Yu-Gi-Oh: Nightmare Troubadour marks one of the last of the remaining games that made their debut at the launch of the Nintendo DS at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2004. It's taken more than a year for Konami to put the finishing touches on the company's dual screen version of its immensely popular card game, and though the game isn't a hugely overwhelming presentation other than offering a tighter and easier-to-follow interface, it's a decent effort on the Nintendo handheld.
Anyone unfamiliar with the Yu-Gi-Oh series, here's the game in a nutshell: players put together a card deck of monsters, magic attacks, and traps, and go up against other players' decks in a one-on-one battle. Players take turns putting down a single monster in attack or defense position, as well as activating magic powers that could give the player or his monsters enhanced abilities, or take away something from the opposition. Flip-effect cards can change the course of a battle; putting them face down may force the opponent to attack the card, which will activate a special ability that could hurt the opponent, his monster, or help the owner of that card. The match is over when a players' 8000 hit points is whittled away to nothing.
Konami found a lucrative home for its Yu-Gi-Oh series on the Game Boy Advance, as the company used that platform to release at least eight games bearing the franchise's name. The best ones were the games that simply converted the card game experience to a portable form -- the company attempted a RPG design with a truncated card battle rule set that just didn't work nearly as well.
But even though the card battle productions on the GBA did a decent job showing how fun, deep, and intense Yu-Gi-Oh matches can get, the company insisted on keeping anything not related to the card battle as minimal as possible. That meant that any sort of presentation outside of battles were incredibly basic or non-existent -- games like Pokemon Trading Card Game on the Game Boy Color and SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash on the NeoGeo Pocket Color trounced anything that Konami put out when it came to a full-fledged card game adventure. The fact that no Game Boy Advance game offered any sort of training mode for the card battle design almost showed a side of arrogance on the part of Konami and its designers. Don't know how to play? Screw you, everyone knows how to play, and so should you!
Yu-Gi-Oh: Nightmare Troubadour could actually be the first videogame version of the card game that actually teaches newbies to the design how to play the card battle game, and that, in itself, is points to the DS version. It's not presented all that elaborately outside of a list of rules and elements that can be read at any time in the game's "store" so that players can find out why one card outplayed another, or why one card couldn't be pulled up at a specific time. But the DS edition of Yu-Gi-Oh has a "puzzle mode" that puts players into specific situations, and it's here that these newbies can figure out the effects of one card on another before they go into their card battling career. It's great that Konami has finally acknowledged that there's an audience out there that's never bought a pack of cards or knows the difference between a creature and a trap.
The Nintendo DS game isn't much more than the physical card game moved to the Nintendo DS, but it's done pretty well because the handheld's dual screen and touch screen mechanics actually work to the card game's benefit. With two screens, players always have a view of the cards on the field instead of dealing with a menu system covering up the layout as in previous versions of the game. The touch screen control makes it significant easier to maneuver through the decks and the cards, especially when building up a set of your own during the deck construction phases. The interface has also been cleaned up a bit, giving players better control over setting up the particular phase to speed up play, or to backtrack and see which card the opponent played that caused a particularly nasty occurrence during a specific turn. And, of course, the wireless function of the Nintendo DS works excellent when battling against other players since they don't have to be tethered so close together as in the GBA link cable.
That's not to say there isn't room for improvement. This is the first iteration of the series on the Nintendo DS, and it's pretty clear that Nightmare Troubadour is the foundation for sequels to come on the system. The single player "adventure" is actually incredibly lame and amazingly uncreative; to find battles, players simply move a cursor around a map and play "Hot or Cold" as they watch their on-screen cursor change color. When it turns red, they're close to a competitor and must move the cursor slowly in that area until one does. Almost no thought went into this exploration mode, but it at the very least keeps with the status quo when it comes to Yu-Gi-Oh game designs: no game in the series has had an equal balance in both card battle and adventure presentation. The focus has always been on one or the other.
The DS version does have an energetic presentation that doesn't go overboard, keeping the over-the-top animations of monster battles to a minimum instead of wasting the player's time with hugely elaborate animations that show the creatures attacking each other. The upper screen houses the 3D presentation, but all the card monsters are represented as prerendered models instead of realtime 3D characters. Every so often a creature will be summoned as a 3D polygonal character rising out of his card, but the game will jump back to the standard view and that character will be back to being a prerendered sprite. It's a strange transition that draws attention to itself when it happens, almost as if the art department didn't have time to finish all of the models in 3D, so it happens only on occasion rather than regularly.
And at the very least, the virtual card game on the DS can be a better experience than the physical one. In the physical card game, anyone with enough money can build a killer deck by either buying tons of booster packs or finding ultra rare cards at a trade shop. In the DS edition, decks are restricted to players who work their way through the "adventure" and earn points that can be converted into booster decks. So, obviously, those who have been playing longer can ultimately have the better decks. But since the game keeps track of what level a certain player has reached, players can see exactly what skill level their potential opponent's sitting at and choose not to compete wirelessly. Much less chance for a Yu-Gi-Oh hustler in the DS version, that's for sure.
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