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Baneful's Column
February 4, 2014

From Gargoyles to Anthropomorphic Airplanes

Pojo's Card of the Day for Obedience Schooled inspired me to write this article. Particularly, the reviewer Christian Moss talks about the card's art work being completely different than that of cards in the old classic days (2002). And he's totally right. A card like that with cartoony bears and such would have never made the cut back in the old days. To put it briefly, the game changed from scary to cute.

"I didn't think, 10 years later, I would be dueling with ... mansion maids defending my life points, lobbing baked goods at large dragons and fierce warriors."

Look at some of the cards from the Starter Deck Yugi and Starter Deck Kaiba: D. Human , Ryu-Kishin, Master & Expert , Mysterious Puppeteer , Dark Titan of Terror , Doma the Angel of Silence and the like. Shortly after, there were eerie cards like Sangan, Witch of the Black Forest, Invitation to a Dark Sleep and Mask of the Accused.  Let's even look at the iconic card Dark Magician.  He started as the servant to the hero Yugi.  He practices dark "forbidden" magic, and usually in fiction dark means evil, making me confused why the light-based card Blue-Eyes White Dragon was not the hero.

The "modern" YGO monster looks more like: Gyroid, Elemental Hero Bubbleman, Madolche Puddingcess and Crystal Beast Ruby Carbuncle. I've noticed this change in Pokemon, as well. Look at the final evolved forms of Pokemon like Charizard and Blastoise. Fast forward to the cuter and leaner final forms of today. The same applies to YGO. It's a new era. Big, or scary isn't necessary anymore.

In the first few booster sets, YGO tried to go for literal monsters: scary creatures in scary environments. They were grounded in tropes from horror, old religions and such. Now, they are often silly and derived from just about anything. Today, we still call monsters monsters, but that's just nominal. I wouldn't call Don Zaloog, Outstanding Dog Marron or Noble Knight Peredur "monsters" per se.

We've gone from gargoyles to anthropomorphic airplanes and the change isn't a coincidence.

There's a divide between old classic cards (2002-2004) and more modern cards (2005- onward). And yes, there have been exceptions. There still were some delicate non-imposing monsters back then and there are still some frightening ones today, but the overall change (over time) can be noted. An example:Toon monsters from the 3rd booster set Magic Ruler. Yes, they were cartoony, but that's exactly whats disturbing about them. At the time, they were eerie because they looked totally alien to what we had expected. They didn't really belong. If they came about today, they would fit right at home.

This shift is not without it's share of good reasons.

First, is the acknowledgement of the American audience. Initally, YGO was a Japanese phenomenon until Konami realized that selling this card game to Western countries could be a lucrative endeavor. And how Konami toned down the seriousness and scariness of their cards well reflects that. Not to say us Americans don't like the violence. We have our Terminator movies, Call of Duty games and lots of explicit lyrics in our music.

But it's the occultic themes that can turn people away faster than drawings of soldiers with guns. Bringing dark religious undertones, especially ones that lots of people may consider satanic, into a children's card game just wasn't worth it. Konami wanted to sell an entertainment product – not engage in political dialogue. Also, it's worth noting the difference between a teenage audience of 17 year olds and a really young audience of 10 year olds.

A teen is a bit more discerning and can judge whether they want to join the game based on it's core mechanics. Young kids are different. It all depends on marketing and exposure. Whatever looks cool at first glance will sell. You just couldn't make commercials of gargoyles assaulting elvish warriors in a medieval castle and expect the average 8 year old to care.

So YGO used an anime to advertise, which is an inherently more visual medium than a manga comic book. The original series was a bit dissonant. It wanted a colorful loveable approach, with cartoony characters. (To be fair, a realistic-looking medieval fantasy TV cartoon show wasn't feasible at the time.) Even with the color, though, the grisly looking demonic monsters remained. They were color saturated to look less disturbing.

Also, some goofy comedic moments and ridiculously over-the-top acting added some levity. The original series never even touched on the dark subtext of the original manga until the last season. Then, with Yu-Gi-Oh GX (5D and Zexal, as well) forward, Kazuki Takahashi (the creator of the game) decided to close the gap. From then (around 2005) on, the game got brighter and more imaginative.

Another reason? The game needed to be spiced up. There are about 50 booster sets. A bit after the first 10, and a lot after the first 20, they changed it up. I couldn't imagine them stretching the "medieval castle with monsters and torture chambers inside" concept for 3000 more cards, anyway. There's a need for constant novelty, even if the gameplay mechanics stay the same because they work. I didn't think 10 years later I would be dueling with Madolche deck-types, imagining a mansion maids defending my life points, lobbing baked good at dragons and warriors.

And that's what makes this game so great. You get lots of choice and variety. You can use scary monsters like Helpoemer in your deck and cute little creatures like Drillroid in there too. Or, something in between like Marauding Captain. Don't get me wrong; I have a fondness for the old nostalgic art.  But the sheer scope of what this game could encompass was only made clear after the often-corny YGO GX challenged us to "get our game on".

There are so many cliches in card and board games: zombies, skeletons, knights, dragons, temptresses, potions, spells, torture devices. YGO was following the examples set for it at first, but then, by realizing it's audience, it also realized that it could expand well beyond those tropes.  And in doing so, the old starter decks still have their value, as those darker cards haven't been often copied or burnt out to death.

When it comes to theme and style, Yu-Gi-Oh has made a 180 degree turn in the other direction. It went from dark and scary to colorful and cutsey. It strayed away from its roots, and in most contexts, this would be a bad thing. But, in fact, it's not bad at all. It's a good thing. It's what set the game apart from the crowd and allowed it to become what it is today.

Contact: banefulscolumn@gmail.com




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