20 Years in the making
It’s January 1999. Pokémon Red and Blue have just debuted on the Game Boy Colour in September, and the original anime has been the “latest craze” for months. This was no mere Yo-yo however, as Pokémon were about the release another wave of must-have merchandise in the form of something we still know and love today, 20 years later. The Pokémon TCG.
These shiny pieces of cardboard became something more akin to a currency or a status amongst kids around the world. Their favourite characters from the franchise depicted beautifully on the first ever Base Set of cards, with everyone out to find that playground-owning Charizard!
Fast-forward those 20 years, and here we are today in 2019 as the Sun and Moon era of the TCG has entered its final stages. Pokémon Cards, whilst perhaps not as popular as they were in 1999, are still going strong – but how could they be better, or even return to former glories? With the game thriving in Japan, we take a look at a thing or two the English TCG could learn from Japan.
Value for money
Having first-hand experience of the Pokémon TCG in English and Japanese, this is an easy one to start with. The value for money of a pack of cards these days in England will rarely leave you thinking “that was worth it”, as the original price in 1999 was around £2.50, and you would be lucky today to walk into a shop and pay less than £4.00 per pack. A price that fails to represent its contents.
And it’s not just packs. A booster box of 36 packs will set you back £90 – and there are no guarantees. This £90 box might reward your investment with just two weak “Super Rare” cards that you could
easily get elsewhere for next to nothing. Not exactly something that sounds too appealing, and something that doesn’t happen to such an extent in Japan.
The difference is dramatic. The average price for a pack of cards in Japan is around 150 yen, and that’s about £1 per pack. Granted, the packs have 5 cards rather than 10, but with only a maximum of one rare per pack, it almost feels like the English packs are just packed out with extra Common and Uncommon cards. Whilst in Japan, I couldn’t help but pick up a few packs whenever I saw them! After all, four packs for the price of one in England is a huge difference, and of course, each pack represents a new chance to pull something great!
The sentiment is echoed in booster boxes, in more than one way. A Japanese booster box of 30 packs sits at around £30, and guarantees you one, if not two, “Super Rare” cards. That means, if you were to spend the same £90 on Japanese booster boxes, you would for certain have at least 3 “Super Rare” cards and room for even more. These guarantees can mean a lot when spending so much. So, let’s do the maths…
A pack of Sun and Moon cards for sale at the Pokemon Center, Japan.
As we’ve mentioned already, packs in Japan are around £1, and with boxes being £30 for 30 packs, that means you buy 30 loose packs and it would work out exactly the same as a 30-pack box. There’s zero inflation on single packs. You buy what’s affordable to you knowing that there’s no reward for spending a certain amount, as such.
However, it’s less of reward of buying more in England, and more of hit for buying individually. If you were to buy 36 loose packs in England, based on the Japanese model you would expect to spend around £90, no? Not even close. An average of £4 per pack means you would be overspending by £54 at a whopping £144. Not exactly an incentive to buy. If you were to divide a £90 box of 36 up fairly, it would be a far more reasonable £2.50, and I’d have no problem with taking a chance for a fair price like that.
This is more of a personal preference, but a point that I’m going to argue, nonetheless. To me, the English cards in general feel like what they are – reprints of Japanese originals, and the way the cards are made in English and Japanese differ in very noticeable ways, particularly with the Full Art and Hyper Rare versions of cards. These cards in Japanese have a subtle and stylish texturing, where the colours flourish and the background patterns are prominent without being too in your face.
In English, the manufacturing is different. The cards feel over-texturised, like there’s too much going on, and some people have often referred to the English versions as “cheese-graters”, such is the extent of the texture. You could light a match off them for sure, and it spoils the artwork somewhat with its very prominent ridges.
The difference between a Lunala GX Full Art is astounding.
Another point to make here is simply the border colour. In English, it’s bright yellow regardless of if it’s a regular card or even a rare holo card. The colour doesn’t often do the card any favours in terms of looks and appeal and doesn’t usually compliment the card “type” very well at all. In Japan, the borders are a far more neutral white, and when it comes to holo cards, the border then becomes a shiny silver just like the holo pattern itself!
It’s far more appealing, and something that hopefully we will see in the future in the English game. After all, we know it’s possible as the recently introduced Prism Star cards all feature a black holo border regardless of the continent. The difference this makes is immense, and something Pokémon is perfectly capable of implementing.
In terms of the Sun and Moon era, the way in which the sets are released is one of the biggest factors in terms of appeal, affordability and keeping things fresh.
