Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Shiny Spanky CCGs

There's a number of cut points in the Handful O'Landfill era, but few so pronounced as the one between the time when you could print the picture of anyone in an athletic uniform on a slab of cardboard and have it sell, and the time you could print a picture of any vaguely Japanese character on a piece of cardboard, be it sketchy and saucer-eyed and samuraied with acute angles for shoulders or round and pink and Jigglypuffy, connect it tenuously to a game of such labyrinthine complexity that not even the designers could play it properly, and sell it like it was the Apple iBacon. Those were the days when the CCG – collectible card game – was in full flower, driven like Vin Diesel with a Dwayne Johnson chaser by two fantastic properties: Magic: The Gathering for the so-called grownups and Pokémon for the presumed-to-be-kids.

Pokémon in particular had it nailed. It was a CCG based on a cartoon that was based on a CCG that was based on a cartoon that was based on a CCG that was based on a lengthy conversation with a 4-K class. It occupied the sweet spot equidistant from anime and the sword-and-sorcery line of Games for Dorks, it had a bottomless supply of characters that took their inspiration from the pop culture of three or four different cultures, and its creators obviously had access to pharmaceuticals so mind-blowing that you could give yourself a concussion just thinking about them. It was the coolest thing to come out of Japan since the Teisco May Queen.[1]

CCGs like Pokémon had some real advantages over sports cards, especially if you signed the checks that tied to an actual account. Best of all was that most CCGs were constructed from more-or-less intellectual property. You could spend moodles on a Marvel or DC or Tolkien license for your CCG, but why would you want to when you could hire an overactive imagination off the street and create your own saucer-eyed World of Weird?

This obviously did not stop people from spending moodles on Marvel, DC, and MLB CCG licenses, but that was just a manifestation of their unbounded belief in their own infallibility. Marvel Overpower in particular was the Facebook Phone of collectible card games.

However, let the record show that not every CCG built out of intellectual property was Pokémon or even Pokémon Lite, and not every spiky-haired anime hero was a pocket millionaire. For every Pokémon or even a modestly successful property like Yu-Gi-Oh there were scores of properties that were tried and found wanting.

Sailor Moon was a particular favorite. Now before all you animites start doing huffy breaths at me, let me say that I like Sailor Moon. I do not love Sailor Moon, because that would be borderline weird. I like Sailor Moon. I admire Sailor Moon. I edited a long, long story on Sailor Moon for the magazine PoJo’s Pokémon, and I found the story arc fascinating. Sort of like Galsworthy where everyone has a magical power like Shiny Spanky Uterus. [2]

About halfway between Yu-Gi-Oh and Sailor Moon was a property called Cardcaptors. Cardcaptors had all the pieces of a successful Japanese crossover hit: There were plenty of episodes of an animated series in the can, there was a trading-card series and a CCG – heck, the whole premise of the series was built around cards – there were plush toys and keychains and board games and a modest hillock of licensed properties, plus tie-ins with AOL and Kids' WB, and a website, and this cool rating chart that showed that Cardcaptors trailed only Pokémon (though by almost a two-to-one margin, admittedly) in the ratings of kids' anime series.[3]

Given all that, what could possibly go wrong?

Upper Deck got the card license, for one thing.

For all its success in sports cards Upper Deck had the Touch of Lead when it came to non-sport. Its modus operandi was to throw obscene amounts of money at properties just to keep someone else from getting them, sit with its head in its collective hands and wail, “What are we going to do with this?”, and then take the first harebrained idea that came along. It was like the writers’ room for Your Show of Shows, where Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, and Carl Reiner fought for gags – only after hours, when all the writers were gone and just the janitors were left.

For instance, Upper Deck got the license for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, then the top-rated TV show and dead-solid No. 1 licensed property for card-buying, weapon-toting, helmet-wearing pre-adolescent boys, and devised a super-high-end set that only the kids of Texas Rangers could afford – and we’re talking position players here. None of these situational lefties.

Upper Deck got the Looney Tunes license, hired Chuck Jones, merged it with Major League Baseball and the Upper Deck stable of superstar endorsers, and came up with a set of storyboards for grade-Q cartoons and a series of awkward situations involving Ken Griffey Jr. and a duck.

Upper Deck got the license for Valiant Comics, at that time the most collectible comics marque in the business, and produced a stinking dungheap. It definitely captured the Valiant oeuvre but didn’t sell a lick.

Upper Deck formed a non-sport division, called it Pyramid, and employed a director who – thanks to former Cards Illustrated editor Don Butler for the deathless image – kept his office door closed constantly for fear that someone might ask him to produce a card set.

So let’s review: Upper Deck, a successful sport-card company with the non-sport track record of Rich Kotite and a non-sport product manager whose best position was hiding under his desk, secured the license for a Japanese collectible card game that came with its own popular animated series, ready-made licensed products, and a storyline that involved collecting and playing with cards – trading cards. How could Upper Deck possibly screw up this one?

Here’s how: Cardcaptors involved epic battles just like Yu-Gi-Oh, with cards just like Yu-Gi-Oh, and a TV series just like Yu-Gi-Oh and licensed products just like Yu-Gi-Oh, but its lead character was a girl.

Oops! Just heard a pin drop.

The chief Cardcaptor was named Sakura, and she and her friend Li worked with Kero, keeper of the Clow Book[4], to defend the cards and … and something. Harness their magic, I guess. Most anime series involve someone trying to harness someone else’s magic. There must be an awful lot of magic running around Japan unharnessed, and that’s got to be a big problem in such a small country.

Anyway. The Cardcaptors material also mistakenly plays up the fashion angle. “Fashion-savvy Sakura sets the trends!” it proclaims, and adds, “With a different battle costume in every episode of Cardcaptors, Sakura’s sense of style is unmatched.” That was probably a mistake, seeing as the costumes look like something the Statue of Liberty would wear if she went to a lot of coming-out parties dressed as a fairy ballerina.

In Japan, poor cute little backwards podcar-driving Japan, the idea of women – girls – as action heroes is well-accepted. They aren’t sidekicks and don’t need sidekicks, save for the occasional magical cat. America, big burly manly truck-driving God Bless America, isn’t ready for girls starring as Ash Ketchum or Ben 10. That sends the wrong message – and besides, not every American girl under the age of 10 has a Barbie yet. Never mind that Cardcaptors as a story concept was more charming, more entertaining, more satisfying on almost every level save the decibel level than Yu-Gi-Oh. Never mind that Upper Deck could have tried something really radical and marketed a collectible card game to girls. Nope. Instead of pushing the envelope Upper Deck threw in the towel. Cardcaptors was done almost before it was born.

We love to talk about the magical times, the times the stars line up and produce something so much greater than the sum of its parts that we’re dumbstruck. The Wizard of Oz. The Great Gatsby (the book, thank you very much, Mr. Luhrmann). The eponymous Warren Zevon album. Key lime pie. But for each one of those there are scores of unruly stars, of seemingly random points of bright light that never quite managed to get things lined up. Cardcaptors is one of those. But you know, if they had gotten everything lined up I wouldn’t be talking about Cardcaptors today. You would.

[1] Here. Or for Jim and Sparky and the rest of you automotive types, this.
[2] As God is my witness, that was the literal translation of one of the StarSailors’ powers. I thought it would get more logical as my wife got older but it didn’t.
[3] The ones it beat, in case you’re wondering: Dragonball Z, Digimon, Sailor Moon, and Gundam Wing. So not exactly the Miami Heat.
[4] The names didn’t help, certainly.

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