Yu-Gi-Oh! Dungeon Dice Monsters, a Twenty Year Reunion
It’s time to talk about Konami’s biggest and most successful franchise of all time. No, it’s not Metal Gear, or Castlevania, or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Love it or hate it, Yu-Gi-Oh has been the company’s cash cow since the late 90s. If you were a kid back in 2003 to 2005-ish, you had the cards. You watched the anime religiously. Hell, you may have had at least two or three virtual recreations of the card game for your GBC or GBA. But we’re not talking about a card game today. Exactly twenty years ago, Western gamers were graced with that one time when Yu-Gi-Oh decided to go full Final Fantasy Tactics. It was Yu-Gi-Oh! Dungeon Dice Monsters. It was kinda janky. Some would say borderline broken. But screw it, it was still awesome.
Based on the eponymous tabletop game, which was also the main highlight of like half a dozen episodes of the anime, Yu-Gi-Oh! Dungeon Dice Monsters was a dice-based tactics RPG, where you would create a “deck” comprised of 15 dice, each one representing either a monster or an item. Each turn, you select three dice and cast them. If you can get two dice with the same face number up, you can summon a monster and create a small path surrounding it: this becomes part of the table’s movable arena, and as expected, you can only create new tiles adjacent to yours.
Dice have levels ranging from 1 to 4; the larger the number, the fewer summonable sides the die has. That doesn’t mean it’s a detriment, for you also need to throw dice in order to acquire icons for movement, attack, defense, magic and traps. The last two are pretty useless, as they are only used if one of your rarer monsters has a special ability, but the other three are crucial for your chances of victory. You need moving icons to move around the arena (you even need 2 icons per tile if you have a flying monster), and you can only attack and defend with enough respective icons in your pool. The objective is simple: get to the other end of the arena, reach the enemy’s “Dungeon Master” and attack it three times.
But wait, there’s more! Monsters have different “elements”, each with strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve played Pokémon, you basically know what to expect: green is better than blue, which is better than red, and so on. You can also strategize further by basically cornering your foe’s territory, if he/she focuses too much on the high-risk-high-reward strategy of summoning strong monsters from the getgo; you can basically reach the end of the enemy turf before the foe can even summon anyone, letting you win by default.
Upon replaying Dungeon Dice Monsters after all these years, I was shocked with how innovative it was for the time, and how well it managed to offer a ton of customization options and varied strategies, considering it was a Game Boy Advance game made on the cheap. You can clearly notice that on the simplistic overworld visuals (not the combat animations though, those are dope as hell) and the archaic, though shockingly catchy soundtrack (Konami soundtrack, what else would you expect?). But it has issues. Some of them were enough for me to understand why the general populace doesn’t hold Dungeon Dice Monsters as dearly as the main card games.
It all boils down to the game being based on dice, and, as a result, luck. You basically need to be in bed with RNGesus in order to have him roll your dice and get what you want from them. There were games in which nobody was being able to summon Level 1 beasts for at least a dozen rounds. And we were just there… racking up movement and attack icons for the zero monsters we’d have on the field. At times, Dungeon Dice Monsters can be a big fat slog. Its mechanics are heavily strategy-based, which would imply skill, but they are hampered by a freaking algorithm refusing to give you what you need.
The other main issue lies on improving your deck/pool. The game is very stingy with the amount of credits you get by beating a cup, and asks for a colossal ginormous crapton of credits for any moderately bearable monster in its shop. You do get a new monster by winning each match, but it always feels like you’re getting the single most useless thing in existence, and not a monster that can actually improve your current pool. You can sell them, granted, but you may get 5 to 10 credits for each one, if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, if you want a decent monster, it might cost you 10,000 credits. Dungeon Dice Monsters demands patience from players.
For what was essentially a quick cashgrab on both the Yu-Gi-Oh fad and the booming popularity of turn-based strategy games on the GBA, Dungeon Dice Monsters had no right being as fun as it was. Yes, it was janky as hell, and very unfair at times, but it oozed charm. It had great mechanics. I wouldn’t have minded a sequel on a beefier portable or console, but the Dungeon Dice Monsters fad never caught on like its card-based big brother did. Still, I do consider it one of the more underrated hidden gems available on the Game Boy Advance’s library to this very day.