Table of Contents

Introduction

In 1998, the Pokémon Trading Card Game was preparing to make its US debut. Meanwhile in Japan, the game was up and rolling and already on its fourth expansion set, Gym Heroes as it’d be named in English. Following Gym Heroes, Japanese players and collectors would enjoy a unique set that would come to be known informally as the Vending Machine Series. What made the Vending Machine Series unique is that the cards weren’t sold in booster packs. Instead, they were dispensed on sheets from vending machines. (Hence the term Vending Machine Series.) The sheet you received was dispensed randomly and would contain three cards you could peel to remove from the sheet.

vending-sheet-poliwag-charmander-spearow.jpg
A look at a vending sheet from 1998. The front of the cards were not visible until you peeled them off the sheet.

Three series of Vending Machine cards were released in Japan over the course of 1998. They totaled 125 cards, but unlike previous expansions, which would eventually be released in their entirety to the rest of the world, only six of these cards would ever make their way overseas and be printed in English. The six that did make it were released as Pokémon League promotional cards over the 2001–2002 season.

Pokémon Tower was the strongest of these six cards, while the remaining five didn’t see much competitive play. Fortunately for those of us who cared more about building decks than simply collecting, the rest of the cards from the Vending Series were, for lack of a more polite term, really bad. However, there were a few cards that almost certainly would have seen play in competitive Pokémon around the world had they made their way outside Japan. Let’s have a look at the few gems hidden in the Vending Series.

Hungry Snorlax

C: Eat
Put 1 Food counter on Hungry Snorlax. You can’t use this attack if Hungry Snorlax already has 2 Food counters on it.

CCC: Rollout 20+
You may remove any number of Food counters from Hungry Snorlax. If you do, this attack does 20 damage plus 30 damage for each Food counter you removed. If you don’t, this attack does 20 damage.

Packet containing Hungry Snorlax, Cool Porygon and food counters

Packets containing Hungry Snorlax, Cool Porygon and a set of food counters were given out to customers who bought a Nintendo 64 in Japan between December 1997 and January 1998, shortly after their Team Rocket set had debuted.

While Cool Porygon received an English card, Hungry Snorlax never did. Hungry Snorlax, however, was the much stronger of the two cards. With 100 HP, Hungry Snorlax could function as a solid attacker in Lickitung Stall decks that already played four Scoop Up.

Deck: Lickitung Stall with Hungry Snorlax (Base–Rocket)

Pokémon (16)Trainers (28)Energy (16)
4x Lickitung
3x Scyther
2x Hungry Snorlax
2x Mewtwo
1x Gastly
1x Mr. Mime
1x Ditto
1x Chansey
1x Psyduck
4x Super Energy Removal
4x Scoop Up
4x Professor Oak
4x Energy Removal
2x Energy Retrieval
2x Nightly Garbage Run
1x Gust of Wind
1x PlusPower
1x Super Energy Retrieval
1x Mr. Fuji
1x Pokémon Center
7x Psychic Energy
5x Grass Energy
4x Double Colorless Energy

The beauty of Hungry Snorlax in Lickitung Stall is it offers the deck a way to knock out heavy-hitting Pokémon like Wigglytuff. Hungry Snorlax’s 100 HP make it an effective stalling Pokémon as well, as it is able to absorb multiple attacks before being healed and returned to the hand with Scoop Up.

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Moon Stone

moonstonevending1

Search your deck for a Colorless Evolution card and put it into your hand. Shuffle your deck afterward.

Moon Stone wasn’t an amazing card, nor was it one that would have really changed any format. However, it would have been a cool addition to decks heavy in Colorless Pokémon, like Dodrio/Clefable decks.

Mr. Mime

mrmimevending1

Pokémon Power: Neutral Damage
As long as this Pokémon is on your Bench, each Active Pokémon has no Weakness or Resistance.

PC: Juggling
Flip 4 coins. This attack does 10 damage times the number of heads.

resistance-gym-gym-challenge-109All those years relying on Resistance Gym while Japan got to play with this cool card? No fair! Mr. Mime is certainly a card that would have seen play in competitive Pokémon. In fact, it probably did, in Japan. But since so little is known about the early years of competitive Pokémon in Japan, I can’t tell you. All I can tell you is that it would have made a big splash in the international scene had we gotten to play with it.

