Media Essays: Every Yu-Gi-Oh Original Series Arc Ranked



An image of Kazuki Takahashi, who this post is in memoriam to.

It is with deepest sorrows that I must unfortunately announce that we have lost one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Ladies and gentlemen, we must sadly bid farewell to the man who created Yu-Gi-Oh! himself, Kazuki Takahashi. A gaming enthusiast and comic fan (especially Hellboy comics), Kazuki would go on to create a manga that would become a global phenomenon. What started as a manga would become one of the world's most popular trading card games and anime shows of all time and his creation would inspire many a fan to become duellists themselves. Even to this day, many Yu-Gi-Oh fans play the card game and keep up with its ever evolving new play styles and strategies and the anime is considered by many such as myself to be a nostalgic classic. Kazuki made a million childhoods with his creation and we will forever be grateful to him for all the joy he's given us through the manga, the card game and especially the anime. His legacy will forever live on in the duellists that play the card game even to this day, be they casual or competitive players.


So to honour the passing of a man who has played a big part in not just my childhood but many others, I'm making this little essay in which I will be re-visiting the Yu-Gi-Oh anime again. The anime is memorable for many reasons, some of them great and some of them for early-instalment weirdness that leaves for some funny moments. I'm here to honour those moments by talking about all the arcs that we got in the original series from Duellist Kingdom all the way to Dawn of the Duel. This list is ranked from worst to best so we start with the arc I rank the lowest and work our way up to the arc I rank the highest. Let's go...


7: KC Grand Championship

I don't think I'm breaking any hearts by putting this arc at the bottom of the list. In fact, I think it's unanimously agreed to be the weakest of all the arcs in this series.


This arc follows on from Waking the Dragons by having our heroes unable to get back home after the wacky events that led to their current predicament and they're offered a ride home by Kaiba...on the grounds that they duel in his KaibaLand duelling tournament first. This arc is pure filler and can be outright skipped. NOTHING is accomplished here in terms of the main story and aside from some really awesome duels with Rebecca vs. Vivian, Kaiba vs. Siegfried and Yugi vs. Leon and also we get to see Yugi's grandfather duel at long last, there's nothing of great value here to enjoy. Joey is put at the ass of everyone's jokes and is made dumber than usual, Siegfried is a lame villain who feels like a massive step-down after Pegasus, Marik and Dartz before him and Rebecca once again isn't done the justice she deserves as she loses to Leon rather easily and once again is only given something to do in a mere filler arc. I also question why Duke is even here. Like...was it really that important to bring him in this arc when he does nothing at all? Weevil and Rex were equally as pointless, existing purely to show off how awesome Siegfried is (although their one-turn defeat was hilarious, don't get me wrong). And don't get me started on Vivian Wong either. She loses all relevance after Rebecca kicks her ass in the duel and yet the writers felt she still needed to stick around for a pointless subplot that went nowhere. You know an arc is pure filler when the filler itself generates even more filler.


As is, there's nothing offensively bad about this arc, some of the duels are fun to watch and after the darker tone of Waking the Dragons, it does feel like a nice little breather before we get back to the main plot in Dawn of the Duel. Also at only 14 episodes, it's mercifully short so we're not stuck with season long filler this time. It's just nothing more than an arc that feels like it's there to fill in empty space and do nothing else. KaibaLand needed a far grander tournament to open up to...


6: Waking the Dragons

Logo for Yu-Gi-Oh Waking the Dragons

Ah this arc...simultaneously a fascinating and frustrating experience all at once.


This arc came directly after the conclusion of Battle City and much like Grand Championship, it accomplishes nothing whatsoever in regards to the main plot regarding Atem's true identity. However, unlike Grand Championship where it adds nothing to the series at all, Waking the Dragons DOES have somethings going for it. We get some interesting new lore to explore here, Dartz and his organization come off as genuinely threatening villains that really up the scope of previous villains by being soul-stealers that are trying to wake up a powerful beast called the Great Leviathan and also running an organization so massive in scope that they even manage to buy out KaibaCorp. That should tell you they're NO jokes at all! The tone of this arc is also darker than what we expect from Yu-Gi-Oh. There's not that much humour compared to previous arcs and the stakes are considerably higher than before. I mean this IS the arc where Atem actually loses a duel for once, remember? What follows is this big redemption arc where Atem has to fix his mistakes to try and get Yugi back and prove himself that whatever some like Rafael may think of him, he's not evil at all and can stop the insidious power of the Seal of Orichalcos. Also we get some really awesome card concepts like the Legendary Dragons and the many ways they operate in the decks that they're placed in.


