With the popularity of the Yu-Gi-Oh! series in the United States, Wizards of the Coast had to come up with something to compete with it since they didn’t own the Yu-Gi-Oh! license. Wizards came up with Duel Masters, a game built upon the foundation of their highly successful Magic the Gathering card game. They then set out to mirror a version of the license in every entertainment medium that Yu-Gi-Oh! was present in: television, card and videogames. At its foundation Duel Masters is just different enough to not feel like a clone of Yu-Gi-Oh!, but there are still a lot of similarities.

The videogame I am reviewing here, Duel Masters, is my first experience with the franchise. I honestly have never seen the television series although I have heard of the card game and actually saw a setup at the Mall of America for the game the weekend after Yu-Gi-Oh had been through town. At my ripe old age of 28, I only have room for one card game-based television show in my life, and that show is Yu-Gi-Oh!. I was quite interested in what type of game Duel Masters was and how hard it would be to get into. As I first booted it up I found the game to be quite similar to Magic the Gathering, a game I played a lot of when I was in college. Mana was the key force behind the game, although this time around you were taking out 5 shields before the coup de grace could be taken out on your opponent instead of life points. After going through a bit of the training session (no way I was going to go through the elongated version of it) I felt I could take on the world with what I knew, so let’s get on with the scoring.

The graphics aren’t the greatest, but they are certainly a step up from any of the Yu-Gi-Oh! videogames that I have played. This time around you actually see physical manifestations of your monsters just like the television series, a big step in the right direction for the card game to videogame transitions. The introduction is done like a television episode with the hand drawn animation. It then shifts itself into a cel-shaded look for the overworld part of the game. When you go into duels you have an environment you fight in (usually depending on the base power of your opponent), you choose your cards and they appear on the screen as you summon them. When you decide to attack a monster or one of your opponent’s shields you are treated to a mini-movie that shows your monster attacking the target and destroying it (or if your monster is not as strong you will see it dying). That’s about the extent of the graphics in this game, there aren’t any neat pyrotechnics going on, although there really doesn’t need to be since it is a card game at its most basic form.

Sound and music repeat themselves a lot in this game. The big problem with this is that the game is not short by any stretch of the imagination. You will be dueling dozens of people in order to get to the endgame for each character (there are 5 characters). Each duelist in the world has their own voice, but they can get old fast. Once again, with this type of game chances are you are not picking it up for the sound and music, you’re picking it up to get better at playing the game.

The sound within the battles are also usually repeated. In fact, every time a monster attacks you hear the same music clip in the cutscene. To say it gets old fast is not a big logic jump. At the end of the duel, whether you win or lose you will hear an upbeat or downbeat music track that is the same every time you win or lose. There’s not much variety in the music, something that could probably help this game a lot considering how big it is.

Control isn’t too difficult. You’ll mainly be looking at the map in order to go to the different spots in the city: the mall, the junkyard, the park, the restaurant, etc. The menus are well laid out and it is easy to navigate once you get to your destination. All you have to do is move the stick right or left to go through the people you can talk to at that location. Once you accept a duel you go into the dueling mode and everything is pretty self-explanatory. The R2 button will become your friend very quickly because it is the information for the extra powers some cards have, such as a boost in their base power or what special abilities they have.

Control in this game should take you no time to get the hang of. You mostly use the X button, but there are times you use other buttons and the menu you are presented with shows you exactly what button you need to play. The key component is that this game is a card game and there aren’t a whole lot of things you can do with the controls to screw up a card game.

At the beginning of the game you are introduced to Knight and Widow, the head good and bad guy respectively it seems. Widow has damaged the connection that the 5 powers (fire, water, earth, light and dark) have to the dimension all the monsters come from.

Knight sends in the Duel Masters gang to stop Widow and his evil plans. Each character is tied to one of the powers (Rusty = Fire, Rebecca = Water, Trey = Earth, Flynn = Dark and Luc = Light) and you take each one and go through dozens of duels in order to get points and go up the Duelist chain. Eventually you reach the endgame with each one, but the key is you have to go through the game with each character. Get ready for lots of loading because each time you change destinations there is a loading screen and each time you go into a duel there is a loading screen.

The game of Duel Masters is built upon the foundations of Magic the Gathering. Everything goes through the buildup of mana and the tapping/untapping of cards. During each turn you look through your cards and you can sacrifice a card to get another mana point (and add another summon power ability depending on the color of card you sacrifice) and summon as many monsters as your mana level can handle each turn to a maximum of 5 monsters on the field. Your goal is to destroy the 5 shields each player has along with defending your own shields from the other player. The weird thing about Duel Masters is that unless you have a blocking monster on the field, an opposing monster can go straight at your shields without having to go through the monsters on the field. It is all quite weird, so there is a bit of strategy involved in taking out those 5 shields and not so much in taking out the monsters.

The game can be quite fun early on as you beat duelists and take their cards and make new decks out of them, but then you start to realize you’re basically going through the motions, dueling and winning (or losing depending on how lucky the computer is). Sure, you get some tougher opponents, but after going through a couple dozen duelists you’d just like to get to the endgame. Nevermind you have to do this with four other characters as well. This is why a game like Duel Masters is probably best taken in spurts and not in a long session.

Overall the game is fun in moderation, but the story just doesn’t keep you on board like the Yu-Gi-Oh! GameBoy games do in my mind. Those were monotonous as well, but at least I felt I was getting somewhere and was actually taking on some opponents that could stand up to me with or without the luck of the draw. Plus the fact is I had watched the show before getting the games, so I kind of knew the story going in. With this game I don’t know anything about the story or the characters. In this game you can lay waste to a majority of the duelists once you get the hang of the gameplay of this versus the gameplay of Yu-Gi-Oh! or any other card game you may have played.

I can easily see this game being enjoyed by children that watch this show and it is the first card game I’ve seen go this far to mirroring the television show and the monsters coming alive on the home consoles. I don’t think Yu-Gi-Oh!‘s forays into the GameCube, Playstation 2 or Xbox could stand up to this game yet since the monsters don’t come out of the cards just like they do on the television.

The biggest minus for this game is that there is not an online component, but you can play against a friend, you just have to rely on the buddy system of not looking at each other’s cards. There is also an Extreme mode where you basically play in real-time along with some effects that are not in the normal game. It gives you a bit more of an adrenaline rush, but you have to be right on top of things so the enemy doesn’t beat you quickly. I didn’t stay on Extreme for very long, the game should be far more strategic than Extreme is showing you.

This game needs to be played in moderation in order to fully enjoy it. If you sit down and play it for a number of hours chances are you aren’t going to come back to it for quite a while. The nice thing is that you have an autosave option that will save your game right after anything of note happens. You win a duel, the game saves. You lose a duel, the game saves. You build a new deck from cards you got from your opponents, the game saves. Maybe that is in there for the sole purpose of letting you play in spurts and not have to lose your progress.

As said above, the last big hump card games on consoles need to jump is the online component. Being able to trade cards that you pick up in the single-player mode and the ability to duel against real people would make these card games that much more fun to play. Instead of being at a table facing each other you can face each other over a vast distance. With Duel Masters joining the group of non-online card games turned into videogames, the value rests solely on your enjoyment of the single-player experience. That is something I think can only be fun in spurts.