Oh boy, here we go. After the less than stellar reception of the second/final season of Yugioh 5D’s, Studio Gallop seemingly decided that for 2011, their new series would be a bit of a change of pace. Yugioh Zexal would harken back to the GX season 1 days where it starts off being about more lighthearted, episodic (or in this case, bi-episodic) schooling and dueling shenanigans with a more nebulous overarching plot hanging in the background. More importantly, it would feature a more loudmouthed and less competent main character than the previous entries. Said MC, Yuma Tsukumo, that was more likely to lose at first or at least mess up and have to claw his way to victory instead of always partaking in duels where everyone makes the perfect play before the winner (usually the protagonist) comes down to who outplayed the other the most and had the greater resolve. The reception was unfortunately, even worse.
To this day, Yugioh Zexal’s first season is the lowest rated mainline anime in the franchise, even with how catastrophic the reception for the latter halves of 5D’s and Arc-V were, as well as how negatively received VRAINS was after the first season. As such, despite the mixed to positive reception of Zexal II, I was rather petrified of starting this one even compared to entries “soon” to follow. Perhaps that’s why I took a good 3 months before starting this entry. I genuinely didn’t know if I would make it to the second season or finish it. What complicated things for me even further was how I foolishly listed the show as “completed” several years ago on multiple sites, making it so I would at least have to attempt to sit through these first 73 episodes. Here’s hoping that I find the overwhelming vitriol towards the majority of season 1 to be overblown rather than perfectly justified.
Pre-World Duel Carnival
Yeah, no, it’s shit. I’m dropping this.
Very sorry for the anticlimactic result this time. By the time September rolled around, it had been like 3 weeks since I started watching, and I realized I could not be assed anymore. 20 episodes in and this was perhaps the most insufferable experience I’ve had with this franchise. It’s taken forever to muster up the willpower to even write about why Zexal is so bad, but here we go.
Perhaps the main problem with Zexal’s early portion is its cast of characters. They are all dull at best and insufferable at worst. This is easily the worst cast of any YGO show up to this point. The main protagonist, Yuma, is practically devoid of redeeming qualities. It’s neat that they tried to go for something different, with him being a younger, less experienced duelist who has to learn to get good in order to truly combat the looming and episodic threats he starts to face. However, the dude is a cavalcade of negative traits. He’s obnoxious, selfish, douchey, whiny, stupid, egotistical, and somehow still an infinitely duller version of Judai at the best of times. His dynamic with deuteragonist, Astral, is grating, as it’s constantly just Yuma bickering with Astral’s almost exclusively better decision making. They try to sort of play up the idea that he can still be a nice guy, and the show does start exploring his past a little more in the 19th episode, but it’s too little too late. He’s too insufferable to salvage, especially since every time the show seems like it’s about to develop Yuma in the 2nd cour, he just regresses completely. Sure, it’s natural that a person’s development isn’t exactly linear and may take some time and repeated introspection to truly overcome certain flaws, but it’s obnoxious when Yuma is almost entirely unlikable to begin with. He may be just a kid, and a kid would prolly have a ton of character flaws, but there’s almost nothing likable about this punk.
The rest of the characters are either “there” or are insufferable catch phrases and gimmicks. Even the rivals like Ryo and Kaito are basically just a bully edgelord and a brooding wannabe edgelord, respectively. Admittedly, they are the best characters in the show, as they have slightly interesting pasts and motivations that define their more palatable personalities. It just goes to show how low the bar is when they’re the best by default. Kotori is…a female character…that exists…and cheers Yuma on…because people really liked Anzu from Duel Monsters, right? Seriously, she’s a void, a total waste of space, even more so than Yuma’s other lame ass friends. Yuma himself is a “Kattobungu” machine and when you couple that with his voice, it somehow becomes even worse than the infamous Zexal dub’s “high five the sky” and “get set to get decked” that the already bad dub voice spits out. Takashi (the class rep and Tokunosuke (the resident Weevil/Haga wannabe) are even worse, and they take up a surprising amount of screen time, to boot. It all just makes the experience so consistently irritating that it was bound to break my spirit, eventually.
The episodic/bi-episodic numbers plot was also really unengaging. The idea is that Yuma’s alien partner, Astral, crashes into Yuma and loses all his pieces in 100 chunks that become number cards. Yuma owns one and every time they defeat a duelist with a Number(s) card, he gains a new piece of his memories. Scratch that, it only happens some of the time, since there are times where Astral either doesn’t get a new memory for defeating a new number monster, or doesn’t take all of a person’s number monsters cuz only one was used in a duel where said character lost. The prime example of this is episode 17. The number cards are also meant to amplify a person’s darker personality traits and desires. However, not only does that tend to lead to incredibly bland and unmemorable characters to get run over by Yuma most of the time, sometimes they barely have any influence at all. In episodes 3 and 4, it pretty much made an otherwise incredibly harmless, albeit frivolous plan, seem more sinister for the sake of fake tension and a gag at the end while the antagonist of the episodes became slightly more of an asshole. It had no real bearing on his actions, motivation, or character beyond that. The overarching plot just feels so paper thin for the first cour, and just becomes a somewhat inconsistent backdrop. The 2nd cour does start to usher in Kaito’s motivation to help his brother, and effectively plants seeds of a slightly more interesting plot. However, when the main characters outside of the rivals are this unlikable, there’s no real incentive to continue or get invested. The duels are also annoying outside of Yuma vs Kaito thanks to Yuma’s consistent stupidity, the obnoxious or bland antagonists, the awful banter between Yuma and Astral that takes up much of these duels, and the asspulls in stuff like Yuma vs Jin in episodes 17 and 18 with Utopia and Chaos Utopia.
