Today, Yu-Gi-Oh! is as synonymous with the card game that it spawned as it is with any particular manga or anime series within the franchise. The Yu-Gi-Oh!: Duel Monsters trading card game is one of the most popular in the world, rivaling Pokemon: The Trading Card Game and Magic: The Gathering. Despite this, the Duel Monsters component was actually not intended to be the focus of the series. Yu-Gi-Oh! initially functioned in a monster-of-the-week format, but without Duel Monsters, and high stakes games of life and death in every episode.
Adapting the first 59 chapters of progenitor manga, the original Yu-Gi-Oh! anime series from 1998 brought to life these very different adventures of Yugi Moto and friends. Though the second, more popular series is not necessarily an exact sequel, this first anime is widely regarded by fans as "Season 0." Now, we're taking a closer look at this anime and how it compares to Yugi's more famous series.
Yu-Gi-Oh!: Season 0
Much like the manga that spawned it, "Season 0" is noticeably darker than much of what would become of the franchise. The general premise is the same as what most fans know about the series,a; though it fully gives the backstory that Western fans only saw in flashbacks in the second show's later seasons. Series protagonist Yugi Moto, who excels at puzzles and riddles, cracks the code behind a mysterious Egyptian pyramid jewelry piece given to him by his grandfather. He is subsequently possessed during times of need by the spirit of an ancient Pharaoh, who himself was a master of games.
Atem, the Pharaoh who possesses Yugi, is quickly to challenge those who slight him to a series of Shadow Games. These range from particularly deadly variants of dice games, non-Duel Monsters card games, and thinly veiled pastiches of rival franchise Pokemon. The results of the games, which typically ended in punishing "Penalty Games," have rather disastrous effects for Yami Yugi's (possesed Yugi) opponents/victims. For sometimes simply being arrogant, those who challenge Yami Yugi end up disfigured, imprisoned in toy capsules, and even brainwashed to imagine themselves being attacked by monsters or burned alive. As in the early chapters of the manga, the game Duel Monsters is eventually introduced, but it was never the sole focus of the series. Though this 27-episode Toei Animation series isn't a huge, sprawling epic, it's also structured in a less episodic format than the manga, with the series ending right before the manga refocused itself on the card game.
Differences From the Manga and Sequels
Though the show only adapts the earliest parts of the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga, the first adaptation of the franchise has notable differences with these manga chapters. For one, many of the Penalty Game fatalities from the manga were toned down for the anime, with the second episode's brainwashing of a criminal into thinking that he's on fire having originally seeing the villain actually be set ablaze on the page. One storyline that was cut entirely involved Yami Yugi challenging a disruptive school bully to a flammable version of ice hockey played upon a giant grill. When the bully loses, frozen chemicals explode in his face, with his unquestionable death receiving little regard from Yugi. Other chapters are skipped or truncated into the plot to create a deeply abridged version of the original manga's storyline. Another major change is the presence of the character Miho Nosaka. This character was a minor character with only one appearance in the original manga volumes, but in Season 0, she's a recurring member of Yugi's group of friends.
The lack of focus on Duel Monsters (originally called Magic and Wizards, a reference to Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering) is an obvious difference with the subsequent franchise that proceeded from the manga and Season 0. By the time that Season 0 had begun to air, the manga was only then shifting its focus to being based entirely on the card game. The second series Yu-Gi-Oh!: Duel Monsters, would pick up essentially where the first series had finished adapting, by which point the card game was the franchise's main premise. It's possibly for the better, as even the toned down fatalities in Season 0 make the sometimes psychotic Yugi seem far less heroic than the more commercial second series would try to cast him as. With every subsequent series rushing headfirst into Duel Monsters, and completely abandoning the original horror premise, it seems safe to say that Yugi's days of trapping opponents in capsules and grilling bullies alive are long gone.