Yu-Gi-Oh! has always been a series about dichotomies. The premise draws from the same well of ideas about “shadow selves” that would go on to make Persona 4 such a hit with the next generation of edgelord teens, and the legendarily brutal edit job it received during 4Kids Entertainment’s localization process granted it an eternal lineage of trivia articles about the Grimdark Japanese Original.
This is not strictly untrue–the manga includes plenty of body horror plus scattered examples of graphic violence, and the wisdom “There Are No Good Dads in Yu-Gi-Oh!” exists for a reason–but it also ran in Shonen Jump, a magazine aimed at teenagers that more often than not runs on capital-letter Good versus Evil.
While the series wants to tell a story about individuals overcoming their trauma and inner darkness, its strength at depicting individual growth often conflicts with the conservative social systems it ultimately upholds.
The Limits of a King of Games
The games the characters played were not played facing monitors, but facing other people. The opponents they played were the mirrors that reflected their hearts. In a basic sense, they fought each other’s spirits. Because this was a manga, it was deeply colored by the battle between good and evil, but I think the basis of the “game” was to clarify what lies between people.— Takahashi Kazuki, Millennium World Vol. 7 Afterword
For those unaware of the series beyond the memes, parodies, and unkillable trading card franchise it inspired, the basic plot is this: Mutou Yugi is a shy high schooler who finds a strange artifact known as the Millennium Puzzle. When he solves it, the puzzle awakens a dark alter-ego that punishes Yugi’s tormentors by challenging them to high-stakes “Shadow Games.”
Eventually, Yugi learns that the puzzle is one of seven Millennium Items, and that his “other self” is in fact the soul of a Pharaoh who lost his memories. Together, the two of them must gather the seven
dragon balls Millennium Items and return them to a tablet that serves as both the door to the afterlife and the seal of the evil eldritch god Zorc Necrophades.
And yes: a substantive number of these earth-shattering battles are fought using a children’s card game.