Gastly & Haunter

Gastly

C: Spookify
Your opponent can’t play any Trainer cards from his or her hand during his or her next turn.

PC: Confuse Ray: 10
Flip a coin. If heads, the Defending Pokémon is now confused.

Haunter

P: Poltergeist
Your opponent reveals his or her hand. This attack does 10 damage times the amount of Trainer cards there.

PP: Nightmare: 20
Flip a coin. If heads, the Defending Pokémon is now Asleep; if tails, the Defending Pokémon is now Confused.

I’m almost glad these two cards never made their way outside Japan because they are almost certain to have completely taken over the Base–Gym format of 2000. The synergy of Gastly’s Spookify and Haunter’s Poltergeist attacks are obvious, but this powerful duo became a deadly trio when combined with Dark Vileplume. Let’s have a look at what a Haunter/Dark Vileplume deck list would look like.

Deck: Dark Vileplume/Haunter (Base–Gym)

haunter-dark-vileplume-deck-base-to-gym.jpg

Pokémon (15)Trainers (40)Energy (5)
4x Gastly
4x Haunter
3x Oddish
1x Dark Gloom
2x Dark Vileplume
1x Mr. Mime
4x Computer Search
4x Bill
4x Erika
4x Lt. Surge’s Treaty
4x Blaine’s Quiz #2
4x Misty’s Wish
4x Sabrina’s Gaze
2x Pokémon Breeder
2x Switch
2x Nightly Garbage Run
1x Warp Point
1x Professor Oak
1x Gust of Wind
1x Energy Removal
5x Psychic Energy

Playing nearly every Trainer that allows you to draw cards without discarding your hand, this deck can virtually guarantee you a Turn 1 Spookify followed by a Turn 2 Dark Vileplume so long as your hand isn’t raided before your first turn. While Erika, Blaine’s Quiz #2 and Lt. Surge’s Treaty all award your opponent cards, accepting these cards will only fuel Haunter’s Poltergeist attack. About the only thing that can break this lethal setup is Muk, but your opponent will need to draw the Grimer—probably two considering you have a Gust of Wind to KO one before it can evolve!

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Bulbasaur

bulbasaurvending1

C: First Aid
Remove 1 damage counter from Bulbasaur.

G: Poison Seed
The Defending Pokémon is now Poisoned.

A major improvement from Base Set Bulbasaur, which in the US was the only Bulbasaur printed until the Expedition set in 2002. This 50 HP Bulbasaur strengthens Venusaur decks, which definitely could use any help available to them.

Clefairy

ClefairyVending1.jpg

C: Follow Me
Choose one of your opponent’s Benched Pokémon and switch it with his or her Active Pokémon.

CC: Shining Fingers: 10
The Defending Pokémon is now Asleep.

The Vending Series Clefairy can be a useful addition to Clefable decks, with Follow Me offering a way to strand Pokémon with a high retreat cost.

Hypno

Pokémon Power: Puppet Master
If a Clefairy Doll is your Active Pokémon, it may use any of this Pokémon’s attacks as long as this Pokémon has enough Energy cards attached to it to pay for that attack’s Energy cost.

PP: Mind Shock: 30
This attack’s damage isn’t affected by Weakness or Resistance.

Talk about a fun Pokémon Power! I think Hypno would have been strongest after the Neo sets debuted. In the Base–Gym format that preceded them, Rocket’s Sneak Attack could easily snag away your Clefairy Dolls on the first turn, leaving you with a lone Drowzee that would be vulnerable to a quick loss. After Neo debuted, Hypno gained Cleffa for some support, not to mention its Mind Shock can one-hit KO opposing Cleffas as well. Let’s look at a deck list I put together for Hypno in the Base–Neo format.

