Yu-Gi-Oh: The Eternal Duelist Soul
Explaining Yu-Gi-Oh to the layman is somewhat related to justifying the significance of modern art. Every connoisseur of the subject has their own view that employs a lot of technobabble related to the field that no one but them and a couple of insiders will understand even partially. Their attempts to define their chosen field of expertise derive mostly blank stares and shrugs of indifference. It is exactly the same with Yu-Gi-Oh. I’ve seen kids and teenagers like myself watch the show with rapt interest, messily salivating in anticipation of the next trick Yugi has up his sleeve. Invariably the bad guy is always defeated with a moral of some sort to match, because all Japanese cartoons dealing with psychic ability, demonic possession, and the like are obligated to redeem their occultic ways with some kind of sugary happy ending. And the fanboys are again pacified. I’m at a loss to explain just why this is.
To put it simply, I think it’s best to describe Yu-Gi-Oh: The Eternal Duelist Soul (Konami, 2002) as really really really really really really really really super-overcomplicated chess with cards instead of pieces that are moved along a board. Despite all the barriers I set up that indicated that I wanted to hate this game, I must confess that the fanboys, in their sick, twisted way, are onto something. This game is quite addictive, but only once you have the basics drilled into your head. Playing with a knowledgeable friend in tow, I had to have him hold my hand through about the first five card battles that I fought. If you’ve watched the show and followed it closely enough that all the rules don’t sound like a bunch of gobbledygook to you, you may have an idea of the workings of this game, but expect it to be otherwise aimed strictly at the hardcore cartoon-watching, merchandise-owning, eating/sleeping/drinking/breathing Yu-Gi-Oh type of fan. It is fun for sure, but is hit hard by a stunning degree of inaccessibility and difficulty that increases sharply and strikes swiftly.
That said, rookies to Yu-Gi-Oh probably will not get a lot out of this title. You jump right in and pick one of three decks with a random assortment of forty cards inside. These cards may not amount to much at the beginning, but usually you’ll get lucky with a few really good cards that will help you win the first few battles by a laughable margin. I happened to draw Monster Reborn, a resurrection card, and Judge Man, which has 2200 attack points and plenty of defense as well - a good thing, for those of you in the dark. After winning a battle, you’ll get five new cards to somehow work into your deck, with the maximum number you can have in your deck being sixty. Learning how to use your cards is quite a struggle if you’re not into Yu-Gi-Oh, which is why I had to have a good friend with plenty of knowledge in the cartoon’s ways to help me through a couple of battles. To back up the claim that this is a fans-only affair, Eternal Duelist Soul (EDS) lacks a tutorial mode of any sort. Without any prior knowledge of the rules, whether garnered from the card game or the TV show, you won’t know the difference between setting and summoning or when the opponent has a clever plan laid out and is ready to trap you like a housefly. Like chess, EDS requires much forethought and anticipation of potential moves the other person could make. If you’re a greenhorn, you’ll have to learn these things through trial and error. With the right cards, the computer can suck your 8000 Life Points (LP) right down the tubes, especially in the later matches when you learn the magic creamy goodness of chains and combined Direct Attacks. You can reciprocate in good time with the proper training, but only through the long and hard road that you have to go down to learn the game yourself. The exclusivism of the game brings it down several notches on the Fun-O-Meter though, and it takes a good bit of spare time to sit down, learn the rules of the game, and become acquainted with the whole process of thinking your moves through before actually executing them. This is represented on the show, as fans know, by the main characters talking loudly inside their heads for the duration of what is sometimes an entire episode.
As you sit with your cards on the table, you find yourself unconsciously performing this audible unveiling of all your options. This table that your cards lay on is where you carry out each phase of a turn. Whoever begins the card game is determined with a quick game of paper-rock-scissors, and even though the tendency to lose on your part is greater, nicer and more kindhearted opponents such as Yugi and Joey will often let you go first, a grievous mistake in early battles if you’re good enough. Once you’ve set up your deck through the Deck Edit menu and you have a strategic setup lined out, you can go duel with one of five opponents, each a character from the show that follows Yugi ’round the globe in his exploits to become the dueling champion. Or something.
Once the game is underway, you have to complete a series of phases in order to get things going. The draw phase is simply wherein you draw a card and it goes to your hand. The main phase is the time for strategy and setting cards on the table in cunning alignments. Will you set up a Mystical Elf in defense mode to whittle down the opponent’s LP? And then put a Magic Jammer behind her to negate the effects of anything the CPU might toss your way? Then again, you could set up that Barrel Rock for a Direct Attack - the best way to whittle down an opponent’s LP when they have no active monsters on the field. The game is consistent about asking you related key questions in the thick of the main phase, such as whether you wish to activate a dormant trap card or use any cards that might allow you to draw more from your deck. When you have the main phase completed and the cards you want in the designated slots on the table, you can go to the battle phase, where you can fight monster-to-monster or, if there are no monsters on your opponent’s side, score a Direct Attack which will take away LP equivalent to the attack points of your monster. Confused yet? And of course, end phase finishes out your turn, allowing your antagonist to do his worst.
