Collectible Card Games™ were like bitcoin in the ‘90s. Some freewheeling hero of licensed commerce figured out that you could create a backdoor gambling trap house for dweebs by making up rules for trading cards, and that became the speculative currency of the year 1995 alongside Pogs and Hootie and the Blowfish.
During that brief, glorious window of time, nearly every property you could think of was spun off into a Collectible Card Game™. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, at the time a 30-year-old film with no sequels, was made into its own Collectible Card Game™. There was never an official Collectible Card Game™ adaptation of the O.J. Simpson trial, but I’m certain those discussions took place. Boxes of The Island of Dr. Moreau game and the Clinton Impeachment game were presumably shipped to third-world children alongside cases of Buffalo Bills Super Bowl champion t-shirts. If the CCG boom had lasted longer than 12 months, we would’ve seen a 9/11 Collectible Card Game™ with a robust Iraq War expansion, complete with a chase Rudy Giuliani on lenticular printing depicting America’s Mayor melting into a puddle of raven-dyed gin sweat in real time.
There were even official Collectible Card Games™ sponsored by Major League Baseball and the NFL, in what may have been the most blindly ambitious assessment of crossover appeal since Deion Sanders’ 1994 album Prime Time, an entire collection of songs performed by an undeniably skilled athlete who has clearly never listened to music. I’m not saying that none of the kids who bought Collectible Card Games™ in the ‘90s played sports, but I’m willing to bet most of them won the “Most Spirited” award.
Collectible Card Games™ represent the perfect storm of monetizing nerdery, combining strategy/RPG tabletop gaming with the collectibles industry, which thrives on selling functionless cardboard and plastic to people who have strong opinions about the Spawn movie. Consequently, it wasn’t long before the Marvel Super Heroes waded their costumed boots into the fray, and anyone who grew up in the ‘90s reading comic books off of the rack at Food Lion can probably tell you why. The ‘90s were a dark time for Marvel – remember, this is 20 years before Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and the company was notorious for selling the merchandising rights to their characters for the cash equivalent of a BOGO coupon to a kissing booth run by the lead singer of an Incubus tribute band. Spider-Man made a lot of personal appearances at car dealerships in the ‘90s, and stacks of koozies bearing the official visage of the mighty Thor languished unredeemed in prize baskets at miniature golf franchises across America. Marvel was desperate for exciting new ways to pimp Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to dorks with disposable income, and Collectible Card Games™ were just such an opportunity.
In the summer of 1995, Marvel OverPower exploded into comic book stores, hobby shops, and weird kiosks at the mall run by men on a first-name basis with their tobacconists. The basic mechanics of the game were introduced via a series of instructive comic books, each written in-character by members of the Marvel Universe. I had the one written by Benjamin J. Grimm, and let me tell you, the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing was never meant to train anyone to do anything, let alone a complicated strategy card game with its own speculative economy. My copy of that issue has long since been lost to the sands of time, but I recently paid 400% of the original cover price for a new one so that we might go through it together in a future article. In the event that the article ends up not happening, at least I will have a copy to pass on to my children. In the event that I never have any children, at least I will have a copy to mail to a random child. I only believe in no-win situations wherein there truly is no winner. It’s the Kobayashi Maru of paying $10 for a 25-year-old instruction booklet dictated by a fictional character whose superpower is being a rampaging dumbass with no patience or impulse control.
Now, to be clear, nothing about Marvel OverPower is a bad idea. Collectible Card Games™ were exploding at the time, and Marvel already produced annual gameless trading card sets featuring their characters. It would’ve been strange if they hadn’t tried to cash in on this lucrative new trend. And OverPower is a pretty good game! It has an interesting design that eschews the resource management aspect of Magic the Gathering that has since become the template for most customizable card games. Rather than fiddling with mana or casting costs, you just kind of play whatever the hell you want over a series of hands that essentially boil down to a gussied-up version of poker. And Marvel has a deep bench of rad heroes and villains, brought to life by decades of talented artists, who would lend themselves perfectly to a Collectible Card Game™. The trouble is, Marvel has an equally deep bench of the most unappealing characters in the history of visual storytelling, and in the ’90s they were trying like hell to figure out which one of those ridiculous shitheads was going to be the next Spider-Man. When coupled with their other notable 1990s habit of devaluing their own brand to make a quick buck off of shoddy merchandise, and their forever habit of not giving one solitary shit about artists, OverPower became a charming oddity of high-quality trading cards featuring the worst art I have ever seen depicting characters who lived shorter lives than the NASA Teacher in Space Project.