Deck: Puppet Master (Base–Neo)

puppeteer-deck-base-neo

Pokémon (12)Trainers (37)Energy (11)
4x Cleffa
4x Drowzee
3x Hypno
1x Tyrogue
2x Energy Stadium
1x Chaos Gym
2x Gold Berry
4x Clefairy Doll
4x Lass
3x Professor Elm
3x Energy Removal
3x Super Energy Removal
3x Warp Point
3x Computer Search
2x Professor Oak
2x Good Manners
1x Double Gust
1x PlusPower
1x Nightly Garbage Run
11x Psychic Energy

The beauty of Hypno lies in Drowzee’s Long-Distance Hypnosis. Since Clefairy Doll can’t be affected by Special Conditions, you are always free to take risk-free shots at leaving your opponent’s Active Pokémon Asleep. The 30 damage Mind Shock deals is perfect for a Baby-filled format, with your Item Finders working like Revives to maintain attacking Clefairy Dolls.

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Fan Club Promos

In Japan, players could enroll in a Pokémon Card Fan Club in which they would accumulate points that could be exchanged for promotional cards. From 2000 to 2002, there were three cards available to players: Shining Magikarp, Eevee and Porygon. Shining Magikarp cost the least amount of points to obtain, Porygon the most.

Shining Magikarp and Eevee would each be released in English, though Eevee would receive different art.

As for Porygon, it would never make its way outside of Japan, which is a shame.

A Closer Look at Fan Club Porygon

porygonfanclub

C: All Clear
All Pokémon Powers stop working during this attack. Discard all Trainer cards in play. If any Pokémon in play is Asleep, Confused, Paralyzed, or Poisoned, remove all of those effects from that Pokémon. Remove all counters and markers (except damage counters) from all Pokémon.

CC: Hyper Conversion
Choose a type (other than Colorless) and 1 of your opponent’s Pokémon. Put a Coloring counter on that Pokémon. That Pokémon is now the type you chose. (A Pokémon can have only 1 Coloring counter on it at a time.)

Porygon offers two unique attacks. All Clear by itself is enough to warrant a spot in many Base–Neo decks, offering a way to clear the board of Focus Bands & Gold Berries, as well as any pesky Stadium card. It’s second attack, Hyper Conversion, is even better and can be used to perform a variety of crafty tricks. Here’s a few neat things you could do with it:

  • Change a Darkness-type Pokémon (like Sneasel) to a different type, forcing it to take damage from any Darkness Energy attached to it.
  • Change a Metal-type Pokémon (like Steelix) to a different type, so that any Metal Energy attached to it reduces the damage it deals.
  • Change Chansey’s type to Fighting so that it hits itself for Weakness (and knocks itself out) when attacking with Double-edge.
  • Change a Water-type Pokémon to a type other than Water, preventing Blastoise from fueling it with Rain Dance.
  • Change any Pokémon not capable of heavy damage to Psychic-type, creating an easy target for Murkrow’s Mean Look.

Porygon is a hard counter to many of the strongest Pokémon in the Base–Neo format. In fact, the format completely shifts if played with this one card, with Sneasel & Steelix being outshined by Pokémon like Wigglytuff. If you’re hoping to pick one up to add to your deck, though, I have some bad news. These Porygon promos are among the rarest cards in the game.

Deck: Dark Vileplume/Porygon/Murkrow (Base–Neo)

porygon-vileplume-deck-base-to-neo.jpg

Pokémon (27)Trainers (20)Energy (13)
4x Cleffa
4x Murkrow
3x Oddish
2x Dark Gloom
3x Dark Vileplume
3x Erika’s Bellsprout
2x Erika’s Weepinbell
3x Erika’s Victreebel
2x Porygon
1x Sneasel
1x Healing Field
4x Lass
4x Computer Search
3x Pokémon Breeder
2x Professor Oak
2x Warp Point
2x Pokémon Trader
2x Misty’s Wrath
4x Darkness Energy
4x Rainbow Energy
3x Double Colorless Energy
2x Recycle Energy

This list is nearly identical to the Dark Vileplume/Murkrow/Smeargle deck in my Base–Neo article, but replaces Smeargle with the more reliable Porygon. It uses the same strategy, aiming to get a game-winning Mean Look, usually by changing the type of a Pokémon to Psychic so that Murkrow resists it.

