A while ago, I wrote about the battle between Digimon and Pokémon to be the number one franchise that concerns children and the monsters that love them.
I remember constant conversations in middle school about the merits of each, conversations that escalated into debates and, had any of us been more than shy, gangly nerds, probably would've climaxed in brawls. However, every once in a while, a classmate would bring up "But what about Yu-Gi-Oh!?", to which we would hiss and shake our heads and wonder what was wrong with this strange abnormality that had chosen to sit at our lunch table.
Yu-Gi-Oh!? What is wrong with you? Why would you bring up the infernal name? Do you want to be shunned forever by everyone you've ever known and will ever know?
Yu-Gi-Oh!, the story of a short kid with impossibly tall hair that suddenly becomes confident whenever it's time to play a collectible card game, was the obvious lesser-than among our beloved franchises. I don't know how we came to that conclusion, considering that, at their heart, all three of these shows are about fitting as many monsters as you can into your friend group, but I think it might be because of the scientific conclusion that only middle schoolers take as fact: The Yu-Gi-Oh! anime came out last in America. And thus, it is awful and the worst.
And then something happened that sounds a lot like a plot from Yu-Gi-Oh!: I found a deck of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards abandoned in the mountains. Not in a cabin, or in someone's backpack, or at a gas station. No, I found them on the side of a lonely gravel road in Stokes County, North Carolina, scattered as if someone had thrown them out of a truck window. First, I cannot stress how hard I am not kidding about this. It sounds like something that would immediately be followed by me being bathed in light as I shout "DANIEL-OH!" and become the host of the spirit of an Egyptian God.
Second, I know what you're thinking: Daniel, those cards are obviously cursed. I know, and I understand your concerns. But it's a very slow acting curse, because fifteen years after I shoved those cards away and told no one about my find, I became absolutely enamored with Yu-Gi-Oh!. Whether it's a prophecy or a quarter life crisis, I woke up one day in 2018 to the idea "Ya know, I should really give this Yu-Gi-Oh! thing a whirl and see what happens."
Since then, I've bought card sets, manga volumes, video games, and I've been rewatching the anime. And you know what? I actually really like Yu-Gi-Oh!. The characters and themes aren't as engaging as those in Digimon, and the concepts and monsters aren't as instantly lovable as those in Pokémon, but I find the universe of Yu-Gi-Oh! to be fascinating. It's this weird dystopian society where the most famous people in the world are those that are obsessed with fictional monsters. The Yu-Gi-Oh! universe is the nightmare vision of what it would be like if the Pokémon franchise became the center of the world's society and economy
Everything in the Yu-Gi-Oh! series revolves around the people that are particularly talented at playing Yu-Gi-Oh!. One of the main characters, Seto Kaiba, leads the world's largest gaming company, is a celebrity, and also wants to be the greatest duelist of all time. Imagine if Shigeru Miyamoto came to your house, beat up your grandpa, and then stole your copy of Mario Kart, refusing to give it back until you bested him at Rainbow Road. That's basically the logic of Yu-Gi-Oh!.
Even the portions of the franchise that aren't based around the titular card game make the world sound unsettling. In the manga, Yugi, the franchise mascot and initial lead character, is constantly getting pummeled by anyone with a pulse. The panels that feature Yugi getting punched in the gut by a high school kid seem to outnumber any other kind of panel on a solid 2:1 ratio. Of course, those that have only seen the anime on American television haven't witnessed this, but just know that, before Yugi went to the Duelist Kingdom and Battle City and all that, he was a walking bruise.
Of course, many of the stories about Yugi getting the hair gel beaten out of him center on some other game. For instance, we have digital pets, American Hero comics, Capsule Monster Chess, arcade fighting games, a multi million dollar theme park that Kaiba built, "love" testers, game shows, handheld monster fighting contraptions, the Dungeons & Dragons-esque Monster World , and ...yo-yo's. The early saga of Yu-Gi-Oh! is trapped in an inescapable cycle of fads, where each week, a new craze takes hold of Japan's youth and influences them to commit violent acts on one another until the next fad rolls around.
So, I guess the card game becoming the focus of the series is kind of a good thing for this particular universe. It provides all the stability that people can hope for, which isn't a lot, since the losers of many duels end up losing their souls as well. And that's why the implications of Yu-Gi-Oh! are so cool to me. It's a world that's constantly on the brink of social and economic collapse, and it's loosely held together by the people that are obsessed with trading card games.
However, I would be remiss if I didn't actually go into the main reason people play and watch Yu-Gi-Oh!: It's actually really fun. The manga's creator Kazuki Takahashi improves at both art and storytelling as the series goes along. The monster designs are all pretty neat and there's a lot of variety in them, even if the Blue Eyes White Dragon never quite reached Pikachu levels of notoriety. And I carry some of the Yu-Gi-Oh! characters in my heart with me every day. You're my boy, Bandit Keith. Don't ever change.
And while the game rules in the Yu-Gi-Oh! TV series seem almost randomized at times (BUT YOU FORGET, WEEVIL, THAT MY TRAP CARD ALLOWS ME TO BANISH ONE FOREST MONSTER TO MY HAND, LETTING ME DRAW EMPLAR, GODDESS OF THE RAIN DANCE, WHICH TAKES YOUR LIFE POINTS DOWN BY A THIRD AND DESTROYS ALL SPELL CARDS IN YOUR GRAVEYARD, LETTING ME SKIP YOUR TURN AND SUMMON GREAT GREEN DRAGON WITH AN ADDED 5 MILLION ATTACK POINTS), but if you play the real card game, or video games like Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist, it's pretty easy to nail down.
I didn't hate Yu-Gi-Oh! as a kid because I found it to be boring, or because I found Maximillion Pegasus to be morally repugnant. I hated it because I was afraid to like it. I was desperate to keep up with the constantly shifting opinions and obsessions of my friends. Pokémon was already there, so Yu-Gi-Oh! was out of the question. D-Generation X was there, so it wasn't cool to like the NWO anymore. Dating girls was there, so, suddenly, no one wanted to talk about dinosaurs with me in the lunch room. I couldn't bear the thought of being left out, so when I found those dusty cards on the side of the road, I put them away, rather than telling anyone about the super odd thing that had happened.
And now, fifteen years later, and with no thoughts going to people that'll judge me for my hobbies, I'm free to dig the hell out of Yu-Gi-Oh!. It's been a long time coming, I think.
I'm still not going to open the box that those old cards are in, though. Those things are definitely cursed.
Credit to Daniel Dockery