When I cracked open my first starter deck of OverPower, I was rewarded with a deck of cards bearing the hideously misshapen faces of the most indecipherable trivia questions 1995 Marvel Comics had to offer, such as Cyber and Century. Instantly forgettable characters with names that sound like words Kid Rock hurriedly selected from a rhyming dictionary made up roughly 20% of OverPower’s inaugural set. Even characters who are well-known now, like Nebula and Deadpool, weren’t exactly decorating any lunchboxes in 1995, and yet they were heavily featured in this exciting new gaming endeavor. And unlike Nebula or Deadpool, Cyber is no one’s favorite character. Nobody is buying Cyber posters. Cyber gets picked dead last in the fantasy supervillain draft every year by the guy who showed up late because he mistyped the bank’s Wi-Fi password. The only way Cyber will ever appear in the MCU is on a Disney+ series playing on a cracked vidscreen in the background of the wasteland while WALL-E busily crushes piles of dusty bones into stackable cubes. And yet Cyber is on no less than three different cards in the very first box of OverPower cards you were likely to open, looking like a mechanical aerobics instructor:
He looks like the X-Men’s pool guy. His mutant power appears to be Sleeveless Colossus, and as keen-eyed Marvel fans have probably noticed, Colossus is already sleeveless. The noble Russian superhero had been doggedly fighting his personal war against sleeves for two decades by the time OverPower rolled around, so it’s unclear what Cyber hoped to bring to the table. The only thing that is clear is what he doesn’t bring to the table, which is more sleeves.
Cyber is but one example of the truly atrocious art you were treated to upon tearing open any given pack of OverPower cards. Much of the artwork was badly repurposed from existing comics, and all of it was given a bizarre graphical sheen that effectively made each card look as if it were created in Microsoft Paint by an insane computer moments before it self-destructed. Things like perspective and human anatomy – already on thin fucking ice in the comic books of the ‘90s – were cast straight out of the goddamn window:
Even when the art wasn’t necessarily bad, it was always 100% out of its fucking mind, such as the Punisher’s hero card in which he looks like Peter Falk dual-wielding handguns the size of his torso:
The cockeyed Black Widow uppercut was an abiding favorite. Notice how one eye is tightly shut while the other is looking off in a random direction, as if she’s receiving instructions from Dean Stockwell’s hologram:
“Ziggy says you have to dislocate this palooka’s jaw or else Dina and her kids are gonna die on that roller coaster tonight!”
Thor’s hero card depicted the formidable god of thunder doing what can best be described as a Christian endzone dance:
And here’s Venom, then and now one of Marvel’s most popular characters, dumping a cart of hot dogs into his mouth like he just lost an extremely specific bet:
I have no choice but to believe that Tom Hardy based his entire performance on this single image.
And even though it came in an expansion several years later, I would be criminally remiss if I did not highlight Captain America’s IQ OverPower hero card:
Finally, here’s my favorite card in the entire inaugural set: Spider-Man calmly caving a man’s face in mid web-swing:
Does this man have the power of flight? If not, why did Spider-Man carry him all the way up into the sky to detonate his face? The man’s hair is gray – how old is he? The movement flourish suggests that Spidey wound that punch up from the small of his own back, and calculating for the proportional strength of a spider, such a blow should rocket this man’s teeth, tongue, and uvula through the back of his skull like a shotgun blast. What did this man do? What crime could he have committed to deserve such treatment? Truly, he has been OverPowered™. Please know I recorded all these thoughts in a spiral-bound notebook while staring at this card and listening to the Mortal Kombat soundtrack in my parents’ dining room the year Toy Story was released in theaters.
Sadly, Marvel OverPower did not last beyond the ’90s. But nor was it truly meant to. As these tarot cards of strange fortune indicate, OverPower was a towering monument to the decade of impossible musculature and shiny sleeveless beefcakes, forever preserving the worst period of modern comic books in poorly drawn amber. It’s like a bronze statue of Alanis Morrisette, meant to fade with the receding sunset on December 31, 1995. To say that Marvel OverPower represented a significant period of my life is an understatement. For a period of about 10 months in the ‘90s, I lived for this game. If I could be buried in a casket made of OverPower cards, with a Captain America hero card expression painstakingly painted onto my face, my wife would be the most bitter widow in history. In the spirit of making wildly irresponsible purchases, I have waded back into collecting this undeniably perfect game, and if time and the whims of the universe allow it, I will break open more moldy packs of terribly illustrated playing cards for an autopsy report here on the Hotdog. Or I’ll never mention OverPower again. One of those two things will definitely happen.
This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme, Donald Finney: who has a Fighting of 9! A Jetski of 3, Guitar of 1, and Fiscal Responsibility 2 — but Fighting 9 is good!