OK, this arc sounds pretty awesome right? So why is it the second lowest arc ranked on the list? A few reasons: first of all it's a filler arc so that already drags it down a bit and has some annoying clichés I don't like such as "The Chosen One". Did we really need that crap for Yugi, Kaiba and Joey? They don't need any "Chosen One" crap to be awesome. Second of all, the complete and utter character assassination of Mai Valentine. As you may remember from my 10 Characters That Deserve Better list, Mai really got dragged through the mud in this arc. She threw away all her character development from the last two arcs and her character basically amounted to "RARGH, I'm tired of being a weakling all the time! I want power and I want to kill Joey for holding me back!" This was an utterly disgraceful way to handle her and it flies in the face of what happened before. After what happened at the hands of Marik, Mai would NOT be in a situation where she could potentially be used or brainwashed again like she did here. It also feels like the reason she's so out-of-character is so Valon can be some kind of love rival to Joey, which really wasn't all that compelling to watch honestly. And then there's her non-existent redemption arc where she just randomly turns good again, vows to avenge Joey...and then gets defeated offscreen by Rafael. Mai may was well not have been in this arc at all with how badly she was handled here.


Rebecca also got done dirty as she only has one duel that exists purely to make Valon look awesome (and was also in a complete filler episode that accomplished nothing) and then she proceeds to never try and duel against any of Dartz's minions again despite trying to get Yugi back and spends the rest of the arc just being the computer geek that can help them out. Granted she's more useful here than in Grand Championship but still, it feels like she should've done way more here with how much this arc effects her personally is all I'm saying.


Also this arc introduces the concept that there's a world where Duel Monsters are real. OK, that's awesome! Too bad they do jack-all with the concept and it's just left very vague and underdeveloped in the end. This arc would've been way more interesting if it had been set in said world and Dartz's organization was running its operations there.


With underdeveloped concepts, badly handled characters and lacking any real impact on the main plot of the series, Waking the Dragons didn't so much as wake up the dragons as it did put them back to sleep again hoping they can get a better arc to participate in...


5: Capsule Monsters

OK, I'm technically cheating with this one as this was a mini-series commissioned by 4-Kids themselves and not really a part of the main anime, but I feel I should still include it regardless.


Capsule Monsters is yet another filler arc as it has nothing really to do with the main series whatsoever and is completely stand-alone to the point it feels more like a spin-off from the anime. Oh wait, it IS a spin-off from the anime! So why do I rank this one higher than the last two arcs? Very simple: the entire premise of Capsule Monsters gives us something more unique to watch so it's more interesting to see than Grand Championship and it lacks all the frustrating moments and character regression of Waking the Dragons, plus it actually makes better use of the "world of Duel Monsters" concept that it barely delivered on so it's a more pleasant viewing experience. The mini-series actually makes Capsule Monsters look interesting to play and it's cool to watch Yugi and all his friends get in on the action. Hell, even Tristan and Téa get to play a part in the game and aren't just cheering from the sidelines like they usually do! Sadly Téa still gets shafted a little as there's moments where she should be joining in and helping but doesn't but still, it's more than what she usually gets to do. Most fans even feel that this miniseries redeemed her from the main series and made her more useful.


I also give credit to 4Kids for handling this property pretty well considering they commissioned it themselves. While they do have some weird bits of characterization like Tristan's melon obsession, they do handle the characters well enough for the most part and give us some cool concepts like the whole Capsule Monsters world and the Duel Monster armour power-ups and cook up some imaginative scenarios for our heroes to be put into. They really play up the high-stakes adventure part of the story and keep us keen to see what will happen next, showing that 4Kids could do pretty well by themselves in making something like this. They knew how to give us an action-packed adventure series and they didn't hold back on making it so. Sadly, we do have some wasted potential here such as Joey being possessed by the Red-Eyes Black Dragon. That concept shouldn't have been for just a single episode, it should've lasted longer. Also the villain, Alexander the Great (yes really) is the blandest, most forgettable villain in the entire series. No joke, I had to remind myself on who the villain was in this arc upon writing this essay! You'd think having an actual historical figure as the villain would be awesome and memorable but no, he's just got nothing on the other villains of this series. Give Siegfried credit, as much as he sucked, at least I REMEMBER him!


