Man, if you guys ever wondered why I don't do a game review series, well consider how difficult just this post was for me. I actually wrote three drafts, one was just a long rambly in-depth review and another attempted to be funny by including an interview with the Abridged Series interpretations of Rex Raptor and Weevil Underwood (if you don't watch Yu-Gi-Oh Abridged... they act like Beavis and Butt-head). That one was fun to write, but it also ran way too long and became a serious review near the end anyway.

So screw it.

Also I wasn't able to take screenshots, but I'll add them in later.

So here's the story: recently, my cousin came home from India and out of nowhere, he was nostalgic for the days of Yu-Gi-Oh. When it used to play on Kids WB (which should give you an idea of how long ago this was) he was one of the first people I knew to get into it. Incidentally, Yu-Gi-Oh was, for me, one of my first ever experiences with the Dub vs Sub debate and the history of American bastardizations of anime. This led to some confusion, as I would know Yugi's girlfriend as Anzu Mazaki, and he'd know her as Tea (pronounced Taya) Gardner, this without even mentioning the actual plot differences, or the fact that the English dub was based on the SECOND Yu-Gi-Oh series and I had read the first seven volumes of the manga, he hadn't, so I understood things that he always thought were just weird.

One thing we both liked, though, was playing the Trading Card Game.

Unfortunately, the card game today is just incredibly stupid. Monsters have ridiculous overpowered effects, there's like five different types of summon seemingly designed to let players throw just everything on the field at once, new mechanics that seem like they're custom-built to break the game, and so much shit neither of us feel like catching up with. Simply put, it's not our Yu-Gi-Oh.

Thank god for two things: One, since we only duel casually, we don't have to abide by the retarded modern rules or use any mechanics we don't like. Two, we have Yu-Gi-Oh: The Eternal Duelist's Soul, a Gameboy Advance game which, at the time, was notable for being the only game (at least, that we knew of) that accurately reproduced the rules of the actual card game (as opposed to games like Forbidden Memories and Dark Duel Stories, which to my knowledge were nothing like the real game).

For me, there were a couple of additional benefits. There's a lot surrounding the nature of trading card games which I always found kind of stupid. To me its just antithetical to all concepts of good game design that practically any match I play is 100% completely unknown unless I'm playing against a familiar face, because a stranger could have an entire deck of cards I've never seen before and thus could not have reasonably prepared for, and even if I could I might not have the option simply because the five booster packs I payed three bucks apiece for all had completely random cards which, most of the time, are unusable. I know there are concepts like "good deck design," but even if you know everything there is to know about the game, if you don't have the cards you need to make the deck you want, then you're fucked. Essentially, I had always learned that "good game design" was that the player's choices should be the most important thing, but trading card games seem inherently to deny players any sort of choice at all.

Another thing I always hated was rules arguments. Since literally a new rule or mechanic can be introduced with each new card printed, there was no standardization (it didn't help that this was back in the days of Upper Deck, who sometimes introduced rule foul-ups by means of shoddy translation work), and sometimes the wording of each card left several important fine points unclear. This opened the door to lots of pretty much blatant cheating. Just for example, my cousin had misread "Relinquished" so badly that he had been convinced the card was basically invincible (it didn't help that the anime portrayed it that way).

Yu-Gi-Oh: The Eternal Duelist's Soul solved both those problems. First was, in being a video game, I only had to buy this one cartridge and never have to spend money on another card if I didn't want to, since all the cards I'd ever want to use were inside this game and could be earned through gameplay--or even through entering the card's serial number into the game's "password" feature, which can only be done once per card but automatically gives you an in-game copy of that card to put in your deck. Second, as this game's engine automatically handles pretty much everything, it means the rules were always taken care of by a completely objective, unbiased third party.

That's not to say that Eternal Duelist perfectly replicates the rules, but its at least 98% accurate, with most of the disconnects being glitches or very specific situations that might never come up.

