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Duelist Kingdom was the nostalgia bomb that started it all. Originally the Japanese manga involved other games (not just Duel Monsters) and was a bit dark, but eventually the manga strip that focused on a card game (then named Magic and Wizards) was so popular, Kazuki Takahashi wanted to focus on it. And he also made it less explicit to appeal to a wider audience.
So, the anime begins right off with Yugi Muto, a short shy kid who originally was bullied and had difficulty making friends, but in finding the ancient magical item, the Millennium Puzzle, he met his first friend Yami-Yugi (an enigmatic alter ego from the Puzzle, from thousands of years ago) who co-inhabits Yugi's body.
In doing this, Yami gives Yugi the confidence he needs to meet his other friends such as Tea, Joey, Tristan, et al. And friendship is one of the core motifs that is ingrained into the viewer time and time again.
Then and Now
The manga was made for older audience, but cartoons needed to be marketed for kids. The theme of friendship was emphasized in the anime, ad nauseum to some, since parents generally want their little ones to watch shows with moral lessons to them - not just escapism. Fans of the card game who are older do find the friendship speeches hokey and the need to explain every minutia a bit frivolous. Nothing will stop parents from finding the show tedious and boring, but it makes it easier for younger impressionable kids.
Duels are paced relatively slowly and each card's effect (though most monsters don't have an effect to begin with) is explained so that newer players are kept in the loop. Also, a lot of the characters (like Weevil, Rex, Mai, etc.) were zany, over-the-top and unrealistic when it came to their personality and motivations.
There's a rule for storytelling in literature and cinema: Show - don't tell. Let them figure it out for themselves. Don't use characters as a mouthpiece. But for a show targeted to a young audience, young 10 year old Baneful probably wouldn't have understood the subtext. Kids aren't really mature enough to get subtlety yet, though.
In many cartoons, there are entendres and cultural references in there that only older teens and adults would get. It adds a certain dimension, in that you can watch the same show 10 years later and get something different out of it, that totally went over your head before. The Yugioh anime is different, and maybe that's the beauty of it: It's exactly the same as it was whenever we last left it.
Easy it is for me to deconstruct a children's cartoon with an adult lens, but there must have been a lot of merit to it if I both adored it as a kid and occasionally rewatch it now on Hulu and Netflix.
Takahashi did a great job creating a world full of magic, mysteries and new things to constantly be discovered. New monsters to collect, new spells and traps to spice up the duels, the arcanity of the Millennium Items as well as Yami's past.
The reason why Duelist Kingdom is a great introduction to the series is because it introduces its elements in bits and pieces without overwhelming the viewer with spoonfuls of it directly. Although, the most significant part of the plot doesn't happen until the 5th season of the original anime series, Dawn of the Duel, the seasons before allow it to build up very well.
The plot is simple. Pegasus, magnate and creator of duel monsters, kidnaps Yugi's grandpa and Yugi is invited into his tournament to save his grandpa. This tournament was used to lure in people with Millennium Items, like Yugi, as Pegasus was corrupted by the Millennium Eye and wants more Millennium Items.
The tournament also attracts and introduces Bakura, an innocent angelic person corrupted by a malicious alter ego of the Millennium Ring. Bakura would serve an important role later on, but the first season effectively foreshadows his role.
Another key facet to the plot is the rivalry between Seto Kaiba (symbolized by the Blue-Eyes White Dragon) and Yugi Muto (symbolized by the Dark Magician). Yugi defeats Kaiba in a duel, banishes the evil side of his spirit to the shadow realm and at that point, Kaiba seeks to beat Yugi in a duel so he could reclaim his #1 status as the world's best duelist.
There is a deeper connection between Yugi and Kaiba that slowly unravels throughout the series, but it's up to the viewer to figure it out. Showing only 3 Millennium Items gives the viewer some space to compare what they have in common and their overall link in the lore's history without overwhelming them.
If we want to get even more plain obvious into what makes Duelist Kingdom so iconic, for both better and worse, it's the gameplay of the duels. The rules of Duelist Kingdom were different than those of the actual Trading Card Game. There were only 2000 life points (instead of 8000), direct attacks were not allowed if the opponent had viable monsters to defend with and players didn't have to tribute to summon high level monsters.
What kept the game balanced in the anime was the fact that strong LV6 and higher monsters were rare and hard to come by so the duelists couldn't just pack their decks full of them. But the duels were simplistic. It would consist of purely monsters attacking other monsters. Occasionally, there would be a spell or trap card, but otherwise it was very strategy-light.
There were often moments where characters would overanalyze a simple play (like summoning a weak monster) under the pretense of it being a complex strategy. There were also the notorious moments when cards would have strange effects they don't actually have in real life.
For example, Mystical Moon "washes away the opponent's ocean", Machine monsters are unaffected by magic-based attacks and Labyrinth Wall turns the field into a 3D spatial maze. But it's important to keep it in context because Duelist Kingdom was written before the actual card game itself was being developed.
So, at the time they didn't have much to work with. They needed to inject some flavor (a bit of surprise factor) in it with made up effects and rules such as terrain-based ATK power boosts and so on.
Yin and Yang
There's a lot of memorable moments in the first season, Duelist Kingdom. The duel between Yugi and Bakura, where each character was spirit live in the duel. The tag team duel against Para and Dox. Seeing Kaiba's Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon was pretty badass.
In a rare flash of depth for the young anime, the loss Yugi suffers from Kaiba in their second face-off atop Pegasus' castle adds a lot to the story and heavily foreshadows the issues that Yugi and Yami-Yugi both face.
Yugi was the shy timid boy who taught Yami-Yugi friendship and compassion. In turn, Yami-Yugi, as an older mentor, taught Yugi how to be more confident and assertive. The two sides ultimately are in distress in the duel where Kaiba threatens to commit suicide if he loses. Yami-Yugi sees winning the duel as the most pragmatic way of saving the world from Pegasus, whereas Yugi sees killing Kaiba as morally wrong in absolute terms.
Yugi forfeited the duel to save Kaiba's life, but this resulted in a distrust toward Yami-Yugi and lack of self confidence overall. This scarred Yugi for quite a while in the season, but it showed that the relationship between Yami-Yugi and Yugi is two-sided, they would need to work their differences out and both learn from each other.
It demonstrated to the viewer that they don't necessarily have everything figured out and that the deep dark mysteries hidden beneath the surface of the Yugioh lore were far from being solved.
To wrap things up, Duelist Kingdom might not be the deepest season as far as gameplay goes, the most profound in storytelling or necessarily the franchise's creative peak (it still stuck close to fantasy tropes like dungeons, beasts, castles, soldiers, etc.).
It did, however, make the most important step. It established the fundamental structure of the Yugioh anime franchise.
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