As a Yu-Gi-Oh! game fan, I was mystified by the original Japanese Game Boy series, in which only limited information is available for online. So I imported them to try them out firsthand. We all know about the real life card game by Konami, but this game even predates that, and the games in this series have had an intertwined relationship with the real life card game. This is the only game that was released for the original Game Boy right after the release of its successor, the Game Boy Color in 1998.
With each of the games, the gameplay is significantly different. With the first game, the only reference to go off was the manga. That being said, the only immediate diversion is the fact that there’s 8000 Life Points instead of 2000. In the story, characters have all sorts of specialized combos that really extended the duel and made for a spectacle, but with such a limited game, that simply wasn’t possible, so this change was made to extend the length of the game. It works later in the game, but for the earlier stages it’s simple monotonous (you’re attacking with mainly ~500 ATK monsters, it’s going to take a while). Though this game did greatly expand the Yu-Gi-Oh! universe; in the manga, there was probably no more than 70 cards that have been used. This game upped the ante to 365, which gives you enough to build a strategy around, as well as keep variety. All of these cards were eventually introduced into the real life card game, and some were later introduced into the manga and anime.
Onto the visuals; the cover suggests that this game is inspired by the 1998 Toei Animation Yu-Gi-Oh! series, but the plot and art design clearly reflect the manga, and is done well. The cards are all given intricate illustrations. The Duelist Kingdom arc really gives a good basis for a game, and it’s explored well. After the first round of opponents, you’re given free reign around the island to duel [all but three] of the featured Duelists from the story (Ghost Kotsuzuka and the Meikyū Brothers are omitted). Something to notice is that there’s really no plot for you as the player; you do not take control of the main character, Yugi. Your goal is to just beat everyone five times (there’s no Star Chip wagering system).
The gameplay is pretty straightforward, but almost too simplified. You can play one card per turn, and either attack and defend with your monster. Unfortunately, you cannot choose to not attack, but still leave your monster in attack position; it needs to attack, or be placed in defense position. Also, after you play a card and take action, your turn is done. Even if you play a Magic card and don’t play a monster, you’re not given the chance (even though this is done in the manga). While all important Duelists are represented, some of the decks are just pitiful. Bakura and Honda have decks of about three cards, repeated for the remainder of their 40-card deck. It’s not fun or challenging, it’s just boring (this may have also given way to the rule that you could only have three of the same cards per deck – thank God). While the rest of the decks can be fairly random and mostly don’t have a strategy/represent the Duelist they’re supposed to, the difficultly still increases at a good interval.
The sound is pretty good; Konami is definitely a trusted brand in the music department. Some of the tunes get a little repetitive, but they created a nice, original soundtrack to complement the story. There was a bit of missed opportunity when they didn’t adapt music from the Toei Animation series, but perhaps there was licensing issues.
In all, the game has its place in history, and it still very much playable. The rules are a little funky, but it’s just a different way to play. Not being bound by the real life restrictions, the game takes a lot of liberties that also make it more accurate. For the Yu-Gi-Oh! fan, I’d recommend it. I’d give it 3.5 stars out of 5.