a white force icon, you'll get icons based on the cards you have in play at the time. For instance, yellow cards yield yellow icons. The more icons you have, the more cards you can lay down, the more card abilities you can use, and the more options you have for attacking. Besides attacking individually, you can perform fusion attacks that let you have two cards attack at once, combining the damage they do into one powerful hit against your opponent. The only catch is that the attacks require a whole bunch of icons.
The basic flow of a battle, once you and your opponent have laid down cards, is to attack, defend, and repeat. The ultimate goal is to get your opponent's hit points down to zero by attacking with your cards, each of which has unique attack damage. When you're being attacked you'll have the option to defend using your cards or to let the attack go through and hit you. The key to victory is balancing attacks and defense, because any cards you use to attack are frozen until your turn comes around. So if you don't finish off your opponent during an attack, you'll be unable to defend yourself when your opponent attacks. The system isn't quite as easy to pick up as the previous games, but it's still pretty user-friendly.
The visuals and audio are modest. The character graphics on the DS are small 2D sprites that feature minimal animation. The big-ticket items in the mix are the card artwork and the battle animation. The game features very cool 2D art that has a fun sense of style. The various characters from the Capcom and SNK catalogs are looking sharp and turn up in action and counter cards. The various characters have varied attack animations, depending on how their target cards are hit, which offers some visual flash during battle. The audio's a bit on the generic side but manages to offer up a solid companion to the action despite lacking any really catchy tunes.
Based on what we played, SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters DS is looking like an interesting expansion of the Card Fighter's series. Though it doesn't appear to be quite in the same league as its predecessors, the game looks as though it's got its own appeal. The card artwork is great, and the character selection is good and varied. The gameplay additions to the original system will throw off fans of the original but still stay logical so it's not too hard for old-schoolers or newcomers to pick them up. We're not 100 percent sold on how the mechanics work as a whole, but there's definitely some appeal here. How much appeal depends on your love of card games and the SNK and Capcom character catalog. SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters DS is set to hit stores this week. Look for our full review soon.