Now, in 2016, Eternal Duelist's Soul has taken on another significance: It's a snapshot of days gone by, of a time when the Yu-Gi-Oh Trading Card Game was something non-crazy people could play, when it had a degree of not just balance but sanity about it, rather than feeling like a game designed by a hyperactive little kid. In fact, I've noticed this is an effect which increases with age: back in 2006, when the final GBA game in the series came out (Yu-Gi-Oh: Ultimate Masters) and the GX anime was just starting, I remember playing Ultimate Masters and even then, feeling that the cards and effects and abilities were all just kind of overblown and ridiculous, whereas Eternal Duelist's Soul just felt... right.

That's not to say there aren't things I dislike about the game. I hate how you only get new cards after winning a duel, and you can't trade in cards for credit or anything like that (there is no credit system, its just "if you win, you get more cards"), and the way boosters are unlocked means that if you don't use the password system then some cards will be unavailable to you until past the point where they would've been useful (for example, by the time you're able to earn "Magician of Faith" in-game, you've pretty much already beaten everyone) and you wind up with tons of junk cards that you can't get rid of or do anything with except keep them in your trunk, unused and unloved (something I hated about the real game as well)... but this is all a very minor complaint, and the only major one I have--how annoying it is to get draw screwed (that is, wind up losing simply because you drew a set of cards unusable in the current situation)--is something that can be said for not just the real card game, but really any game that involves drawing random cards from a deck. Even if you're psychic, or have each of your cards scented a different flavor, or have little brothers spying on your opponent, it doesn't matter if they have a face-down trap card if your deck isn't giving you Jinzo.

But these are all minor complaints, and for the most part problems this GBA game inherited directly from its source material.

And its weird. I said earlier that trading card games fly in the face of good game design... and yet, they often still manage to be pretty damn fun. If I had to guess, I'd say that the reason is precisely because they're full of unknowns, full of twists and turns, and the random nature means that you literally never have exactly the same duel twice, even if you duel the same person ten times in a row without either of you changing your cards. Even against the digital opponents, I've had times where weaklings like Tea Gardner or Joey Wheeler suddenly turned the tables on me and got me in a bad situation... and yet, at the same time, I've had situations where I was up against opponents like Rex Raptor, and he got me into a corner I could not fight my way out of.... and I still managed to win because he got greedy with draw-from-your-deck cards like Pot of Greed and Graceful Charity, and wound up being forced to draw when he had no cards left in his deck (which meant I automatically won). Completely unlooked-for victories, and equally unexpected defeats, are part of the awesomeness of the card duel world.

Bonus Section: Strategy Talk

..... Now, right here, I'd like to share an observation: Lately, I've noticed that (assuming the deck is "well-built," which I'll discuss more in a second) that there's a kind of synchronicity between what cards I draw in my hand, and what winds up actually happening as the game progresses. Or, put simply: what cards I draw predicts how the duel is going to go. Some of that may be because I'm subconsciously making decisions based on what I have, but there are times where I wonder if the cards aren't literally trying to speak to me. For example, in three duels my opening hand contained a Monster Reborn, and in all three duels, a powerful monster was brought on the field only to be almost-instantly killed, and using Monster Reborn to bring it back as part of my army turned out to be a turning point in those duels. Another weird thing that's happened more than once is I've had times where turn after turn I felt like I was getting draw-screwed, getting cards that would've been powerful but required me to set up a specific situation to make them useful... and then, just when I was one turn away from death, I would draw the exact card I needed. The point is, "Heart of the cards" may be one of the most made-fun-of aspects of the anime, but I've learned there is actually something to it: paying attention to your hand can often tell you more than just what a card does, it can also tell you what situations to expect.

It's also worth remembering, too, that cards can be used for more than just their stated effect. I sometimes keep a trap card called "Eye of Truth" which, when flipped, stays on the field until removed by another card, and lets me see the opponent's hand (though they gain life points if they have any spells). Its effect is useful, of course.... but I also often find myself using it for what I call "Duster bait"--that is, tricking my opponent into wasting his Harpy's Feather Duster to remove it while its face-down and could be anything. Sometimes when I get a magic card that has uses, but is currently completely useless to me, I set it in my trap/spell zone for precisely this reason as I feel like the cards are telling me that the Duster is coming.

