Anime Reporter strolls down Nostalgia Lane for a glance at the very first season, (that’s a pretty hefty 49 episodes), of Yu-Gi-Oh!, the anime series set around a duelling card game that pits magical and fantastic monsters against each other.
Starting way back in 1996, Yu-Gi-Oh! rose to great popularity as an anime, but also as a manga, a trading card game and a series of video games. The plot revolves around young Yugi Moto, a kind-hearted boy with an extraordinary haircut as well as an ancient Egyptian artefact which grants him a few special powers every so often as well as access to his own, older brother style guardian spirit who occasionally occupies Yugi’s body in a crisis. Yugi is generally accompanied by a band of loyal friends who seem only marginally interested in the fact that Yugi frequently grows a couple of feet in height and speaks in a big boy voice right before pulling off a big comeback.
Yugi’s artefact, the Millennium Puzzle, is just one of several Millennium items around the world and he’s not the only one with a magical ace up his sleeve from time to time. Fortunately, all of the battles in this series take place via a game called Duel Monsters, which uses trading cards with monsters and spells on them to simulate magical duels so there’s very little real risk at any time.
Oh… wait, there is occasionally the fact that one of the people with a Millennium artefact can steal people’s souls and will only give them back if Yugi can beat him in a grand Duel Monsters tournament.
That and the several people who would happily kill Yugi and friends for a chance at the three million dollar grand prize. Duel Monsters primarily uses monster cards to attack each other’s Life Points and other monsters. Every monster card has an Attack score and a Defence score detailing how much damage they can dish out or take. Also in the mix are a host of factors like environment, Magic cards and Trap cards which can boost, weaken or even destroy cards as well as any number of other dramatic effects. As watching characters place down cards and do mental arithmetic to figure out how much damage they’re doing to each other isn’t a lot of fun, the tournament has kindly provided us with animated holograms of each of the cards to dish out the action, as well as a handy computer to calculate all the plusses and minuses floating around.
It’s not a new feature of anime to have characters mentally narrating every move in a fight, but nobody does it quite like Yu-Gi-Oh!. Each and every move a character makes is treated like the world hangs in the balance and characters grimace and moan at the sight of their cards being defeated at other cards and the in-game trash talk is remarkably dramatic when you consider that characters are really just drawing cards and then placing them down on a board.
This drawn out drama is quite necessary to make a series about a trading card game feel in any way suspenseful or action-packed and, to the series’ credit, Yu-Gi-Oh! does this very well. Battle scenes feel genuinely driven and comebacks feel like things of beauty, not an easy feat when all the character had to do was to draw a good card. Ah, now this actually brings me to the weakest aspect of the series, the ‘Heart of the Cards’. Yugi, and all of his comrades, believe that in order to win, you must trust the cards to be the ones that you need. There are moments when Yugi is about to draw a card, full of fear, and we see the pack of cards drifting away from him in his mind. When Yugi steels his minds and regains faith in his beloved cards, we’re treated to a vision of the cards returning to him and the card he draws from the top of the pile happens to be precisely what he needed.
Now, one of your more sceptical anime reporters might suggest that the card at the top of the pile was unlikely to swap places with another, unlucky card, should Yugi suddenly stop believing, but this aspect of the plot can be overstated. It’s more helpful to think of the ‘Heart of the Cards’ as luck or just a general sense of hope and then get on with watching dragons and armoured beavers duke it out!
Over the course of the season, we’re treated to some back story for Yugi and his compatriots, though this often feels pretty rushed and we get to see friendships begin and evolve as flashes of memory while someone tries to decide what card to pick next. The majority of the season deals with Yugi and his friends battling through the tournament in the Duellist’s Kingdom to save some of their loved ones and the last seven episodes are divided between a romp in a Duel-Monsters themed virtual reality and a surprisingly strategic variation of Duel Monsters incorporating dice into the mix.
While the characters of the series don’t quite break the mold of stock heroes, companions, damsels or villains, there is an astonishing level of suspense packed into those little cards and it really is so dramatic to watch a duel unfold between two strategists with everything to play for.
Yu-Gi-Oh! Season 01 is available on DVD for the first time in the UK from November 17th 2014 from Manga UK and packs a hell of a lot of story into forty nine episodes. For more info on upcoming releases, you should definitely check out Mangauk.com
72% – “Near-Mint” – Yu-Gi-Oh! Season 01 manages to squeeze a surprising amount of adrenaline out of some pieces of cardboard and might have a few collectors scrambling through their wardrobes looking for that shoebox full of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards they definitely have around here somewhere. Fans of the series’ original airing will not be disappointed. While the animation is a little basic at first, it does pick up and the story holds up just as well as it did so long ago. New fans may need more patience to be won over by this anime’s strengths, but they’re definitely there.