No matter how often I recall it, my mind is blown every time. Ten years.
Ten whole years ago. Wow. It’s a bit unsettling whenever I realize that I have to look back that far to tell this story – considering how vivid my memories of the time remain, it certainly doesn’t feel like a decade has passed. Granted, much has changed, in any respect you care to name, and quite frankly, I thought that I’d “moved on” some time ago – heck, in a large way I did. Yet somehow here I am, hunched over my computer, just like back then, giving my time and energy to the same idol, decrepit and derelict as it is, all over again. Apparently it’s decided that it wants a curtain call, all these years later, and I’m utterly helpless to refuse the encore it demands.
Maybe not quite so much has changed as I’d like to think. Or ten years just isn’t as long as it used to be.
Anyways, yes – the year was, indeed, 1999. Back then, as now, video gaming was how I spent much of my spare time. My tastes in this area, as strictly defined as they appear these days, were at that moment in something of a state of transition – while I had always been drawn to “slightly off-the-radar” experiences, the definition of which titles belonged in that storied category was quickly changing. During the 16-bit era, when I first found myself immersed in the world of interactive entertainment, role-playing games and their ilk were the constant outliers, rarely localized because they were considered too lengthy and slow-paced for the majority of Western audiences. That being the case, I, of course, had spent more than my share of time in front of Square’s product in particular, back when they were the Atlus of the day – Final Fantasy IV and VI (nay, II and III), Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, even the Capcom-developed Breath of Fire…alongside a handful of products by Enix and a few other such companies, these were my proudest possessions (before they were worth stupid amounts on eBay, mind you), and very much defined who I was as a gamer.
Now, however, the winds of change had been blowing, their intensity multiplying with each announced release – the 32-bit era was now upon us. Anime and Japanese culture in general were beginning to plant roots within the Western consciousness. The memory limits of cartridges were no longer the impediment to developers that they used to be. Square was now “Squaresoft,” and was working in direct tandem with Sony and Electronic Arts. Role-playing games and “Epic” games in general (as Nintendo Power once dubbed them) were rapidly making strides into the mainstream – as a result, arcade-inspired titles, the longtime, undisputed rulers of their space, were being chased to the outskirts, where only a select few gamers would follow. Eventually I myself would start paying ever more frequent visits to those hallowed ruins, but in 1999, utterly unaware of the future that awaited me, I was not ready to leave the homestead yet – come Hell or high water, I was still an RPG gamer. Despite the 3-D, the lengthy cutscenes, the awful haircuts, Square was still, darn it all, the Square I knew and loved.
And Final Fantasy VIII was the hottest new RPG on the market.
Final Fantasy VIII – it’s funny to think of how sharp a divider it’s become within the series’ fanbase by now, considering how universally popular and critically acclaimed it once was. That whole state of affairs isn’t why I’m writing this, however – and, to be perfectly clear from the get-go, what you’re about to read has very little to do with FFVIII at all. The characters, the world, the core setup and systems, the things that would spur on a themed article like this – none of it has had any more of a lasting effect on me than most other games I’ve played, certainly not to the point where I was involved with any attempt to “expand its universe”. The reason I’m still talking about the game at all is because within its confines dwelt an almost entirely separate universe in and of itself: a meager card-based minigame.
For those of you who have never experienced this delightful distraction before, it’s quite easy to learn and play – each contestant (it’s always one-on-one) has a hand of five cards (acquired either from in-game battles or won from other card players), each featuring a picture of a monster or character, as well as a number from “1” to “A” (10) assigned to each of its four sides (top, bottom, left, right). After who goes first is determined at random, the competitors take turns placing their cards onto a 3x3 grid – when one player places a card adjacent to an opponent’s, and that card’s adjacent side has a higher number assigned to it than the opponent’s, the latter’s card is taken by the former (of course, the card can be taken back from another side). Whoever has the most cards in their possession when all of the spaces are filled up is the winner.
