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Grieving Yu-Gi-Oh, My Favorite Childhood Game

The death of Yu-Gi-Oh's creator resurrected a strange and surprising pang of loss. The game I had loved years ago had grown unrecognizable to me.

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Kazuki Takahashi died this week. The creator of the Yu-Gi-Oh manga, anime, and trading card game, he was an artist who meant a great deal to me. A strange and surprising grief struck when I heard the news, both for the man himself, only 60 years old, and for his game. With his death, I feel the final loss of an essential part of my childhood, one that had been slipping away for some time. Though I still have the cards, the relationship I had with the game as a teenager is unreachable now, much like childhood itself.

Yu-Gi-Oh was my favorite game in my early teens—lonely queer years when Yugi Moto’s cadre of friends seemed like my own. On certain days, they felt like my only ones. I memorized cards’ names and effects alone in my room for many hours every weekend. With each new card and combo in my cranial database came new ways to participate in the show’s titanic matchups between characters, as the “Duel Monsters” trading card game is the subject of the anime itself. My greatest thrill was discovering an ultra-rare “Thousand-Eyes Restrict” in a random booster pack, the crown jewel in the deck of the first season’s flamboyant villain, Maximillion Pegasus.

I watched the show, played the card game, and read the manga. I was awed by the power of summoning a sleek magician or a dominant dragon with the dramatic flip of a card. I loved the idea that a more thorough memorization of rules, cards, and arcana than my opponent’s would lead to victory. As a teenager, I was bookish and shy of confrontation, prone to leaving sleights unanswered, but I could know and invoke rules made by other.

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Even in its earliest iterations, Yu-Gi-Oh was complicated and wonderful. You could joke it is a game for lawyers. In the abstract, the goal is to know the rules so well as to bend them to your own ends using the powers and effects of various cards. Though you draw from the same finite reservoir of cards released by Konami, you may outwit your opponent with your own ingenious, signature combinations. When I covered a trial for the first time, I was struck by the similarity between the weaponization of the admitted evidence and the deployment of just the right monster card at just the right time.

In its simplest summary, the game goes like this: using three classes of cards—monsters, spells, and traps—you must reduce your opponent’s life points to zero or empty their deck. There are certain card effects whose conditions trigger a win, the most famous being Exodia, the keystone of Yugi’s triumph in the first episode of the anime. You may have between 40 and 60 cards in your deck. Draw five cards to begin the game and one at the start of each turn. Monsters can attack your opponent’s monsters or their life points; they can likewise defend your own life points. Specific phases of each turn allow for playing spells, setting traps, summoning monsters, activating monsters’ effects, or engaging your opponents’ monsters in battle.

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Konami, the owner of Yu-Gi-Oh’s intellectual property, described the game as a universe unto itself in a statement on Takahashi’s death. I felt much the same. When the game was at its best, its depths seemed unfathomable.

“We are shocked and saddened to hear of the sudden passing of Mr. Kazuki Takahashi. We are deeply grateful for the wonderful ‘Yu-Gi-Oh!’ universe that he has created, and our thoughts are with his friends and family at this difficult time. Together with his countless fans, we pledge to carry on the ‘Yu-Gi-Oh!’ legacy with all the love and care it deserves,” the statement reads.

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Three years ago, my parents moved out of my childhood home in Dallas. I returned from San Francisco to retrieve a car. My mother asked me to sort the belongings I had left behind into piles labeled “keep” and “toss.” I procrastinated the sorting. The night before she and I left Dallas to drive back to San Francisco, I stayed up all night completing her task. I played “For All That I Am,” a mournful pop jam by the Abba knockoff group A*Teens. It was the soundtrack to the same period of my life as Yu-Gi-Oh. I blasted the song on repeat so much that in one night it became my third-most-listened to song of the year. “Toss” turned out to encompass most of what I owned, as I lived in a 12’ x 12’ room in San Francisco. I decided to keep the cards, though, even as I jettisoned all my Spider-Man and Spawn action figures, Pokémon Yellow and Gold Gameboy cartridges, my copies of I, Robot and Redwall, and all of my other young nerd treasures. I loved all of those things, but I loved the cards the most. I was surprised at the depth of my attachment to them. Holding them brought back fond memories of how intensely they sparked my imagination.

Instagram allowed me to feed that hungry, stinging nostalgia, to cultivate the pain associated with it. The emotional reaction is the same: see a card I am not familiar with, wonder at its intricacies, and remember. I followed both meme accounts and accounts that showed pictures of cards. The card accounts showed me that Yu-Gi-Oh had severely succumbed to power creep since I had last played. New cards became so overpowered, their mechanics so byzantine, as to dwarf my old decks. Multiple new classes of monsters had appeared and asserted primacy. The game as it exists now is unrecognizable to me, the cards I once prized now looked silly and childish. They are knives in a bazooka fight. Thousand-Eyes Restrict gave way to the more versatile and powerful “Millennium-Eyes Restrict,” a card that never appeared in the show.

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Lest you think I am simply whining that things are not the same as they once were (I am, though), let me show you that I am not alone: “Yu-Gi-Oh Then Vs Now” is a well-trod meme that still racks up millions of views on YouTube. It is not uncommon for skilled players on the tournament circuit to win on the first turn if they draw the right first hand from the right deck. By contrast, the anime showcased lengthy duels with many turns, each one a new and revealing twist.

Playing Modern Yu-Gi-Oh! in a Nutshell

Just as Yu-Gi-Oh had moved away from me, I had moved away from Yu-Gi-Oh. I had become more interested in school and writing. The show ended. I couldn’t find opponents to duel as my classmates grew older. I beat the GameBoy simulations of Yugi’s most legendary duels. I once crafted a trading card game on notebook paper in homage, as I felt Yu-Gi-Oh’s relevance slip. The game and I had grown apart as I we both go older, as if we were friends who changed and fell out of touch. Recognizing that loss—that it would be impossible to recreate the happiness I felt while dueling ever again—was a surprising kind of grief. I mourned a relationship with something that had never been alive, but brought me solace like a living friend.

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We lose the things we loved in childhood; it is inevitable as night. As adults we cradle them and wish for the joy they brought us to return. Perhaps we long for the sunny circumstances of carefree childhoods, perhaps we pine for the escapes we found from burdened ones. My nostalgia for Yu-Gi-Oh falls among the latter. So it goes, and we move on.

Now Kazuki Takahashi is gone, the man who made all that possible, and the coffin lid over this particular niche of my own life has notched another nail. My memories of Yu-Gi-Oh will only fade further into the past. May those recollections rest in peace, as may Takahashi.

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