The Couch Bandits (Nick, Jake, and I) have known each other for a long time—we go all the way back to grade school. As we’ve grown up together, we’ve witnessed all sorts of cultural fads and phenomena—from Harry Potter to Pokémon, and many more.
Like most children my age, I readily participated in these fads as they rose to fame and popularity. One fad I missed out on, however, was Yu-Gi-Oh!. As the youngest of three brothers, I often gravitated toward whatever toys and shows my older siblings were into at the time, and this occasionally caused me to unknowingly miss out on things I otherwise would’ve been enthralled by. My brothers collected Pokémon cards in the early 2000s, so naturally, I did, too—but they never wandered into the realm of Yu-Gi-Oh!. I only knew the card game and anime as the apparent rip-off of Pokémon, and I didn’t actually know anyone in my social circle who actively collected the cards and played the game.
My first in-person experience with the game came during my time in middle school. Nick, Jake, and I were enrolled as members of our school’s Game Club, which met once a week and provided students a place to go after school to play any manner of board/card games. Games like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon were controversial to the club, as the trading element of the games promoted a mobster-like mentality among the students. Shifty deals were going on behind closed doors—scammers made off with rare treasures while ripping off ignorant suckers. Cards were stolen, or mysteriously went “missing,” and the teachers running the club would frequently place on-and-off-again bans on trading card games.
I specifically remember that Yu-Gi-Oh! was the preferred game in the club. I recall watching two duel masters duking it out one day after school. The atmosphere was charged with energy. Kids were egging on the duel masters—I swear I saw some money thrown down on at least one occasion.
Up to this point in my life, I thought Yu-Gi-Oh! to be a game of outcasts and those who weren’t cool enough to play Pokémon—but I was quickly learning just how wrong I’d been. The monsters were truly incredible—the artwork on each card was so diverse and intricate. The sleek card design seemed dark and mysterious to me, and I was totally drawn in by the fast pacing of the game.
I watched as the duel masters played magical spells and laid trap cards to ensnare their opponent. My eyes darted from side to side, trying to take in every possible second of the battle. After a lengthy battle, tempers were rising, and before a victor could be determined, a fight broke out between the two duel masters. A teacher came over and broke it up, and at the following Game Club meeting, Yu-Gi-Oh! was once more banished from future gatherings. For more than a decade after that experience, Yu-Gi-Oh! would never again cross my mind—until one extraordinary day.
On a cold day in 2018, I woke up to a slew of messages in our Couch Bandits group text. Nick mentioned he had randomly downloaded a mobile Yu-Gi-Oh! game called Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links and was entranced by it. He urged Jake and I to download the game and give it a go, so I quickly went to the app store and downloaded it. I had been itching for some digital trading card game action, and although I never actually played Yu-Gi-Oh!, I figured it might be fun to try.
I loaded up the app and initiated the card download. I wanted hi-res images on my cards (remembering how beautiful the artwork had been) and quickly realized it would take well over a half hour for the game to download its 500+ cards. I was shocked. I didn’t have the time to download all those cards! And so, I closed out of the app and put it at the back of my mind.
Weeks passed, and I didn’t think about the game again until I was home for the holidays. It was a few days before Christmas when I found myself on the toilet, flipping through the games on my phone for something fun to play. There it was, staring at me: Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links. I had completely forgotten it was still there, and so, I opened it. Once again, I initiated the massive 500+ card download, except this time I set my phone aside and let it run the download for over an hour. By the time I remembered to return to my phone, the download had finally completed.
“I guess I’ll give it a go,” I said aloud to myself. I opened the app and went through the tutorial. The game was just as fast-paced and thrilling as I recalled it being on the day I had watched those pros duel. The game itself was developed by Konami and is surprisingly high-end for being a free-to-play mobile game. The graphics and animations are brilliantly done, and the game perfectly captures the spirit of both the card game, and the classic anime.
