At one point in the early 2000s, Yu-Gi-Oh (“The King of Games”) permeated United States popular culture. The average person may not have comprehended the characters or story, but may have recognized the spiky tri-colored hair of the protagonist or the tawny playing cards from the gaming-themed urban fantasy series.
While creator Kazuki Takahashi’s original manga began in 1996 in Japan, the series didn’t take off in the US until an English language version of an anime adaptation hit American airwaves on Kids’ WB in 2001. The English version of Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, shortened to simply Yu-Gi-Oh, produced by 4Kids Entertainment introduced a generation to the ongoing franchise. The Konami trading card game based on the fictional game of Duel Monsters followed in 2002 in the US, as did the publication of Takahashi’s unabridged manga from VIZ Media in 2003.
The phenomenon extended well beyond television, game shops, and mabookstores. Yugi Muto and the Ancient Egyptian spirit sharing his body decorated magazines, apparel, cereal, and much more across everyday supermarkets. Yu-Gi-Oh could even be found in other works of fiction in the form of parody and references.
Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, a Cartoon Network original TV series based on the Japanese musical duo Puffy, parodied Yu-Gi-Oh in its first season. In the episode “In the Cards” from 2004, the fictional counterparts of musicians Ami Onuki and and Yumi Yoshimura arrive at a convention center expecting adoring fans, only to find a local tournament for a card game known as “Stu-Pi-Doh!” The back design and star rankings of the cards resemble those of Duel Monsters, of course. In case the name doesn’t make the angle of the parody obvious enough, Ami and Yumi cringe at the players.
However, Ami and Yumi change their tune when they spot “King Chad,” the top player surrounded by onlookers. He may have the title of “king” like Yugi, but he has more in common with his rival Seto Kaiba in pompous attitude and possession of rare cards. Whereas Yu-Gi-Oh upholds Kaiba as stylish and formidable, AmiYumi portrays Chad as dweeby as any other “Stu-Pi-Doh” player. Ami and Yumi, inexplicably attracted to him, enter the competition and duel each other to win his heart.
When Ami emerges victorious from a battle against Yumi, Chad rejects her in favor of the game itself. Ami and Yumi put the cards aside and reconcile, only to immediately set their sights on the same man again. According to the episode, Stu-Pi-Doh features repulsive monsters, only geeks play it, and women only participate to acquire boyfriends. It fails to consider how the same kids tuning into AmiYumi for the band they recognized from the anime-inspired Teen Titans TV show were likely enjoying the Yu-Gi-Oh reruns on Cartoon Network as well. AmiYumi had its own place in the “Cool Japan” movement with a marketable connection to Japan, yet took cheap shots at anime brought to the US like Yu-Gi-Oh.
All Grown Up, a spin-off from Nickelodeon’s Rugrats featuring the originally infant characters as teenagers, took another derisive approach to Yu-Gi-Oh. In the 2005 episode “Yu-Gotta-Go,” a trading card game of the same name sweeps the characters’ high school. Chuckie initially regards Yu-Gotta-Go as just a passing fad that requires no strategy, but soon feels left out of the fun. He strikes a deal with Angelica to do her chores in exchange for packs of cards she can access through her mother’s job, and he soon becomes comically “addicted” to collecting them for a moral about self-control.
Neither AmiYumi nor All Grown Up illustrate the appeal of Yu-Gi-Oh to children and adults alike, whether it be the storylines or the TCG, despite portraying their stand-ins as all the rage. All Grown Up’s parody of the anime doesn’t reflect the dynamic artwork or the various character arcs, opting instead for absurd monster concepts and unsynchronized dubbed dialog. Even the humans in “Yu-Gotta-Go” have rainbow-colored hair and skin, as if Tommy Pickles doesn’t sport naturally purple hair himself. Both portray the trading card games as incomprehensibly popular, with players concerned only with a single card’s rarity rather than gameplay strategy or deck-building.
Now that the children who watched and played Yu-Gi-Oh have grown up and entered the animation industry, parodies in animation from the US have had a change of heart. The Cartoon Network series Craig of the Creek looks at childhood through a young artist’s eyes, including trading card games in the 2018 episode “Bring Out Your Beast” storyboarded by Jason Dwyer and Tiffany Ford. Craig wants to learn the rules of the eponymous game to play with his neighbors, but his teenage brother Bernard would rather prepare for college than teach him. Bernard may have an entire binder dedicated to Bring Out Your Beast cards, but he has “put away childish things.”
