PlayThings: Nintendo e-Reader and Game Cards

How Pokémon cards led the way for Nintendo to re-release their old games

Bringing you the latest instalment in our Playthings news series, examining the fascinating stories behind the played videogame objects from our Playthings exhibition and beyond.

Trading cards have recently witnessed a miniature renaissance. Energetic YouTubers have become popular through ‘pack-opening’ videos, and as we’ve seen with the clamour for limited edition sneakers, trading cards are suddenly big financial and cultural news.

This resurgence calls back to the original boom of trading cards in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with those pesky Pokémon being the number one culprit. Curse you unobtainable shiny Charizard! Curse you! 

As a part of this history, our Nintendo e-Reader and an open pack of NES Tennis e-Reader cards represent unique relics from that strangely contemporary-feeling time. The clunky Nintendo e-Reader is a card-reader peripheral that possesses a lot of different uses – as long as you had the cards. The e-Reader was made through an unprecedented collaboration between Nintendo, Creatures Inc. (also known for their work on the GameBoy camera), and HAL. Laboratories, with the actual card-reading technology produced by Japanese camera manufacturers Olympus. 

The e-Reader was announced at E3 2001 on 15 May as a Pokémon Card e-Reader to link with the Pokemon Trading Card Game. The original plan was to have the e-Reader operate as a virtual Pokédex. Yet, in reality the e-Reader was an object that was just a little too unwieldy. You couldn’t really fit the e-Reader in your pocket, especially if you include the cables and the Game Boy Advance you needed to make it turn on. As a result of its poor commercial performance, the e-Reader never made it to European shores, only being sold in Japan, North America and… Australia!

Despite this Cardexit of the e-Reader from Europe, these objects are still really interesting. The cards themselves contained lines of dot-code strip data printed along the card’s edges. Typically, cards had one or two strips of dot-code with the longest strip holding 2.2k’s worth of data, while the smaller secondary strip contained 1.1k of data.

These cards were exceptionally versatile. Across hundreds of different variations they contained original mini-games, videos and lots of extra content for existing games, including new areas, items and music! All from an object the size and durability of a Pokémon card!

In our collection, we have an example of these e-Reader cards making up an entire game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Anyone for a classic game of NES Tennis? 

There is something obviously really cool and sci-fi about these cards being able to recreate older games. But it’s also really significant. At the time that these cards were released, we did not have the Virtual Console or digital platforms available to play older games on different hardware. So, in reality, the e-Reader cards were the one of the first times that Nintendo ever officially re-released older NES games as standalone games. And that card system never official found its way to Europe, so we all had to wait another 4 years to replay that game of tennis. Talk about a straight sets defeat.

Want to learn more about videogame PlayThings?
Learn about E.T. and the U.S. game market crash
Why Mario’s Hat is more than just a magical cap
Explore the first ever videogame console