Duel Links offers CPU duels alongside ranked and casual PVP matches. On top of those features, the game has a fully fleshed-out deck builder, which allows you to construct your own customized deck. The difficulty level is evenly balanced to make the game accessible to both seasoned duelists and green newcomers. The game also offers help for those who may need it in the form of expansive tutorials and auto-deck building options. I can’t express how impressed I am with how much content this free game has to offer.
As you play, you gain experience and unlock new cards to add to your deck. “Gems” are also used to unlock new card packs—they can be purchased as micro-transactions, or collected over time for free in-game, and are easy to come by for those who don’t wish to spend any money. Slowly but surely, your deck will grow more powerful as you level up your character.
All your favorite characters from the anime are present in the game, and I’ve enjoyed my experience of playing Duel Links so much that it even inspired me to begin watching the anime series (which can be streamed in its entirety on Netflix). Duel Links really captures the spirit of how a duel plays out on the show—it’s loaded full of witty quips and sly remarks from Joey Wheeler, Seto Kaiba, and of course, Yugi Muto himself.
Duel Links also does a great job of depicting the beautiful original artwork from the anime, as well as from the cards themselves. As I previously mentioned, I was first drawn to Yu-Gi-Oh! because of the detailed, mystical artwork, and Duel Links recognizes this exact appeal. The player can watch as their monsters come to life before them on the battlefield, and some special cards—like the legendary Blue-Eyes White Dragon—even have their own animation that plays whenever the card is activated.
These little touches of detail are what ultimately make Duel Links an impressive mobile game; it’s an unfathomably rich experience on a small scale. I’m also grateful that the game has prevented me from going out and purchasing every pack of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards I can find (which is something I’m prone to doing when obsessing over a new thing). For those of you who no longer have your cards or missed out on buying them back when they were popular, like I did, this is the game for you. Duel Links will save you the trouble (and the money) by giving you access to a large portion of the Yu-Gi-Oh! card library without spending a dime. Though I do reserve my right to run out and buy a million cards should I ever give in to the temptation.
Duel Links will also make you want to know everything there is to know about this universe, and I promise you that playing it will spark a burning desire to revisit the anime. When you look at the broad concept of the show, how can you resist its amazingly cool allure? The show is about an ancient card sport being revived in the form of the trading card game as we know it in our own reality.
The greatest duel master of all time is this kid who has been possessed by the spirit of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, who is reaching across rivers of time to protect the human race from the dark forces of evil. I immediately identified with the show’s themes of unity, belief in oneself, and defiance in the face of certain defeat. I also found myself identifying with Yugi Muto a lot—for I, too, have frequently felt the soul of an Egyptian pharaoh living inside of me, influencing my duel monsters training. I mostly feel this connection when I’m in bed at 3:00am, playing round after endless round of Duel Links, losing track of all time and space.
I’ve quickly realized that I love the show because of its exhilarating speed and intensity. There’s literally a duel every single episode—and even though when Yugi is dueling we’re almost certain of the outcome, it’s still thrilling to see how he gets himself out of a bad bind time and time again. Because the show directly borrows from the actual card game, it makes the anime feel somehow more real—like you’re watching a sporting event. You’ve played this game before; be it the physical card game, or Duel Links, and you can relate to how the events are unfolding on the screen. I would highly recommend watching the anime while you’re starting your Duel Links experience as they complement one another nicely. If you’ve already seen the anime, why not watch it again?
The Heart of the Cards is a philosophy I now carry with me—it’s not just a goofy marketing ploy to sell a product, it’s a genuine and very real mantra. The concept applies directly to life in that it’s not about what cards we are dealt—it’s about how we choose to play them. And even though we may not always draw a perfect hand, we must have faith that we’re drawing the cards we truly need in that specific place and time. So go download Duel Links now! It’s free, and it might just take over your life.
Duel Links is available for most smartphones, and is also available free-to-play on Steam.
(Editor’s Note: This post was in no way paid for or sponsored by Konami Entertainment. But that would be totally awesome if they wanted to in the future.)
Couch Bandits do not claim any semblance of ownership over images used in this article.