On September 30, 1996, the Japanese comics magazine Weekly Shonen Jump printed a deeply weird story about a high school boy with impossible hair who transforms into a dark avenger. The creator, Kazuki Takahashi, had been struggling to publish manga since 1982; his most successful prior work had lasted for a measly two trade volumes. Little did he suspect that his idea for “a fighting manga where the main character never hits anybody” would spawn a multi-billion-dollar franchise of manga, anime, video and tabletop games, and films, including a new twentieth-anniversary film that’s due to premiere internationally later this year.
I’ve written for Panels before about how Yu-Gi-Oh! is directly responsible for my comics obsession, so I couldn’t allow a milestone anniversary to pass without drawing up my own guide to the sequential art of the franchise.
Wimpy, lonely Yugi has no talent for anything other than playing games: dice games, tabletop RPGs, and the hot new property at his grandfather’s game shop, a deckbuilder called Magic & Wizards (changed to Duel Monsters in the English translation to avoid raised eyebrows from Magic: the Gathering publisher Wizards of the Coast). But when Yugi solves an ancient puzzle, he accidentally releases a spirit that pairs his gaming talent with unstoppable confidence.
I’m aware that I’m exceedingly biased, but the original Yu-Gi-Oh! is still the best. The storyline evolves significantly over the course of thirty-eight volumes, and VIZ’s publication reflects that by splitting the series into three parts: Yu-Gi-Oh! (the creepier, more episodic chapters before the massive success of Duel Monsters), Yu-Gi-Oh! Duelist (the Duel Monsters tournaments that were adapted into the popular anime), and Yu-Gi-Oh! Millennium World (also known as the “Ancient Egypt arc” because it takes place inside a simulation of the Puzzle Spirit’s past). But from the very first chapter, when Yugi befriends his former bully, Jonouchi, the manga holds fast to themes of friendship and bravery.
The first spinoff is unique in two ways: It’s the only spinoff that stars the cast of the original series, but despite this obvious hook, it’s the only spinoff that was never adapted into an anime. Artist, writer, and former Takahashi assistant Akira Ito helmed this five-volume series from 2004 to 2007, pitting Yugi, Jonouchi, and the Kaiba brothers against the protege of original-series baddie Pegasus. Fans dispute the canonicity of this series, mostly because it clarifies what happens to Pegasus after he exits the main storyline, and some readers prefer to revel in ambiguity (and/or pretend their fanfiction is still canon-compliant.
I don’t have any experience with this; what are you implying?).
I have a soft spot for GX because it’s such a fanfiction trope: a bunch of teenagers attend boarding school to study Duel Monsters. Low-ranking duelist Judai Yuki (or Jaden, in the English translation) battles for the respect of his teachers and classmates alongside the sentient fuzzball Winged Kuriboh. As you might expect, GX is more light-hearted than its predecessor, though the manga incorporates more of the original-series mythology than the anime does. Case in point: The school is bankrolled by game-company mogul and emotionally stunted antihero Seto Kaiba (of course), and he and several of the other powerful duelists from the original series make cameo appearances.
GUYS, WHAT IF WE PLAYED DUEL MONSTERS ON MOTORCYCLES?
Possibly the most ridiculous spin-off in a franchise that sets the Ridiculousness Bar pretty high, 5D’s takes place in future Domino City, where Yusei Fudo battles his way through the D1 Grand Prix on a motorized gaming machine called a “Duel Runner.” The 5D’s mythology is far removed from that of the original series, though it shares the fusion of ancient cultures and futuristic technology. Yusei is a fairly popular character among Yu-Gi-Oh! cosplayers, perhaps due to his striking wardrobe, but 5D’s lacks a central relationship as compelling as the one between Yugi and the Spirit of the Puzzle.
On the surface, Zexal seems like a clone of the original Yu-Gi-Oh! story: an underachieving boy who aspires to greatness at game-playing shares his body with a powerful spirit that’s searching for its lost memories. But rather than feeling like a retread, Zexal grabs onto some of the storytelling elements that gave the original series staying power – the bond between a brave child and his powerful but lost mentor, the friendships forged between former enemies, the real danger introduced by magic gone awry – and creates a new universe around them. Among the Yu-Gi-Oh! fans I’ve talked to at conventions (admittedly an unscientific sample), Zexal is the best-received spinoff.
Arc-V just started serialization in August 2015, so it’s currently as mysterious as its hacker protagonist. Who is Yuya? What does the Leo Corporation want with him? How many personalities does he have, exactly? The Arc-V anime is currently being adapted into two manga series: one that is loosely based on the anime, and a spinoff (of this spinoff) called Saikyo Duelist Yuya. The anime-inspired series has been licensed by VIZ, with no word yet on the translation fate of Saikyo Duelist Yuya.
Though I passionately loved Yu-Gi-Oh! as a child (and I’m still aboard the Nostalgia Train), I never expected the franchise to last twenty years. In fact, if you had asked my preteen self whether Yu-Gi-Oh! should continue for two decades, I would have emphatically said no. I felt the toxic possessiveness that lonely kids often fall into, where they wrap themselves around the object or person or story that makes them feel special, trying to keep it perfect and perfectly theirs. But as an adult, I’m grateful that Yu-Gi-Oh! is still expanding into new universes. This weird series about saving the world with card games was my gateway into comics, and a strong franchise means it stands a good chance of doing the same for others. Maybe my own kids will see the umpteenth anime adaptation, or play the card game with friends, and I can say, “Let me show you something Mom loved when she was your age…”