There are good episodes, moments, and ideas here. Yuma sometimes struggling and even losing faster than any YGO protagonist beforehand was cool. I assume they’re planning on making his growth as a duelist the most substantial of any Yugioh protagonist thus far while tying that somewhat to more personal improvements. I liked his duel with Kaito where everything caught up to him, and the episode revealing his backstory and missing parents was also nice. However, its counterbalanced by dumb friendship speeches allowing Astral (who could only be seen by Yuma) to somehow project himself to Yuma’s friends, cards shining themselves into existence to give Yuma a free win and new ace monster upgrade far sooner than anyone else in the series, and everything I’ve mentioned up to this point. Entire episodic/bi-episodic plots are either started or ended out of contrivance like the stupid melodrama between Yuma and Tetsuo releasing Dark Astral aka No.96 in episode 20. Other times, the ideas are still very paper thin, or any potential for developing Yuma’s character gets immediately regressed.
That just leaves us with the audiovisuals, and they’re honestly weaker than they’ve ever been. Yugioh has never been a pillar of animation or anything, but Zexal might have worse production values than GX or 5D’s. On the plus side, the early episodes focused more on interesting AR vision scan lines the duelists are surrounded by whenever their weird scouter devices input duels. It allows for the monsters to interact with (i.e damage) the virtual environments. Sure, that largely goes away after a few episodes, and the AR vision is its own poorly-defined plot-hole magnet, but combine this with the most consistent usage of shading, Zexal does take some steps forward in terms of action animation and overall presentation. Unfortunately, it takes several steps back in the process. The generally mediocre to ugly CGI models are more prevalent for monsters than ever, and the animation for these can be quite terrible at times. Yuma’s ace monster, No. 39 Utopia continually makes swings at nothing before explosive “animation” BTFOs a monster or it makes an extra slash if it’s the Chaos variant that actually lands. It makes no sense, and neither does the whole “characters get sent flying” holdover from other shows. It rarely made sense in those outside of shadow duels or whenever the holograms just made a decent breeze for characters, but at least those had explosions. Here, most of the time, monsters just disappear when hit and then characters still get sent hurdling towards the pavement when often times, there’s nothing even seemingly causing that kind of gust or knockback. On top of being nonsensical, that means there’s generally less oomph to monsters getting destroyed, and that’s before taking some of the genuinely terrible attack animations into account. Characters can feel quite off model at times, even this early into the series. I really don’t like the art style of Zexal or how now everyone gets to look like a multi-colored hair freak show as opposed to just the protagonist. My distaste for the art style and designs just makes the production problems even more annoying than some perhaps even worse problems in the previous entries.
The OST was composed by Yutaka Minobe for the 3rd time in a row, and while it’s generally fine, it doesn’t have the highlights that GX and 5D’s did, even if it’s almost on par with the material from early GX. The OST seems to be headed in a more electronic and orchestral direction than the combination of rock and electronical of GX, or even 5D’s which eventually incorporated more orchestral elements in to the OST for its latter season. “A New Duel Legend” is a genuinely triumphant piece, “Kattobingu Daze” is a fun, peppy theme, and there are some other good pieces here like the piano piece “Astral’s Theme”. However, “Yuma’s Theme” is my least favorite protagonist theme of the franchise thus far. The OST is overall pretty solid, albeit repetitive, but it doesn’t seem like it will topple 5D’s or anything. Then there are the OPs and EDs. “Masterpiece” by mihimaru GT is one of the worst OPs in the franchise, “Braving” by KANAN is a solid 2nd OP, and “Tamashii Drive” by Color Battle is a decent, energetic shounen OP to round off the season. I prefer the OPs for Zexal II, minus the last one which is awful, but even the best one, “Orenai Heart” by Hideaki Takatori, isn’t a match for the best of what DM and GX had to offer. As for the EDs, “Boku Quest” by Golden Bomber is a somewhat sinister and harsh metal tune until you see the lyrics, “Freesia” by DaizyStripper is a great emotional rock piece, and “Wild Child” by moumoon is bleh. Like with the OPs, I prefer Zexal II’s offerings, specifically “artist” by Vistlip and “Challenge the GAME” by REDMAN. The latter is one of my favorite EDs in the franchise.
So, that was Yugioh Zexal. If anyone as actually waiting for my thoughts on this series, I’m very sorry it took so long for me to say “I only made it 20 episodes in”. I tried to give it a fair shake since I heard that the show legitimately picks up somewhere around or past the halfway mark and that Zexal II is one of the better YGO stories. However, if not for me trying to persevere for the sake of the retrospective, I would have dropped it by episode 8. I still didn’t get to see or comment on fan favorites like III, IV, or the Barians from Zexal II. If you can tolerate the cast of characters for 30+ episodes and the constant irritation they and their duels bring, I’m sure you’ll find the rest of Zexal 1 and II to be rewarding and among the better YGO experiences. It’s just that those first 20 episodes, outside of a few bright spots, are just not worth it. Even at its best, early Zexal’s basically a worse version of the first season of GX. At least Duel Monsters and 5D’s took a good 3-5 cours before turning to shit, and even they had some stellar moments. It’s easier (if more disappointing) to finish a show that goes from fun to terrible after a while than it is to suffer through an abysmal first half to get to the parts that don’t suck. At least, you’re probably more likely to make it far that way, as evidenced by me giving Duel Monsters 143 episodes as opposed to only giving Zexal 20. As for whether it’s better or worse than the first volume of the manga…I’d say worse, if only because the voice acting makes things just that extra bit harder to stomach.
Oh God, I started and dropped this in late August/early September of 2020, now here we are in January of 2021.
Episodes lasted: 20/73 (or 20/146 when combining both seasons)