The Gaming Fan Who Accidentally Became a Historian

weaK_willO wanted to play a card game, and ended up spending nearly $6,000 to help the world remember something that'd been forgotten.

Aug 18 2020, 1:27pmSnap

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game, a physical card game spin-off produced by Atlus in the late 90s. There is no Wikipedia entry, and it was never released outside of Japan. Even the hardcore Shin Megami Tensei websites don’t have much information on it, outside of noting that it, at one point, existed. 

It has, in essence, been lost to history. This, unfortunately, happens all the time with games, past and present. As such, the true history of any piece of culture, video games or otherwise, largely wouldn’t exist without passionate fans filling in the blanks corporations let develop.

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The fan filling in the blanks on Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game is gaming and tabletop enthusiast weaK_willO, who stumbled into becoming a historian by accident. A few years back, after playing 2009’s _Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey_ for the DS, weaK_willO wanted more from the Atlus JRPG series. That led to a game that combined both passions and is also a tongue twister, 2001’s _Shin Megami Tensei Trading Card: Card Summoner_. 

Card Summoner, like a lot of Japanese games at the time, had not been released in English. weaK_willO, fortunately, had a limited grasp of Japanese and was able to figure out how to play. _Card Summoner_ proved entertaining enough that weaK_willO was hoping to order a physical version, but at the time, Google turned up nothing. It wasn’t until they searched in Japanese (真・女神転生) that a successful result came up. It was everything they wanted.

“I was met with thousands of physical cards that I wanted to get my hands on,” said weaK_willO over email recently.

A stack of Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game cards. Photo courtesy of weaK_willO

Sorting this branch of Atlus JRPGs can be confusing. Atlus is best known for two major franchises: Persona and Megami Tensei. You don’t get to Persona without the early success of Megami Tensei, based on a trilogy of sci-fi books by Japanese author Aya Nishitani that involved demons invoked through technology. The first book was called Digital Devil Story. The Megami Tensei franchise involves various spin-offs, one of which is Digital Devil Saga. The “Shin” part that was later added to “Megami Tensei” when Atlus rebooted the series, and while Persona is now its own thing, it started as a subseries of the Megami Tensei franchise.

One of the big problems for weaK_willO was figuring out what they were looking at. The Internet provided zero answers to core mysteries that proved difficult for playing the game, let alone amassing a collection. How many cards are there? Are they still making them? 

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“This is where the game being niche was unfavorable,” said weaK_willO.

The problem for weaK_willO was that the card game was a niche of a niche. It’s normal for something popular in Japan to never appear elsewhere, but by all accounts, _Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game_ wasn’t even all that popular in Japan, either. It doesn’t take much for a fandom to spring up around something, but apparently no one had paid much attention.

Consequently, they were forced to do the grunt work themselves, so they started looking up various card packs being sold online and noting what they found. This involved making a catalog of prices, so they could figure out what cards were rare and which were common. 

“It all got daunting fast that I lost motivation,” they said. 

Until this point, weaK_willO was doing all the investigative work on their own. They did find one website that had some information on the collection, but it proved woefully incomplete. 

Because they didn’t know what to buy, weaKwillO had yet to actually buy a single card. This was a process that went on for months because buying random cards would not lead to weaKwillO’s ultimate goal, which was to let other people play a forgotten gaming relic.

“My first impulse was to obtain the game to establish a historical record for the West,” they said. “It has been the top reason for collecting. The very first thing I spoke to my friends, who would go on to help with the project, in our Discord server was, ‘I mainly want it to archive it on the internet since on this side of the planet, it has no catalogue or translation.’”

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The big revelation came during a moment of boredom during a night shift at their job. While poking around the Internet on a break, they searched for cards on Yahoo’s Japanese auction website, and found someone was selling the absolute motherload: 20,000 cards. This wasn’t a box of crap, either, but 20,000 cards in carefully maintained binders. This was another fan.

“I hadn't expected such a large cache of mostly everything I wanted for around $6,000,” they said. “It almost felt like cheating.”

After mulling it, weaK_willO pulled the trigger on thousands for the collection of cards.

A stack of Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game cards. Photo courtesy of weaK_willO

The cards eventually showed up, and that’s when the next stage of meticulous work began, as they started scanning, cataloging, and most importantly, translating with a friend.

In late June, weaK_willO went public with the progress their group had made so far on the popular gaming message board ResetEra. The post included links to the card scans, and work-in-progress translations for the game’s rule book and the cards they’d obtained so far. 

The response from fans was elation, and resulted in a lot of headlines about the project.

Going public had another important consequence: it put weaKwillO in touch with another obsessive collector, someone who specializes in the archiving of Megami Tensei work. All along, weaKwillO figured they were the only person who was interested in preserving Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game, but it turns out a Japanese fan was doing so, too.

Those links are what weaK_willO had been searching for all along: careful documentation of _Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game, including high-resolution scans. Chris had access to cards that weren’t part of weaKwillO’s bundle of $6,000 cards. This was an important lead.

weaK_willO is an English fan who speaks a little Japanese. Chris, a self-described “digital devil story archaeologist,” is a Japanese fan who speaks a little English. They’d found each other, connected by a shared desire to have more people know about this obscure game.

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Chris reached out over Twitter, even going so far as to track down an old Twitter account that weaKwillO hadn’t used in years. weaKwillO flipped it back on in order to speak with Chris.

“The relationship is a balance of small talk (in English sometimes and emotes) and business usually through Zweistar [a translator also working on the project] for better articulation of what I am trying to say,” said weaK_willO.

Beyond the small talk, Chris is helping weaK_willO track down cards. Between the two, they have a better idea of what was produced for _Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game_, but it’s unclear whether they’ll actually be able to complete the set; some of the cards are very rare and hard to find. Translating what they have, however, might be done by the end of 2020.

Despite all this, weaK_willO doesn’t consider themselves a collector. The point of tracking down these cards wasn’t to put them into a personal vault, it was cataloging history for fans. The idea of being able to share what was being found gave them motivation to keep going.

“Of course, when we fulfill what we set out to do, I would like to play the game with my friends and others but that has always been secondary,” they said. “In the end, I will even donate my cache and our efforts to an organization that preserves games since that has always been my goal.”

Though the work of translating and collecting cards is not yet complete, it is possible to play Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game without audaciously printing out scans of the cards. 

YouTube creator Larrue has a video that breaks down how to play, and if you’re more ambitious, it’s easy to download the software Tabletop Simulator, which allows people to mod custom card games. Someone has already built Digital Devil Story Trading Card Game.

And just like that, a game that was lost to history is suddenly alive, well, and hardly forgotten.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

Culture, personA, Atlus, trading card games, Shin Megami Tensei

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