This leads to the question, "what IS a 'well-built deck?'" And to be honest: I don't know. I have never known. The best decks I've ever used were ones that were built for me, or which I modified as time went on. Most times when I try to build a deck from scratch, it goes tits-up (some of this is related to the afformentioned issue of me being forced to make do with cards I own and not having the cards I need or want).

That being said, when I do modify or build decks in Yu-Gi-Oh, I tend to abide by the following guidelines (and they are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules):
1) You should never have more than two monsters that require tributes.
2) Also, tribute monsters should be limited to levels 5-6 (which require only one tribute), unless the monsters are strong or otherwise useful enough to justify it.
3) Never have any monster that requires a really specific summoning process, unless you have cards which can bypass that process.
4) Regarding NON-tribute monsters, never have a monster with less than 1500 atk, unless it has 2000 defense or has an effect that justifies keeping it (such as Man-Eater Bug, which has basically no stats but can be used to insta-kill pretty much anyone).
5) You basically wanna make sure all your cards support each other. For example if you're gonna have the magic card "Sword of Dark Destruction," which can only be used by DARK monsters, then you want to make sure most of your monsters are DARK.
6) Try to keep your deck as small as possible. The minimum deck size is 40, and the further above 40 you get, the more likely you are to have a bunch of dead draws. This is especially true if you're playing an Exodia Deck.
7) Play an Exodia Deck

(Actually, having tried it, I've found Exodia Decks are... a mixed bag. I mean, when I tried one on the GBA, I mopped the floor even with very hard opponents, since cards like Mirror Force and Penguin Soldier no longer matter if you're not even gonna attack. That, though, leads to it being... kind of boring, even if you're the person with the deck. The main appeal of Exodia is that its a way to win even if you have weaker monsters, as demonstrated in the anime, but again, it can get really old, really fast. I prefer to go down fighting. It is, however, an option to keep in mind when facing assholes like Marik).

Truth be told, my actual favorite strategy is basically "Denial." I like to have cards based around making sure my opponent never has ANYTHING on the field. Cards like Fissure to kill their monsters. Cards like Mystical Space Typhoon to destroy their traps. I like for my monsters, when they attack, to be absolutely unopposed. And when I can't take out their traps, I instead am willing to sacrifice monsters to intentionally set their traps off--because I'd rather set it off now and then be completely clear next turn.

Now, pretty much all talk of "strategy" revolves around deck construction, because once you're out the door, on the floor, and doing the dinosaur, then it all comes down to the cards. Pretty much, the main way to distinguish a good deck from a bad deck is how often you get draw screwed. If pretty much all your losses are simply due to not being able to respond to your opponent, then your deck sucks. That's really the only litmus anyone can think of. They say that adults who play children's card games wind up never getting screwed.... which, well, that's pretty much the idea!

Anyway, that's been my review. Hope you had fun, and happy dueling!

(In my original drafts, I had lots of parts about the anime and manga and franchise as a whole, as well as some musings about other card games like Magic: the Gathering and Duel Masters, but I cut those out because they were causing this to run long. I'd like to add a little observation here though, which I just found weird: In the manga, the card game was originally called "Magic and Wizards," clearly because its inspired by Magic: the Gathering. The name "Duel Monsters" was created by the Toei anime--one of the few things from that anime that stuck, unlike female-voiced Yugi and green-haired Kaiba--and where it gets weird is that later on, there was another anime/card game combo called Duel MASTERS. Duel MONSTERS, Duel MASTERS... that can't be a coincidence, right? Even more coincidentally, Duel MASTERS was also a derivative of Magic: the Gathering with a design around getting cards into play fast, only instead of getting rid of mana-tapping, it instead made it so you tap MONSTERS for mana. This one was actually published by Wizards of the Coast--the M:tG company--and I always found one little thing weird: Magic used to have a rule that monsters couldn't attack the turn they were summoned due to having "Summoning Sickness." This rule still exists, but the "Summoning Sickness" rule is no longer used in the context of M;tG... it IS, however, used in the context of Duel Masters, which has the same rule! Just, what's up with that? Anyway, that was my stupid little observation, hope you enjoyed).