Craig borrows his brother’s collection without permission and inadvertently wins with “Beast Snare,” which allows him to permanently withhold another player’s card. Various Yu-Gi-Oh cards have been banned from competitive play for allowing players to temporarily possess their opponent’s belongings, and the same goes for Beast Snare. Another child named Turner, who loses all her matches despite “the heart” she puts into them, explains how Beast Snare could break the game and convinces Craig to dispose of it.
Like any great Yu-Gi-Oh antagonist, Turners steals and cheats her way to the top by taking the Beast Snare for herself. When she goes behind Craig’s back, a turn of her baseball cap flares her hair upwards. A change in hairstyle signifies her devious side, the same as when Yami Bakura or Yami Marik helm their host bodies in Duel Monsters. In the end, Craig and Bernard tag-team and win by turning the tables against her.
The other children of the Creek watch the game with rapture. In lieu of high tech holograms, upscaled cards appear behind the characters to spotlight the illustrations of the charming creatures, including ones that resemble those of Magic: The Gathering. Craig of the Creek portrays trading card games as exciting bonding activities that span age groups, rather than a shallow fad.
OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, another Cartoon Network series, also approaches Yu-Gi-Oh in the 2019 episode “Whacky Jaxxyz” storyboarded by Dave Alegre and Haewon Lee. While episodes like “I am Dendy” and “No More Pow Cards” utilizes K.O.’s interest in collectible Pow Cards to explore friendship through trading cards, this one introduces a high-tech version of jacks played by his classmate Nanini. Whacky Jaxxyz takes the quintessential children’s game to a whole new level, with expensive ball-launchers worn on the forearm a la Yu-Gi-Oh duel disks.
A transfer student named Johnny, whose generic name contrasts with his eccentric anime-esque design, brings K.O. and Nanini to an otherworldly arena where muscleheads duke it out through Whacky Jaxxyz. Players compete for a chance to face off against the game’s creator, Jack Whacky, in the same structure as the Duelist Kingdom arc of Duel Monsters. The tournament forces K.O. and Nanini to face each other, having lost sight of playing for fun, until they gang up on Mr. Whacky.
When Johnny confronts Mr. Whacky with a “brain crush” reminiscent of the mind crush inflicted on Kaiba, he turns out to be his long-lost older brother. On top of such references to Yu-Gi-Oh itself, the episode pays homage to the 4Kids dub specifically. Not only do the kids visit a game shop fondly named after the Shadow Realm, a dimension written into the English script to complement Shadow Games as well as avoid declaring characters dead, Mr. Whacky also has his own “Zero Zone” where losers languish.
These allusions to Yu-Gi-Oh may be highly specific, but any viewer can recognize the heart of the matter: the difference between playing to win and playing for fun. K.O. and friends put Whacky Jaxxyz aside and pick up Pow Cards again, essentially making Whacky Jaxxyz the Dungeon Dice Monsters of OK K.O. Some games may be novelties, but others stay with you forever. OK K.O. takes a nuanced approach to modern children’s games compared to AmiYumi and All Grown Up, which wrote off “Stu-Pi-Doh” and “Yu-Gotta-Do” as bandwagons. In actuality, Yu-Gi-Oh had been around for three to four years by the time those episodes aired. It may not have had the same place in popular culture, but the first series lasted just as long as All Grown Up and even longer than AmiYumi. Even after it concluded airing in the US in 2006, the direct sequel series Yu-Gi-Oh! GX soon followed. By 2009, the TCG became the top-selling trading card game worldwide.
The Yu-Gi-Oh trading card game and anime spin-offs continue to this day, from GX to Sevens currently airing in Japan. Not everyone has stayed for the long haul to see each new series and development to the game, but many fondly remember their entry points and favorite eras. The love for the classic Duel Monsters story and characters persists in particular, from the gorgeous sequel film The Dark Side of Dimensions to the nostalgic Legendary Duelists TCG sets to the amusing Virtual Seto Kaiba Challenge in the Duel Links mobile game. Some may not want to admit it, but Yu-Gi-Oh always had staying power.
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