…honestly, the basic rules are even simpler than they sound as I (try to) explain them here. Those basic tenets, however, are only half the story – as you travel FFVIII’s world and challenge different Triple Triad players, you will encounter various addendums to the basic rules, such as a random hand select, the inability to see your opponent’s cards, or most notably the “Same” and “Plus” rules, which allow you to take even stronger cards than yours by using a bit of simple arithmetic. The ostensible reward for learning to play the game well enough to best the computer was the ability to “refine” the cards you won into items, but in truth this was hardly even a consideration for me – Triple Triad, you see, is perhaps the first game of its type that I really “got”, to the extent that I learned to think ahead and try to predict my opponent’s next move. Its highly simple setup allowed me to get the hang of the basic tenets of strategy where countless other games had somehow managed to fly over my head – after playing Triple Triad I became a more worthy opponent at everything from Connect Four to Chess. It was an embarrassingly late epiphany for me, but that fact didn’t make me enjoy it any less.
Especially now that, even before my family had acquired a personal computer, I was starting to tool around on the internet in my school’s library.
And, perhaps inevitably, stumbled across tripletriad.com.
It was quite simply the most incredible thing I’d ever beheld, a lonely geek’s dream come true – a free online version of the card game, preserved (almost) perfectly from the original PS1 version, with a bustling and rapidly-growing community surrounding it. A bunch of like-minded fans who could play games of Triple Triad (forever thereafter known as “TT”) against each other. Yes, the days of being limited to an AI opponent were over – finally I could not only share my love of this (mini)game with other human beings, but also test my skill against theirs. The sluggish internet connections of the day meant that games were often won or lost based on whose computer took too long to refresh the page, but I didn’t care – I was simply too enthralled with the process of setting up a game with a chosen batch of rules (Open/Same/Plus/Combo, card level 1 only, was my favorite), waiting to see who’d take the bait, and chatting it up with them as we waited for our connections to chug along, perhaps to meet up again on the forums later. Enthralled as I was, I attempted to get a few of my real-life friends into it (not that I had more than “a few” of them to begin with, mind you) – none of them ever stuck around for more than a handful of practice games, but I, for my part, wasn’t going anywhere. “TT.com” was “my place” online, the first site I visited every time I logged on, and quite likely had just finished up a game there as I signed off.
Now, I could probably cook up a decent-sized article on my experience playing Triple Triad online all by itself – the friends that I made, the themed group that I unofficially headed, the site-wide tournament that I lost (and stupidly, too…) in the final round, two games to one. Not to mention my infamous practice of parodying other forum members’ signature images. Of course, such a write-up would probably have been better served under the “Playing With Others” musing from a short while back, and thus you may be wondering why I’m only now bringing this part of my gaming past to the fore. The answer lies in the fact that the numerous games I played and people I interacted with, if you can believe it, were actually a relatively minor part of my Triple Triad experience. Despite a respectable win/loss record under my belt and a long-running tenure at the site, neither of these things were what I was near-universally noted for within the community. I was not, first and foremost, a game player, or even a community member.
I was a card maker.
A quick bit of history – tripletriad.com was exactly what it advertised, a reproduction of the original FF8 minigame. After some time, however, its players began to demand more. 110 total cards, they reasoned, simply wasn’t enough to keep things interesting, especially as the community continued to grow – players were starting to group themselves into “clans,” and were organizing tournaments against each other (and, predictably, occasionally erupting into drama-filled flamefests on the forums). Debates were cropping up as to just how close to the original game the online version should aspire to stick (i.e. should players be allowed to choose who gets the first turn in their games, or does that make building a strong hand too easy? Should the “combo” rule be a constant, or should players be able to turn it off? Is the new “Plus Wall” rule unbalanced?) And most notably of all, people were beginning to design and create their own cards. For some time I simply observed these curiosities from a respectful distance, but before long found myself becoming more and more curious…more drawn to not just the cards themselves, but the creative process behind them.