We all know of the huge 200+ card sets released here in the West every three months. It can be hard to keep up with, a lot to take in, and expensive. With the sheer volume of cards in one set, you would be incredibly lucky to pull the cards you want, and nearly impossible to get a playset.
Japan releases cards a lot more frequently, efficiently, and cheaply. We’ve already mentioned the price of a box of cards, but as the sets in Japan are released on a monthly basis, they are also a lot more defined.
Because the sets are smaller, often limited to four or five new GX cards and a handful of Trainer cards, it’s so much easier to chase down a particular card that you’re after or even complete a playset. After all, those playing the game won’t be interested in getting a variety of cards. They want four of the same for their deck.
This is something much more achievable in Japan. A £30 box will typically give you 80% of the GX cards and undoubtedly a playset of every other card in the set. Spending the £90 you would have in England will near enough give you a playset of all GXs, and three or more Super Rare cards to boot! It just makes sense to release sets in small, manageable amounts – not to mention the fact that these cards are released in Japan up to three months before they’re seen in the next English set.
Again, this would keep fresh, monthly interest for players and collectors whilst also increasing the likelihood of getting that card you really want. Reducing the amount of uncertainty by reducing the amount cards in a set adds appeal to those who are after something specific.
One of the most important things for collectors is to be able to obtain limited and rare cards, whether it be a special promo card for winning a tournament or celebrating a certain event. In Japan, these cards almost standalone from TCG, never meant to be useful for battle and only really used to commemorate.
A great example of this recently in Japan is the “Munch: A Retrospective” exhibition in Tokyo. Displayed in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the iconic painting “The Scream” was to be displayed in Japan for the first time ever – and it was commemorated by the Pokémon TCG.
Released alongside the grand opening, were three unique cards made especially for the event. Pikachu, Eevee, Psyduck, Rowlet and Mimikyu were released as special five-card set, each taking on their own version of the “The Scream” pose recognised around the world.
It doesn’t stop there either. Limited special edition Pokémon Cards are regularly handed out to observe things such as the openings of new Pokémon Centers, new Pokémon TCG boxes, tournament victories, and even the changing of seasons. In the last two years, the Japan Champion’s League Finals has dished out two cards limited to just 100 pieces. The Masked Royal Full Art and Hyper Rare Zekrom GX.
This just doesn’t happen outside of Japan, and I have nothing to compare it to. The level of interest purely from a collector’s perspective is almost empty, and whilst I’m not implying that these cards to honour Japanese events should also be released in English, it would be nice to have our own Pokémon Cards celebrating our own events. Brexit Pikachu anyone? Check out why I think the new Tag Team GX cards have actually saved the artwork of the Sun and Moon era right here.
The Japanese game is thriving, even now. The end of 2018 and the release of SM8B, Ultra Shiny GX, the popularity of Pokémon Cards saw some of the biggest crowds line the streets since the game began, (trust me, I was part of that crowd) all in hope of just picking up a box!
A card shop shelf stacked full of Pokemon TCG
The card shops around Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are filled with all sorts of trading card games, and often offer places to meet up and play within the store. Rarely did I enter a card shop and see empty table of people meeting up to play everything from Magic The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokémon. It was incredible to see the TCG doing so well on all fronts in Japan. Check out my article about the best card shops in Osaka here.
Whilst an incentive to buy packs in English includes a code card for a further virtual pack in the recently released Pokémon TCG Online game, its detriments the need to actually meet up and play in person. It says a lot when the online game isn’t available in Japan, and isn’t needed.
Has the Pokémon TCG all but given up on the physical game in the West? It seems it has opted for faceless opponents online somewhat, which whilst might suit the preference of some, will only damage the physical game by reducing the need for it. Hopefully the continuation of pre-release events and Pokémon Leagues will mean the game will continue strongly. Perhaps there could be added intensives to joining leagues, attending pre-releases or signing up for tournaments away from PTCG Online? Think exclusive cards again. Just take a look below at the mayhem that ensued for the release of SM8B last year.
The English game could well be as popular as ever since its initially release, but these point’s represent room for improvement. Making the sets smaller, more frequent, more affordable and even more manageable would certainly make buying packs individually more appealing. In addition, tweaking the quality a touch and adding a few real exclusive, limited release cards throughout the year could add some serious enticement to a game that has been lacking just that.
Do you have any opinions on English and Japanese cards? Let me know how you think these two contrasting sides of the TCG could learn from each other in the comments below!