Konami's done just about all it can with the Yu-Gi-Oh! brand on DS. This is the eighth different game in the series to come to the portable over the course of its lifetime, and the company now seems to have settled into a kind of annual release rhythm reminiscent of the yearly updates given to pro sports franchises like Madden.
This year's edition, the crazily titled Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's World Championship 2011: Over the Nexus, offers enough new content for established fans to enjoy themselves one last time. But I think it's too late in the game now for newcomers to try jumping on board in this generation, as after eight attempts at catching an audience on this portable it's got to be time to move on to the next – and some new problems are starting to appear.
As with the 2009 and 2010 World Championship Yu-Gi-Oh! games, this title adapts the characters and setting of the 5D's anime series to serve as a backdrop for its constant card battling – including the signature, wacky fusion of the card game with the high-speed futuristic motorcycle racing we first got to play two years ago. And, once again, your customizable playable character in the game's story mode is a fresh-faced nobody who seeks to rise out of obscurity and become the world's most popular Turbo Duelist. The environments have at least gotten a bit of new life breathed into them, though, as instead of starting out in the slums of the big city you instead kick off your quest in a Wild West-inspired town out in the desert. Fans of the anime will recognize Crash Town and its characters, and the clash that its Old West flavor offers is refreshing – it even influences gameplay a bit, as duels that take place there each start off with a new gun-slinging, button-pressing mini-game where you have to shoot through playing cards for the right to make the first move.
Once the card duel has begun, though, it's Yu-Gi-Oh! as usual. If you're not already familiar with the game, it'd be impossible to explain it all – it's an oftentimes ridiculously complex trading card design with now over 4000 different cards to build decks from. There's just so much going on at one time in these duels that it's maddening to keep up with, as monsters are summoned, spells are cast and traps are set – then fusion monsters show up, but are countered by synchro monsters (which are different than fusions, of course) and so on and so forth until you're just left with a headache. I'm still a fan of this underlying design despite its extreme complexity, and I recognize that the target audience for World Championship Yu-Gi-Oh! products like this one will be undaunted by it as their years of expertise carry them through every head-scratching situation. The problem, though, is that I think the game has gotten so out of hand and so vast in scope that the behind-the-scenes programming trying to run the whole show can no longer keep up.
This game is slow. When it's the computer's turn in a duel, and it has to make a decision, it's painfully, terribly slow. If you've ever played a chess simulator against an A.I. set to its highest difficulty, you're familiar with what this is like – it takes seemingly forever for it to make up its mind about any individual move, because it's taking the time to try to gauge every possible benefit and consequence of every play. Well, chess is a game with six types of pieces. Yu-Gi-Oh!'s got 4000 cards. A little "I'm thinking" graphic actually pops up in the middle of the touch screen to help pass the time, which is a minor concession and helpful in letting you know that the game hasn't just frozen up. But then there's another, more serious issue introduced – the game sometimes gets the rules wrong.
I've reviewed lots of Yu-Gi-Oh! games and am familiar with what's supposed to happen when in their card battles, and I've never run into this problem before. Here in World Championship 2011, though, I've been locked in the middle of heated duels and a critical card will just fail at doing what it's supposed to do. The game even popped up an error message, acknowledging outright that it screwed up. But "oops, sorry, we goofed" isn't going to bring my chance of victory back when an entire strategy crumbles from a programming glitch. This, too, must be a side-effect of the growing complexity of the base game – with over 4000 cards all interacting with each other in millions of different possible combinations, the task of properly play-testing every potential situation must be Herculean to the point of impossibility. It's just too much. It's no wonder that errors are starting to happen now – in hindsight, after all these years, I'm surprised it didn't happen before. Now it's possible that you may not encounter these same circumstances when you play. They're a rarity, and I'm not trying to paint a picture of an entirely broken game here – the vast majority of it is still smooth and plays well, albeit slowly. Longtime Yu-Gi-Oh! fans will love all the extras this package has to offer as well, from the new Duel Puzzle mode that challenges you to solve tricky set-up situations and win in a single move to the Duel Calculator, a handy tool to have by your side to track Life Points and make coin tosses and dice rolls while playing the normal, physical version of the game. You can jump online through Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection to download new puzzles, cards and duelists to compete against. There are even pre-constructed decks introduced through the story mode, helping players who might have limited skill at putting together winning stacks from scratch. All of those elements are wonderful.
But, underneath it all, the DS may just be being pushed a bit too far.
Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's World Championship 2011: Over the Nexus will serve its intended purpose well, offering an interface through which dedicated, longtime fans of the franchise can get their dueling fix for one more year. After eight installments on Nintendo's DS, though, signs of wear and an overstayed welcome have begun to appear – a slow, tedious A.I. and even rare rules errors show that this game's complexity is now bordering on unsustainable. As Konami moves into the future and likely migrates this series to the new 3DS, the developers would do well to find a way to simplify and streamline all of this convolution. Otherwise, almost literally, it'll come crashing down like a house of cards.