As is, Capsule Monsters maybe easily disposable but I recommend watching it any way. You may be surprised at how fun it is. Load up your capsules and see what monsters you can take on this adventure with you...


4: Dawn of the Duel


Yami Bakura waited so long to have his time in the villainous spotlight and finally got it. Did it pay off?


This was the big finale that the series had been building up towards so you can imagine a lot of hype went into this one. We had the mystery behind the Pharaoh's past, his identity and Yami Bakura playing the long game and after two long seasons of filler that forced us to wait on getting the resolutions we were waiting for, it finally came in Dawn of the Duel. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand...it was OK.


I'm sure for many people, this arc was one of their favourites and they love it so but I personally found it more tedious to watch than enjoyable. How so? Because of Yami Bakura. Throughout the story, Yami Bakura is just constantly being this over-powered being that easily steam rolls through most threats he's up against with his all-powerful Diabound and we get numerous upon numerous action scenes where it's the same repetitive crap over-and-over-and-over again: Bakura comes in to wreak havoc, our heroes try to stop him, they throw a few attacks at Diabound and then stand there and let Diabound win in the end, rinse and repeat. The action just ends up getting VERY boring to watch after a while and it doesn't make Bakura look like this sinister, unstoppable villain, it makes the heroes look incompetent because they can't fight back properly! I remember just being more frustrated than engaged in the action because of how copy-paste it is. It doesn't get any better when Zorc Necrophades finally comes into the picture and he's equally as overpowered to ludicrous extremes. I mean come on, being more powerful than Exodia and all three Egyptian Gods? That's ridiculous. Oh and his character design is...well just look:

What idiot amongst the design team thought THIS was OK?! Naturally 4Kids tried to censor it...with laughable results so that didn't really help. XD


In spite of all that, the arc itself does have its merits. It is nice to finally see Bakura living up to what he's supposed to be after being side-lined by all the other villains in previous arcs, the world-building of Ancient Egypt is interesting as is learning the history of the Millennium Items and the Pharaoh himself and of course, the Ceremonial Duel that closes off the series ended up being the single best duel of the entire anime. I even put it as Number 1 on my Top 10 Best Duels list. This arc is one of those cases where it's worth putting up with the annoying stuff to get to the good stuff and the good stuff really makes it worthwhile.


Dawn of the Duel closed off the anime on a relatively high note. If the action wasn't so tediously repetitive then it could've been even better. As is, this arc was the dawn of a great closure to the anime and the dawn of what was to come afterwards with future Yu-Gi-Oh seasons...


3: Virtual World

The first filler arc the anime had, and arguably the only one that had any real relevance to the bigger world of Yu-Gi-Oh at large. I think it's unanimously agreed that this is the best of the filler arcs of all the original seasons.


Virtual World is pretty much a follow-up to the Virtual Nightmare arc from Season 1 in where we see that The Big Five, a bunch of businessmen that conspired with Pegasus to take over KaibaCorp, are trapped in the virtual world and need bodies in order to get back into the real world so they kidnap Yugi and the gang and imprison them in the virtual world. The duels here determine who gets to leave and who stays stuck in the Virtual World.


While this arc is a filler and the worst kind of filler as it interrupts Battle City (seriously, couldn't they have at least waited until Battle City was over before they gave us this arc), it's still an enjoyable one and it's a filler arc that at least has some kind of impact on the plot. It brings closure to Kaiba's story by having him defeat the man that raised him, Gozaburo Kaiba, and get a chance to finally leave his tormented past behind him while also ridding him of the Big Five that have been conspiring behind his back to seize KaibaCorp. They could've easily left that plot point unanswered but they didn't and I'm glad they went through the effort to close the book on those plot points. Also the fact we get a lot of new backstory revealed about the Kaiba brothers at least gives us some neat world-building that adds a little more to the world of Yu-Gi-Oh and also mostly explains why Kaiba is such a douchebag most of the time. He's still unquestionably an arsehole but given who raised him, it's easy to understand why he's an arsehole at least.