I still remember the very first time I dared show my face to the other card crafters – a thread had been started up on the forums by a member named Hunk, a relatively infrequent player but a distinct forum personality with a bit of a following, thanks to his dry sense of humor and talents at whipping up custom Triple Triad cards. I forget exactly what the “theme” of his thread was (a small-scale contest, maybe), but for whatever reason I decided that I was going to make an appearance on it – I downloaded the “standard” card template images (there were already several variations available at that time), stayed after school to spend some quality time with Photoshop 6.0 on the art room’s computers, and ended up, after a bit of trial and error, with a trio of cards featuring the three main characters of Neon Genesis Evangelion (yeah, I was at that age). The number placement was off, the borders were wrong, and the cutout job was far from perfect, but Hunk and other viewers rated them as “good for a first attempt,” and from then on there was no stopping me, especially after my folks finally acquired a home computer (and pitched in for a home copy of Photoshop that I was suddenly dying for). Whenever I was at that keyboard and not playing a game of TT, I was creating new custom cards and improving my output, to the point where I won (with a full 11-card Evangelion Level 10 “minideck”) the first site-wide card-crafting competition, and placed in every other one that I entered. In a nutshell, I had found my niche-within-a-niche.
I suppose I ought to make it clear that cardmaking was not a particularly complex or otherwise off-putting procedure – one certainly didn’t need any special technical expertise to create a custom card, as I certainly proved back then (and could still prove now, if such need ever arose). What one DID require to rise above the fray, however, was patience, and devotion to the project at hand – any schlump, after all, with a little time to kill could snatch some random image off of a web search, pop open the paint program of their choice, do a bit of simple editing and cut-and-pasting, and upload their new “card” for all to see, but those who knew both where and how to look could quickly tell whether or not the creator truly had his heart in it. Was the quality of the original image apparent? Had it been cropped and/or rotated for maximum visual effectiveness? Did any jagged edges or bits of background remain? Were the numbers and elementals spaced appropriately? And did all of these pieces come together to form a cohesive, harmonious collage? What separated an average cardmaker from a noteworthy one was, in the end, nothing more than how willing you were to make your cards great – the classic fairy-tale lie of “if you try hard enough, you can do anything”, if you can believe it, was actually true here. And in case you couldn’t already tell, I was as willing as anyone to get my work noticed. Thus, the inevitable result – thanks to my devotion, things worked out for me the way we all wish they would in real life, and my creations drew increasingly large and influential crowds to post their comments, positive and negative, all of which I applied to further refine my future work, and treasured to keep.
In any event, after some time had passed, those calling for bold, site-wide change won out, and a “sister site,” tripletriadx.com (“TTX”), was opened – it took some time for me to gather the courage to uproot myself from my longtime hangout and migrate to this new frontier, but all the while exciting developments were afoot – not only was this new site redesigned and reorganized, but it was doing the downright unthinkable. It was adding original, user-created cards to the game. The first “official”, admin-approved addendum was a full deck for Final Fantasy Tactics, and it was followed by sets based on Final Fantasies IX, IV, V, and VI, by various other high-profile community members (in that order, if memory serves). There was talk of expanding to other Squaresoft games, such as Chrono Cross or Xenogears, but the world wasn’t quite ready for that sort of craziness yet – after all, even as it stood, the altercations within the community about the new content were intense and unceasing, on matters of balance regarding cards’ numberings (do too many “clone” cards give too much of a potential advantage?), to how many decks should be available within a single game (would more limitations make for more challenging hand-building and greater strategic variety?), to simple aesthetic issues (should it be acceptable for an “official” deck to use separate images for each side of a single card?). Relatively few revisions (aside from bug fixes) were ever actually undertaken once a set of cards had been officially added, with a single notable exception – at one point, a large and vocal enough group of site members (myself included) determined that the existing Final Fantasy IV deck was unbalancing the game as a whole, to the extent that it would need to be almost completely remade. The original creator, Kain Loire by name, volunteered to take the lead in fixing things up, but not by himself - via a process I don’t fully remember, I, by then a well-known cardmaker and an increasingly influential voice in the ongoing balance debates, was chosen to work with him, to streamline and recalibrate the deck before it could be reintroduced into the “official” card pool.
