Ten, or even five years ago, if you asked someone to play some cards, chances are they'd immediately think you might want to indulge in a game of Poker, Blackjack, or perhaps even Go Fish if you weren't of the high-stakes, risk-taking persuasion. However, in the last few years new ideas and concepts of how cards can be used and played have come about, and it's been a relative revolution in gaming circles ever since. Starting with the immensely popular "Magic: The Gathering" fantasy cardgame, a hybrid was invented combining the fun, social aspect of traditional cards and the addicting collectability of trading cards. A huge number of companies have turned out similar games branching out into almost every possible direction based off of the incredible success the idea has achieved, and it's been a boom since then. With card games featuring varied settings, including fantasy, sci-fi, comic book characters and even the ubiquitous and omnipotent Pokemon franchise, it's hard to find a person who hasn't seen what gamers have been doing with these little pieces of paper lately.

Taking the concept of playable and collectable cards one step further by bringing it to an electronic format and succeeding fabulously, Tecmo brings us Monster Rancher Battle Cards. Based on their two other virtual pet/monster raising niche titles, Battle Cards takes the same previously established world and characters and gives them an entirely different style of play.

After turning on the PlayStation, the game begins with a bit of introductory story and then you're asked 20 questions regarding your personality. Based on your answers the computer assigns you a beginner's deck of Monster cards and Skill cards. The Monster cards represent your characters during a match, and the Skill cards are their attacks, defenses, special abilities or other various powers that can affect play. Your first real use of the deck is a fairly good tutorial session between yourself and your assistant, Cue, who serves to give you helpful hints during play. It takes no more than three or four turns of the tutorial to get the gist of how the game flows, and then you're off and running.

The game's rules and setup are quite simple. Matches take place between two players each having virtual decks of 50 Skill cards and three Monster cards on each side of the board. Players draw five cards at the start and are required to replenish their hand to five at the beginning of each turn if any cards have been used. Cards require "Guts" to play, and Guts are acquired by discarding cards from your hand, so the game becomes a balancing act of deciding which cards are valuable enough to keep for use and which are better used by converting to Guts. Also, the more powerful cards cost more Guts to activate so you can choose to save up for the expensive, earth-shattering attacks instead of the lower-cost piddling attacks, but you leave yourself open while stockpiling Guts, or it's even possible for your opponent to steal your Guts before you can get the attack off. The match is won by either K.O.'ing all three of your opponent's monsters, or by making your opponent run out of cards so they are unable to draw. It's a very elegant and easy-to-understand system, and yet one that allows for a huge amount of depth and customization between the large amount of Monsters you can choose and the equally large amount of Skill cards the Monsters can employ.

The Monsters' looks, abilities and attacks are consistent with the pantheon established in the two previous "Rancher" games, and the personality inherent in each creature carries over through each one's selection of moves as well as various animations that occur as you attack and defend. There are a large number of available Monster species like the feminine Pixie or the speedy Tiger. If heavy offensive strength is more to your taste, there's no shortage of powerful bruisers like the stony Golem or the whale-like Zilla.

Most Tecmo games in recent memory including the Rancher titles, the Deception series and Gallop Racer have all been on the low end of the spectrum graphically (with the Dead Or Alive series being the sole exception) while maintaining an extremely high level of fun and replayability. Battle Cards follows suit. The graphics are very simple, clean affairs using static backgrounds and 2-D, hand-drawn art for the character portraits and Monsters. While the art itself is aesthetically appealing from a design perspective, the animation is a bit disappointing with only one or two frames for an entire attack and about three or four different expressions total for the human characters. It's very reminiscent of how most 16-bit RPGs looked, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with it, they could have put a bit more effort into making it more smoothly animated and pleasing to the eye—especially with the generally high expectations of gamers today.

Another quality Tecmo is famous (or rather, infamous) for is their longstanding tradition of shaky translations. Some of the banter between players both before and during matches doesn't always make sense, and some of the quotes seem slightly out-of-context or mis-timed. For example, in the middle of a match an opponent will say "Don't draw cards" when it's clearly your turn to draw, and you've got 40 cards left. Also, some of the instructional text on the cards isn't very clear and can be confusing until the card is actually used. It's nothing that ruins the game, but with such a generally solid title overall, it's a shame to see corners cut that could so easily have been fixed with just a bit more effort with an English dictionary.

Despite the minor lack of polish on the translation and the underachieving graphics team, it's a worthwhile tradeoff for the game's incredibly high addiction factor. You'll be telling yourself "Just one more game" at 3 in the morning and finding that you stayed awake until 4 or 5. Like the previous Monster Rancher titles, the AI provides some serious, mind-bending challenge once you get to the higher levels, and it's extremely satisfying to win a match when things come down to the wire. Getting the mix of cards in your deck right, as well as forming the perfect team, will keep you busy for far longer than the average title can, and if the game had included some (sorely missed) two-player head-to-head, you'd never leave the house. Still, despite the missing multi, it's a deep and engrossing experience for one person.

Like the other Rancher titles, Battle Cards is built for mastery in the long haul. This is a game that requires long hours and perseverance to complete, but the reward of being able to consistently win matches and eventually beat the game is well worth it, and it gives a true feeling of accomplishment. Overall, Battle Cards keeps the flavor, spirit and depth of the first two Monster Rancher titles while bringing an entirely new direction to the gameplay. It's definitely a title Tecmo should be proud of, and one that comes highly recommended to fans of Monster Rancher or of fantasy card games in general. The game is rated 8.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway
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