And if that whole last paragraph sounded very FAQ-ish in nature, let me just say that I cleared up all that basic mess because the game stubbornly refuses to. It thrusts you in and assumes that you can already duel like nobody’s business and that you own all the plush beanbag toys based on the show’s cast and the No. 2 pencils with cheap erasers that have each character’s face festooning every square inch of them.
After watching the way a couple of battles play out, it is fortunately relatively simple for a rookie who’s never heard of Yu-Gi-Oh until now to pick up on the very basics. When you learn how to pick the cards that don’t have crappy attack and defense and set them up defensively or summon them offensively, many other chains and moves involving item or trap cards will come to you as though you have more expertise with card dueling than you really do. Amazingly, I actually found myself scolding my nearsighted mind’s eye for not seeing a few of the more clever things the enemy had up its sleeve, things that not even my Black Pendant and Monster Reborn cards could save me from. As time went on though, I won a battle here and a battle there, winning five cards after each, and eventually the game became - you won’t believe this in a million years - FUN TO PLAY. And here I am temporarily sucked into another fad that nobody will know the name of by year’s end.
For a little screen with no backlighting, EDS’s cards have gorgeous photographs pasted onto them. What few cards I have seen on the show, such as the Mystical Elf and the Swords of Revealing Light, are rendered beautifully here with full light effects and a wide array of vivacious colors, from bright white light to a sort of burnt mustard yellow I saw that I really liked. Accompanying each card duel is a moving light brown brick background that while fast isn’t distracting as you would have it to be. It’s actually fun to look at while you’re waiting for the computer to make (his/her) next (incredibly dumb/extremely clever) move. While many of the cards do not have the same effects or serve the same purposes that they do on the popular Saturday morning mind-rotter - a horrible mistreatment of continuity, or so I am told - they are nonetheless treated with the utmost respect by Konami’s brilliant graphic design department, and are a sight to behold should nothing else about this blatant milking of the cash cow interest you. The character models have the problem of being drawn disproportionately to the height and width of the GBA screen, though, and come off somewhat elongated but true to their small screen selves in all cosmetic respects. Very few other Game Boy Advance games, however, use colors this bright and snapshots this accurate, and certainly it’s easier to look at this than something as Gothic and dismal as Circle of the Moon for three straight hours.
It becomes a pain in the neck to hear the same song repeated throughout battles with particular characters. To pad the lack of a soundtrack, you get the standard animé sound effects that almost all of the cartoons from across the Pacific have become well-known for: the KA-SHING! of a sword card being put on the field, the rumbling of large monsters, and the understated, often tinkly appearance of a humble being thought lesser of by the larger offense-heavy monsters that so often seem to be made of stones and bones. Those sounds are standard and must be expected to be heard a million times throughout the course of the game. What gets annoying is the grating BLING of the hand cursor moving along the table, especially when you must reach over into an opponent’s discard pile to see what disaster you just averted with your Magical Space Typhoon. Great world leaders have been driven to suicide by less. In spite of the mighty clashes and magical flights of fancy you may hear along the way, this one shrill, annoying sound effect will more than likely crack whatever it is in your brain that keeps you sane and drive you to the edge of the happy cliff. Much like solitaire and strip poker, EDS is a card game best played with the lights off and the music down low, but just enough so as to be heard.
Overall, however, I’m pleasantly surprised with Yu-Gi-Oh: The Eternal Duelist Soul. Though a tutorial mode is not present for those unfamiliar with any related Yu-Gi-Oh paraphernalia, the cards all come with a handy Card View option so that even the newcomer isn’t flying blind and can quickly deduce how to stack the deck to his or her advantage, a feature I suppose tries to make up for that peculiar absence. The game will nevertheless come naturally to those with perseverance and a desire, even a halfhearted one, to dig deeper. It’s not quite the slop pumped mechanically into the fanboys’ rickety old trough that I was expecting, but it is still a game aimed mainly at the hardcore fanbase who will already know what cards to play and traps to look for coming fresh into the experience. Menus are all easily navigable and user-friendly to both the novice and the devoted Yu-Gi-Oh lover. Things are set up so that any foolhead (as my macroeconomics teacher would say) can determine what they are and what they do. It’s easy to pick up on for anyone with half a brain, it’s good clean fun (relatively speaking), and it’s got the goods to keep you distracted far and away into the pitch-black morning hours.
The only thing holding Yu-Gi-Oh back is that he’s got to learn to let those of us outside the loop into it. Has it ever occurred to him - to us - that somebody on the outside wants in?
You never could have told me I’d be wanting in a week ago.
It sure is cold out here.
Seven out of ten