This was it – my first big-time crafting project. This time, the cards that I would (help to re-)create would actually be played with on the site - apart from winning a tournament or being promoted to an administrative position, there was no higher goal to aspire to within the community. I’d finally made it – all but openly giddy with excitement, I quickly got to work. Kain took direct care of the aesthetic department – he, after all, was something of a trailblazer, the first “official” cardmaker to use dual-image cards in his deck – though I couldn’t help but offer a handful of even more outlandish suggestions (most infamously, exchanging a handful of rather plain-looking high level “vehicle” cards for some whacked-out, but more visually interesting, replacements, such as a Frog/Pig status ailment card, and a pair of crystals, light and dark, with lens flare effects in the background). The majority of my time, however, was spent working out the new numberings – determined to make a lasting impression on the admins and the community at large, I scratched down every existing and possible numbering combination by hand, pored over them at length to pinpoint any overused or unbalanced areas, and labored, one card at a time, to ensure that this refined set would fit, as perfectly as was possible, into the existing setup. Potent but not overpowering. Unique but still strategically practical. Daring but not off-putting. This, like all my previous efforts, was not going to be a quick once-over, just stirring in some ill-conceived group of random combinations to change things up a little and quiet the critics down – this was going to be a quality job on my part. I simply had too much love for the site and for the game to give anything less than my all. Over the span of a few months, Kain and I worked in tandem, until the cleaned-up deck was finally ready, and re-presented to the community.
There was some praise. There was some outrage (most notably over the fact that the Palom/Porom card was no longer overpowered, and worth considerably less in trades – a few longtime players who had built their high-level strategies around the card threatened to leave the site, though I can’t remember if any of them actually did so in the end). There was some ambivalence (I still remember clearly the grade that CC Ace, one of the site’s top players, gave the revision – a solid B+). But it was done – eventually the furor quieted down, I could remain proud of my work, and life went on. For a little while.
On that note, I’m sure that a few of you have been wondering, since a few paragraphs ago, how in the world there never was a Final Fantasy VII deck on TTX.com.
Pull up a chair.
The FFVII deck was actually, as you might expect, one of the earliest proposed additions to TTX – thanks, however, to numerous and unfortunate twists of fate, those assigned to create it had been forced to quit, and their replacements left with no choice but to start from scratch. This infuriating cycle had repeated itself several times over by the time I began to pay any real attention - word around the forums was that the deck, like an infinitely geekier equivalent of the Hope diamond, was cursed, destined to never be finished, and that anyone who would attempt to circumvent this fate was a self-destructive fool, doomed to failure.
Of course, you already knew that this was where I’d come in.
The FFIV remake, as intense and high-profile a project as it was, couldn’t have prepared me for this undertaking, epic in significance as well as proportions – this time around, I was working, by my own insistence, alone (well, almost…I did enlist the assistance of a slightly nutty fellow named Izlude to help out by capturing images from his PC version of the game), and had near-complete creative control over how the deck would turn out. Images, numberings, overall layout – every last detail was at the mercy of my personal discretion. Despite having to construct the entire deck from the ground up, I couldn’t have been happier with the situation – after all, this ensured that I was not just taking over where someone else had left off, or merely augmenting another’s original concept. This would be 100 percent MY contribution to the game of Triple Triad – moreover, I would finally, all by myself, dispel once and for all the senseless babbling regarding the “cursed” deck, not only by bringing the project around to full completion, but by making it the best damned thing to hit the game since the original cards from Final Fantasy VIII, that Squaresoft themselves had given unto us.
This deck was going to be my masterpiece.
I can’t remember exactly how long I toiled away at those 110 fateful cards, when all was said and done – my instincts put the timeframe someplace between one and two years, though I might be off. On the forums I grandly made the announcement that I would all but cease playing any games of TT until the deck was finished – true to my word, every spare second I had was spent on the FFVII cards, much to the chagrin of my folks at home (a handful of quite-heated arguments arose over my time spent on that dinky little PC, actually – to this day my parents don’t like to see me spending too much time staring at a computer screen, and are far more sensitive to this than they ever were about my TV or video game habits). To nip this problem in the bud as best I could, I stayed late after school every day that I could manage, off in a distant corner of the art room, working on one or two PSD files from home (all that would fit onto a floppy disk), catching the late bus home – somewhat ironically, these occasions took away from time that I could have been spending on actual classroom art projects, to the point where I actually turned in a printout of some of my cards as an “independent project” (the grade was lousy, but it was better than a zero). Pretty much nothing could break me away from my self-imposed assignment – after all, a lot was riding on it. I’d all but entirely left behind my status as a player, and largely as a community member (I rarely posted anything on the forums anymore, aside from updates on my progress) – this deck, all by itself, was either going to make or break me as far as my relationship with Triple Triad was concerned. It was either going to be incredible enough to make up for everything else I’d been neglecting, or the biggest letdown in the history of the site – either way, it would forever be associated with me. None of that really even registered in my mind, though, truth be told - I was putting too much of my heart and soul into those cards for them to be anything but a resounding success. If everything else had to be put on hold or outright sacrificed for its sake, so be it. It would all be worth it in the end, a thousand times over – I had no doubts whatsoever to that end.
