Release Date: November 2, 2004
I work at a small videogame store in Iowa City, Iowa. With it being literally a few feet away from the University of Iowa, during the day we receive a lot of foot traffic from the students – usually an older, less gaming-literate crowd. But once the evening rolls around, business slows down, and our best customers, the hardcore gamers, come around. Unlike the constricting demographic that is college students, this crowd comes in all shapes and sizes. Because of this, I get exposed to very different takes on what gaming means to these people, what they know, and the types of things they notice.
While working an evening shift some time ago, a regular customer who is about nine years old asked me a question about a game.
“What’s up with that Duel Masters game up there?”
I looked up at it, confused, realizing that I never noticed it before. “You mean that Yu-Gi-Oh card game thing?”
“No, it’s different, it’s called Duel Masters.”
I shrugged, and suddenly realized how freakishly similar this Duel Masters look to Yu-Gi-Oh. Having never heard a peep about the series before, I had to ask the customer more. “So what’s up with this Duel Masters thing?” I asked.
Looking back, this conversation stands as a reminder for exactly what is wrong with Duel Masters: When discussing it, you are less likely to actually talk about it than you are about Yu-Gi-Oh. Even to young, impressionable eyes, Duel Masters appears as nothing more than a cheap ploy by Wizards of the Coast (paper gaming company, publishers of Magic: the Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, and more) to throw their weight around and get a bigger chunk of the current insatiable need for more Yu-Gi-Oh. And as a Gameboy Advance game, Duel Masters shows even weaker, and incredibly, even more half-hearted attempts at grabbing the money of young children and their parents. The graphics look like homebrew art; the dialogue is paper thin and obviously not proofread; and the gameplay is clearly directed at fans of the paper card game, leaving Gameboy-only players with an irritating interface not directed to them, despite the fact that they have to pay the same price to play. Duel Masters is to Yu-Gi-Oh what Digimon was to Pokemon -- except, unlike Digimon, Duel Masters doesn’t even try to create its own flavor.
The rules of Duel Masters, unsurprisingly, take more than a few pages out of the bible of trading-card games, Magic: the Gathering. More accurately, the pages in question were taken out of the Cliff’s Notes version. In fact, the whole game plays like a Cliff’s Notes take on trading-card games in general, since players have only five “shield cards” to block oncoming foes, and each attack to a shield will remove one of them.
It’s odd how Wizards of the Coast didn’t even think to try changing some names and descriptors around to remove this game at least slightly from its big brother, Magic: the Gathering. Words like “mana” (energy needed to cast spells and creatures) “summoning sickness” (descriptor for the turn that newly cast creatures spend inactive) and “graveyard” (area for used cards) all live up to their tried and true, Richard Garfield-created definitions. The biggest change to the formula is that there are no actual mana cards. Instead, players must choose any card in their hand and place it into their mana pool to be able to pay casting costs. This rule is the only change to the Magic formula that actually adds any strategy; since players must be extremely careful with which cards they put in their pool. However, most of the game feels like the team who set the rules spent more time snipping away at the rules of a better game than bringing anything new to the table.
Battles are slow paced yet short, and for players unfamiliar with the card game, tedious. Learning the cards is difficult enough, since only their names can be read from the main battle screen; a second screen must be accessed to read card descriptions. For some unexplainable reason, the developer chose to fade out and in when changing from the battle screen to the card description screen. This was a bad move on their part, and one that may turn off players from putting up with this game if they haven’t memorized the cards just yet. It may seem a bit anal of me to complain about this, but if you think about sitting through a slow moving fade in/out for every single card – and there are hundreds -- you might come to think it would get old after some time. Battles would take much less time for new players if they could have pressed a button and a box would pop up – immediately – over the card, showing a text description of the card. Many frustrating moments could have been avoided had the developers made reading the descriptions of the playable cards a bit easier to handle.
Outside of the card battles, the overworld is where most of the player’s time will be spent… much to the detriment of Duel Master’s presentation. The graphics, in and out of battles, have a homebrew look about them (or an evil look about them, if you are a big anime fan). The character designs could have easily come out of a seventh grader’s notebook of “man-guh designs”, and the pixelized renders are bad enough to push matters further towards the side of “bad”. Much like the bizarre Teen Titans TV show on Cartoon Network, Duel Masters is an Americanized attempt at the Japanese anime look. While Teen Titans’ presentation is obviously faux-anime yet still passable, Duel Masters is an ugly little gremlin of a game, with an unnecessarily creepy looking cast of characters to back it up.
To the game’s credit, some of the creature designs and spell effects are actually pretty well done. The game seems like it was split up into teams. The portrait artist guys failed, the overworld art guy dropped the ball, but the monster art and spell effects guys made off mostly okay. This makes the game even more awkward to look at, in a sense, though. Looking at an awesome monster, then staring at the scary, smooth-yet-angled homebrew freaks that show up for the victory pose is fairly jarring.
The sounds of Duel Masters range from absolutely nothing to useful sound effects. Not much music is to be heard in this game, though when it is present, it is not a joy to listen to. The sound effects, however, are simple and effective. The quiet nature of the battles is probably to the game’s credit, since having music constantly blaring over every moment of decision making would have been extremely irritating, especially if its quality was congruent with most parts of the rest of the game.
Duel Masters, a card game with expansion sets like “Evo-Crushinators of Doom”, is not aimed at a crowd above the age of 11 or 12. Anybody old enough would see straight through what Wizards was trying to do with this game. If anybody wants to play a card battler, pick up a Yu-Gi-Oh game. At least those games are pandering to no series but themselves, and maybe Pokemon, but at least that series is no longer a viable competitor in the trading card game field. Sorry, Wizards; we know what you’re up to, and we want to let you know: Try harder next time, and you just might make off with a bit of cash in the end.