This arc also gave us some of the most memorable duels in the entire series and a lot of them were made more fun and cool by the concept that sadly wouldn't see any real use again after this arc, save for the Duellist of the Roses video game: Deck Masters. The very idea of having a specific Duel Monster by your side with an ability to help in your duels is awesome and I wish the real life card game would make Deck Masters a thing as that would be so cool. I also love it when the Big Five would literally BE their Deck Masters as it ends up giving this cool image of our heroes going up against literal Duel Monsters (and their Deck Masters have way more interesting designs than the Big Five themselves so that's a plus).


So why is this arc only Number 3 if it's pretty cool, filler not withstanding? A multitude of reasons: it's still a filler arc and the fact it happens in the middle of Battle City makes the placement of this an annoying one on a binge-watch as you're stuck treading through this arc in order to get the resolution to the current one. Also Noah, Gozaburo and the Big Five are all lame villains with Gozaburo and the Big Five just being typical evil businessmen who are just typically evil and greedy because in kid's cartoons, that's the only kind of businessmen that ever exist. Also the Big Five's motivations make no sense to me. They want to escape the Virtual World and describe it as a "prison" and "virtual nightmare", yet nothing in this world suggests it's all that hellish to live in and they have control over mostly everything in it so what's the deal? The world itself is already a hellhole so if I were them, I'd say "Screw the real world, I'm gonna stay here in this world where I can play god forever!" I mean for crying out loud, they can shapeshift into Duel Monsters! I'd happily stay in the virtual world to be able to do that at will! As for Noah, he had potential to be a sympathetic character but squandered it by being one of the biggest hypocrites known to mankind and his heel-turn is the prime definition of "forced". It LITERALLY feels like someone flipped a switch and he's suddenly not evil anymore and I'm NOT exaggerating. Also despite facing his past and being confronted on how coldly and ruthlessly he manipulated Mokuba, Seto Kaiba doesn't actually learn anything or come out of this arc with an epiphany of any kind. If this arc was to have ANY kind of impact at all then Kaiba should've at least changed his ways and became more nicer and would swear to make things up to Mokuba for how he treated him. As is, he's as stagnant as ever because this guy is incapable of ever changing for the better. He's stuck as a douchebag from now to eternity and that sucks.


All-in-all though, this arc is still unquestionably the best of the filler arcs and one of the anime's most memorable arcs with some awesome duels, a cool concept with Deck Masters and some resolution on the Kaiba plot. This is a Virtual World that's worth going to for all the good stuff it has on offer.


2: Duellist Kingdom

Yes, I know this series is iconic and the one that started it all, but I'm sorry guys, even the most die-hard of Yu-Gi-Oh fans have to agree that it doesn't belong at Number 1. Also, being the first doesn't mean it's the best either.


As is, Duellist Kingdom is still a classic for many reasons and deserves the Number 2 spot. While a lot of it hasn't aged well thanks to Early-Instalment Weirdness and the ever-evolving nature of the card game that makes some of the duels in this season feel laughable by today's standards (Attack the Moon and Fusing Spell Cards with Monster Cards much?), this arc still has its pluses that make it a fun, nostalgic watch years later. This is the arc that introduced us to Yu-Gi-Oh! as a whole and it did a great job on setting everything up for the show we were getting into. It introduced the world of Yu-Gi-Oh! to us all, it set up the characters whom we'd grow to love for years to come, it had a gripping story that kept us engaged from the very first episode right to the end and it had a really fun villain who could also be very menacing when he needed to be. Seriously, Pegasus to this day remains many a childhood villain for the fans and he still ranks among Yu-Gi-Oh's best antagonists thanks to his flamboyant personality, smooth voice at the hands of Darren Dunstan and just how intimidating he could be with his Millennium Eye and its insidious powers. He was no joke whenever he was onscreen and he made us want to see our heroes defeat him and save everyone he's imprisoned over the season.


Duellist Kingdom also has a lot of iconic duels that we still remember even to this day. Some are memorable for memetic reasons (again, Attack the Moon much?) and some are memorable for genuinely being gripping duels with high-stakes behind them or for having some cool quirks to make the duels more unique such as Para and Dox's labyrinth duel. I know for a fact that the moment we saw that faithful duel with Yugi and Kaiba was the moment where the viewers were hooked and would remain that way until the every end of the series. But it wasn't just the duels that made this arc so engaging. The stakes here are not only high, but highly personal too. Yugi wants to save his grandfather, Joey wants to win the money to save his sister's eyesight and Kaiba wants to save his brother and keep his company out of Pegasus's hands. I feel this arc did better than most others in having the stakes feel personal to the characters, all of which makes for a more engaging viewing experience as it's not just about stopping the villain in this arc.