As time went on, though, I did start to notice more and more impending snags and pitfalls appearing along the route to certain triumph – seemingly minor things that a lesser cardmaker wouldn’t have even taken into consideration, but there they were, clear as day before my eyes. No matter - I simply amended my crafting technique, to a point where nobody else that I can remember ever dared go – despite the pleadings of my increasingly impatient fellow TTX members, I was not going to be satisfied with a merely “serviceable” deck bearing my name. Breaking with tradition, I outright rejected “official” Squaresoft images that didn’t ideally fit the card format – I’d send Izlude off to fetch me a custom-posed image instead, even if it meant waiting days for him to get the screenshot I wanted.
Before long, mixing and matching superior and inferior sources was no longer good enough either – I quickly decided that ALL of the deck’s in-game images would be unique, hand-picked for superior spatial efficiency and maximum evocativeness of the in-game creature or character. And if any of these images might be held back by uneven lines or misplaced polygons, I would (and did) edit them out by hand – just me, my mouse (which I had to replace once, after wearing the previous one out), the paintbrush tool and the smudge tool. Perhaps there were quicker ways to go about it, but I wasn’t even remotely interested – I would not be content with anything less than a personal, pixel-by-pixel review of every last card-worthy picture.
Once the on-card images had been perfected, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the official templates were looking a little long in the tooth themselves – and I’d be damned if I was going to let them serve as a smudge on my craftsmanship. I thus decided to remake the numbers and elemental symbols as well (even utilizing transparency effects if I needed to) – my fellow TTers were livid, but I would not relent. Of course, the freshly-displaced pixels in my new and improved numbers made them more difficult to align in an aesthetically pleasing manner than the old ones, but I would take whatever time was needed to tweak and hone them until they worked perfectly in every respect, and if anyone didn’t like it, too bad. I was doing this for them, after all – didn’t they want to only play with the best cards when it came to the most anticipated deck in the site’s history? They’d surely thank me profusely later.
Naturally, all of this effort on the aesthetic front would need to be complemented by an equal amount of blood and sweat in terms of working out in-game technical issues – once again, a full handwritten list of numberings was brought to bear (this time including the revised FF4 numbers that I had brought to bear), and hours were once again spent seeking the perfectly-balanced concoction of numeric foursomes. After spending ample time hunched over the applicable figures and tables, I made yet another unprecedented decision - to create a completely “rare-free” deck. No “Pupu-esque” level fives, no “AA” level tens, none of that game-breaking garbage that other cardmakers had felt compelled to include just to sate the strategically-deficient proles (my deck, on the other hand, would be for REAL TT players). To counteract this inevitable public-relations disaster I would break new ground yet again – not only would I include as many “dual-image” cards as possible (approximately two-thirds of the cards had at least one alternate image, far more than any previous deck), but create certain cards with multiple dual-side layouts, some combinations harder to come by than others, though equal in actual strength (and heck, maybe even a few off-kilter “joke” cards that couldn’t be used in-game, but could be offered as tournament prizes). Collectability and balance all in one package, and the highest-end aesthetics of any deck on the site on top of that – bearing such a juggernaut upon my shoulders, nothing could possibly stand in my way.
On that note, whenever I took a fleeting break from my craft I would build up as much hype for my ongoing project as I possibly could – people, after all, were watching my every move, salivating at the thought of finally getting their hands on the long-awaited new cards, despite my seemingly unending series of self-imposed delays. Moreover, yet another revision of the site, tripltriad.net, was up and coming, and the FFVII deck would be its crown jewel and major selling point. The cards were…steadily approaching completion, approaching perfection, and everything was looking to turn out just as I’d envisioned it – on and on I toiled, never tiring, content merely to be able to chase that elusive golden carrot forever dangling before my eyes.
