Did you know that Kazuki Takahashi’s original Yu-Gi-Oh! is just over twenty years old now? In that time it’s never really left the popular consciousness, having broke into the west, produced a shockingly popular card game, several video games, multiple animated series, and a pile of increasingly complicated spin-offs that I’m not entirely sure I can name all of. What a stunning accomplishment for one of the weirdest and most off-kilter titles published in Weekly Shonen Jump. As part of the celebrations of this impressive anniversary, Konami released a new phone game, Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links, a free-to-play title implanting us all in a virtual world as several characters from the original series, playing a very interesting variant on the actual card game.
Rather than giving players the full-fledged experience of the actual card game; 8000 Life Points, 40-60 cards, 6 phases per turn, and more recent additions like Synchro (?), XYZ Monsters (??) and Pendulum Summons (???), Duel Links gives us Speed Duels, featuring half the cards, half the life, and half the amount of main phases, less space on the board for monsters and spells, as well the removal of… Just about everything introduced in the various spin-off shows, from mechanics to characters. This is at least partially about accessibility and the pace often required of mobile games, but there’s a much stronger vein running through the design choices made in Duel Links capitalising on that particular period where Yu-Gi-Oh! was at its absolute peak worldwide, during the Duelist Kingdom and (perhaps more notably) the Battle City arcs.
First up it has these playable characters from across the original series, from Yugi himself to Joey Wheeler, Maximillion Pegasus, and even Tea Gardner and Mako Tsunami, a character who barely plays the card game and an absolute bit player respectively. It relishes in these character choices; Players might not want to *be* Rex Raptor or Weevil Underwood, but the reward of unlocking them still feels like something because you *remember* them. As of this writing there’s not one character from later series; no-one from GX, Zexal, 5DS, or any of the others. These characters have their own popularity, but none of them were present for this period of mass nostalgia that Yu-Gi-Oh! temporarily attained. Even in the wider internet consciousness these things lean towards the original series, thanks to stuff like popular online parody series Yu-Gi-Oh! Abridged.
Connecting to these characters provides the second chance for nostalgia, in the card choices available to the player. As someone who hasn’t actively played the card game since I was somewhere around 14 years old, I can’t confidently say it is the case with every single card featured in the game so far, but each character deck explicitly features recognisable cards from the show *and* the early sets released for the card game itself. From the obvious, featured cards, like Dark Magician, Blue Eyes White Dragon, and Relinquished, to cards more associated with what you’d get in an early booster pack, like Hane-Hane, Feral Imp, or Crass Clown (look, right, you’d recognise them if you saw them), there’s just enough of these classic cards to stimulate the tingly little nostalgia gland right at the base of your skull.
The life points and deck size are easily explained away, but it’s quite notable that 4000LP was the standard set in the anime with the Battle City storyline, and that in practice having a deck of just 20-30 cards leaves you with a nice tight play style that emphasizes the opportunity, every single game, to play with a small selection of these classic monsters. In a larger deck you might not see your Dark Magician in most games, but once you’ve reduced the deck size considerably the odds are much, much higher. It’s about providing those key show moments, where you draw that most desired monster, get it on the field and destroy your opponent in a clutch moment. Evocative of the show, and surprisingly effective at keeping the games short and enjoyable for the player.
Even the events and story pander to this. Duel Links’ core story is literally just Battle City in a virtual world, placing you in what very much looks like a virtual replication of Domino City. The first event is literally a tribute to Duelist Kingdom, down to the star chips and main opponent in Pegasus (who’s only unlockable through this special event no less). There’s no fooling anyone involved in either development or actually playing the game as to what’s going on here and what feeling they’re trying to evoke.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with what Konami are doing here. If anything it shows the first real bit of savvy in their design choices in a very long time. It’s not even like they’re abandoning the spin-offs that have informed Yu-Gi-Oh!’s games and cards since; in 2015 they released Legacy of the Duelist, a game that explicitly celebrates each era of the franchise, allowing you to recreate duels from all over the series. It’s right there for the core audience, a more robust game on console systems. What they’ve managed to provide here is a slimmed down take on Yu-Gi-Oh! that makes the most of the collective memory of the series, and has the capability to snag a larger audience as such. Who will, presumably, spend more money casually on the micro-transactions featured in the game. A smart take all around, that celebrates the original series in just the right way.
Duel Links is available on IOS and Android right now. The characters featured are from the original Yu-Gi-Oh! manga series, the former of which available from Viz Media in print and digital, and being covered by Friendship! Effort! Victory! in the future