So why did this legendary Porygon never make its way outside of Japan? Since Wizards of the Coast was always trying to catch up to Japan in terms of expansions, it’s not surprising some Japanese Vending Series and promotional cards would be skipped along the way. What isn’t known, though, is how Wizards decided which Japanese cards to release and which not to release. When it comes to the Fan Club Porygon, perhaps the answer is hidden in the background.

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International Art Changes

Given that the US-based Wizards of the Coast likely wanted to avoid any correlation between Pokémon cards and gambling (reasonable for a card game marketed towards children), you can understand why they might have been hesitant to release a card that features slot machines in the background. But if that was the reason, you have to ask, couldn’t they just have issued different artwork? After all, Wizards changed the artwork on the Fan Club Eevee and also several other Japanese cards before releasing them in English to avoid offending the apparently oversensitive US market.

The VS Series

whitneys-furret-VS-018
A Japanese VS card

While Japan followed the Neo sets with a unique e-Card set named VS, the rest of the world inched closer to Japan’s format by skipping ahead to the ExpeditionAquapolis and Skyridge sets, merging five Japanese sets into three to speed up the process. This helped synchronize formats across the globe, allowing Japanese & International players to compete against one another in the 2004 World Championships.

Wizards of the Coast’s decision to skip over the VS set was probably a good call as the set had few (if any) impactful cards. (Have a look.) Following VS, nearly all cards released in Japan to this day would make their way around the globe, ensuring the entire world would get to enjoy the same cards as the nation that created the game.

Playing the Japanese Formats

If you’re interested in building decks with some of these unreleased Japanese cards, you may also be interested in playing the formats as they were played in Japan. Japan not only had access to cards the rest of the world would never see, they also had some cards much earlier relative to other sets. I break down the most significant differences between the Japanese and international formats for the game’s earliest years below.

Base–Fossil Format (US: 1999, Japan: 1997)

super-energy-retrieval-neo-genesis-89While Super Energy Retrieval would not debut in the US until the 2000 Neo Genesis expansion, Japan received this card as a promo around the same time their Fossil set debuted. This means the Japanese Base–Fossil format and all subsequent formats contained Super Energy Retrieval. Super Energy Retrieval is particularly impactful in the Base–Fossil format where it offers a defense against the 4/4 count of Energy Removal and Super Energy Removal found in most Lickitung decks. Rain Dance decks in particular benefit from having access to this card.

rain-dance-deck-base-to-fossil-japan.jpg

And while the Lilypad Mew promo (side note: its Psyshock was mistranslated and should Paralyze) didn’t make its way overseas until all four Neo sets had been released, this promo actually debuted way earlier in Japan, in-between their Jungle and Fossil sets. (The Fossil Mew the rest of the world received as a promo was actually the second Mew card for Japan!) That means this Mew can be used in the Base–Fossil format and any subsequent formats as well, assuming you want to play as Japan did. (It’s Pokémon Power is of course less useful in these early formats since nearly every attacking Pokémon was a Basic Pokémon.)

You’ll have to wait until you’re at the Base–Rocket format to include Hungry Snorlax in decks, though. This promo did not come out until after Team Rocket in Japan.

Base–Gym Format (US: 2000, Japan: 1998)

haunter-vending-3The Vending Machine cards debuted in Japan between the two Gym expansions, so if you want to play the “true” Base–Gym format (as it was played in Japan), you can include all Vending cards I mentioned at the beginning of this article, such as Moon Stone, Haunter and Mr. Mime. You can also add Pokémon Tower to this format, though that card’s true strength wasn’t realized until Recycle Energy’s debut in Neo Genesis.

In the years that followed the Vending Series and VS cards, a higher percentage of Japanese cards would end up making their way overseas. Today, nearly every card printed in Japan receives foreign language prints, but for reasons that aren’t always clear, a few never do.

Base–Neo Format (US: 2002, Japan: 2001)

While the only game-breaking card Japan had access to in their Base–Neo format that the rest of the world didn’t was Fan Club Porygon, this single card completely shakes up the Base–Neo format. Pokémon that rely on Metal & Darkness Energy are easily exploited by Porygon’s Hyper Conversion. Players will also have to be more careful building their decks so that their Pokémon have ways to escape Mean Look after being converted to Psychic-type.