Until the site, suddenly and unexpectedly, closed down.
Certain complications on the administrative end of things, competition from a rival offshoot, (Triple Triad Advance, which still exists…and has a freakin’ Dragonlance deck! Have they NO taste?), perhaps even a growing sense of disinterest in my own seemingly unending high-profile project – even now I’m not sure exactly what it was that doomed my longtime internet hangout to oblivion, but just as it had stepped into my life it departed, without a moment’s hesitation, never giving me the satisfaction of so much as a single backward glance in my direction. Its members, old and new, quickly scattered, some relocating to different TT sites, others vanishing into the void - I, left with months upon months of all-consuming work, nothing to show for it and no one to show it to, slowly folded myself up into the latter group, quite simply incapable of picking up so many pieces. I toyed briefly with the idea of finishing the FFVII deck “just for the heck of it,” but never spent another second on the project in the end - one of the defining aspects of my daily existence (sad as that is, in retrospect) for the past several years of my life had faded into thin air. Even worse, the fabled curse, as it turned out, was real, and would endure forever, long after my doomed legacy as a cardmaker had crumbled to dust.
I know that this whole mess has to be one of the most pathetic things you’ve ever read, but every last word of it is true, to the extent that I can recall it – the time spent, the thoughts and feelings, the people I knew, the creations I spawned. In case I needed to tell you directly, every single such image interspersed throughout this article is a card I put together myself back in the day, some of them finished, others never completed – and, if I need to state the obvious again, there are many more that have not seen the light of day since the site closed. Every last one of them – the original images plucked from the internet, the work-in-progress PSD files, the numbering lists, everything – is still taking up space on my computer to this very day. I even had the files transferred from the old PC to my present one, as I was unable to bring myself to delete them, or even archive them elsewhere. Then, of course, there’s the work I put into yet another failed side project for new players known as Triple Triad Help, alongside images I spent hours gathering for several other TT projects that never got off the ground. And none of this includes the cards I made just for fun, or concepts that just plain never got out of the brainstorming phase. All of it resides, untouched to this day, within the “Triple Triad” folder on my computer, totaling several hundred megs in size – it’s not as big of a hard drive impediment as it was back in the day, but either way it’s still not going anywhere. Or serving any purpose, except as a reminder of the days when I was willing to put everything I had behind a project that wouldn’t earn me one red cent, or any accolade that meant a rat’s ass outside of a flash-in-the-pan internet site. Just the thrill of being able to expand the universe of the game I loved, in my own small way, was enough.
So what else remains of my past with Triple Triad? Not much – I’ve lost contact with every last one of my old mates from the site, and haven’t played a game of TT in years, despite the availability of actual licensed TT cards that collectors can spring for…I did once download a variation of Solitaire with TT images on the cards, though it’s probably lost to the abyss by now. The top win ranking pages for TT.com and TTX are archived on TTA, and a few other versions of the game, online and off, are still out there if you toss up a Google search, including one which utilizes a 5x5 board instead of the traditional 3x3 layout (probably unbalanced). There’s also the “spiritual sequel” from Final Fantasy IX, Tetra Master, though it’s far too reliant on random factors to even begin to compete for my taste (honestly, the closest Square has come to making a worthy followup to TT is the “Sphere Break” game from X-2, but that’s another article). Heck, someone apparently even put out a PSP version of TT. At the end of the day, however, especially when viewed from the perspective of my personal experience with it, I can’t help but be a bit surprised that ANY notable vestige of Triple Triad is still out there, considering how long it’s been since the game it comes from was in the limelight - I like to think that it means that I’m not the only one who saw something special in it. But who knows.
In any event, the era of the cardmaker is probably, by and large, over and done with. And as far as seeing fit to attempt to surpass the original creators on their own turf goes? On that front it’s probably relatively safe to say that I’m the only one of my kind, and always was. And frankly, for a number of reasons, I very much hope that’s the case.
(In closing, if you’re interested in taking a look at some of the aforementioned hand-written sheets I used to organize myself during the cardmaking process (specifically the FF7 deck), way back when I scanned a handful of them – I’ve since uploaded them here ; here ; here ; and here. The original copies, along with their numerous siblings, are all still around here someplace.)