As is, Duellist Kingdom is mired by the aforementioned problems I brought up and also another big issue: it kind of runs out of plot before the season is over and thus we get a few filler arcs that exist solely to fill up space like "The Wrath of Rebecca", Virtual Nightmare" and "Dungeon Dice Monsters". Those arcs aren't bad persay but as part of Duellist Kingdom, they have no reason to be here and again feels like they're there just to fill up space because the main plot's done with already.


Teething issues aside, Duellist Kingdom is a classic and is the very arc that made us all fans to begin with. Yugi didn't just win his grandfather's soul back when he won Pegasus's tournament, he won the hearts of many viewers and fans that have become Duellists themselves...


And the Top Spot goes to...Battle City

Yeah, sorry to be so predictable but come one, EVERYONE knows that Battle City is unquestionably Yu-Gi-Oh's best arc it had, or at least the original series had! Why wouldn't it be Number 1?


Battle City took all the good parts of Duellist Kingdom and made it even better. The stakes were much bigger than before, the villains upped the ante from last time with Marik Ishtar being a much larger threat than Pegasus ever was, the duels become more complex and featured more inventive strategies at play (along with less ridiculous pulls) and the scope seemed so much more epic in scale with the arc centring around a city-wide tournament with big prizes to grab, namely the famous Egyptian God Cards that would define this arc and remain some of Yu-Gi-Oh's signature monsters for years to come.


Battle City gave us some of the show's best duels ever and a lot of that is down to the fact they were moving closer to the rules of the card game that could define the game itself for future playthroughs to come. Thanks to the whole Tribute Summon gimmick and the more complex mechanics of the game being used here, the duels could be more than just "hit your opponent with powerful monsters" and as a result, gave us some really engaging battles that could really keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. It's also helped by the fact some of these duels are a literal case of life and death! The original series did have a few moments like this yes but Battle City ran even further with it with many of the duels we see with Marik and the Rare Hunters meaning death to the loser (or "getting sent to the Shadow Realm" as 4Kids would say), thus giving us a game where our heroes can't afford to lose. The Egyptian Gods also made this arc really intense to watch too as those monsters would often mean hell for our heroes and we just can't tear our eyes away whenever they get played.


This arc also set up the long term story that would define the rest of the anime, namely the Pharaoh's true identity and the secrets of the Millennium Items. The myth arc all started here and would get resolution in Dawn of the Duel as mentioned earlier. Needless to say, the anime certainly got more interesting with all this stuff introduced here and really made us want to learn more along the way. Marik also was the best villain in the entire anime, being a serious threat and an entertainingly over-the-top baddie that was just a hoot whenever he was onscreen, especially when his dark side came out. Unlike Noah, Marik actually IS a sympathetic character here with his torturous upbringing as a tomb keeper and how it gave birth to his dark side. His eventual redemption felt more earned and was really awesome to watch when he finally got rid of his dark side once and for all. I feel the villains peaked with Marik and he'll always be a high bar to reach no matter what.


Battle City does have its flaws of course, like all the arcs do. This arc was where Kaiba's annoyingly ignorant and stubborn refusal to believe in magic begins (and it's really annoying to watch), Mai is fridged at Marik's expense which all leads to her character regression in Waking the Dragons and the worst of all comes in the form of Kaiba and Joey's duel for the bronze trophy. I will NEVER understand how the writers came to the conclusion that Kaiba should win this duel because story-wise, it doesn't mean anything. Kaiba wins so he doesn't get to eat any humble pie and learn his lesson and Joey doesn't get the chance to finally prove himself. It's a filler duel that was a waste of everyone's time and is an excuse to let Kaiba continuously shirk character development like he always does. But those flaws don't ruin the experience for me and this arc remains a blast from beginning to end.


Battle City is the defining arc of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime and the absolute best of the original series. Iconic, powerful, huge in scope and engaging to watch, it's no wonder that this arc battled and won its way to the top spot....


And that's all I have for this essay. Did you enjoy it? Do you agree with my rankings or do you have your own idea on what should be ranked where? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Join me next week as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Secret of NIMH. But I won't be alone for this one as my good friend Thomas will be joining me for it. See you then media fans!

Dedicated to Kazuki Takahashi

October 4th 1961 to July 6th 2022

You taught us all to believe in the Heart of the Cards.

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