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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 26, 2002

Move over Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! cards are here

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

From left, Kyle Obana, 7, Cole Obana, 5, and Cody Cross, 8, play Yu-Gi-Oh! The game, which involves a boy who acquires mystical powers, attracts younger children, experts say, because of its simplicity. Local retailers say the cards sell well.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

When Ted Mays and his Gecko Books and Comics staff see a mother and her young child coming through the door, they have a pretty good idea what's on their shopping agenda.

"We just say, 'Yu-Gi-Oh!' and they smile," Mays said.

There have been plenty of such visitors to the Kaimuki store over the past year, a good indication that the latest Japanese import is doing a bang-up job supplanting the hugely profitable Pokemon line in the imaginations of kiddie consumers.

Created by Kazuki Takahashi, "Yu-Gi-Oh!" (roughly translated as "King of Games") started out as a manga (Japanese comic book) in 1996 and gained popularity as a television series four years later.

The storyline revolves around Yugi — a boy who acquires mystical powers when he solves an ancient Egyptian puzzle — and the monster-conjuring card game through which Yugi battles his evil enemies.

With a few tweaks along the way — sexier women and scarier monsters — Yu-Gi-Oh! quickly blossomed into a $2 billion juggernaut, largely on the sales strength of the Yu-Gi-Yo! card game and the collectible cards needed to play it.

"The core product is the cards," said Mays. "There have been other card fads — Pokemon is probably the best example. But with Pokemon, maybe one out of 100 kids would actually play the game. The others would just collect the cards. With Yu-Gi-Oh!, the game itself has a function and a direct relation to the show."

Yu-Gi-Oh! comics and other merchandise kept a low profile in the United States for three or four years. Then 4Kids debuted the Yu-Gi-Oh! cartoon on Kids' WB in September 2001 and, Mays said, everything exploded.

Within six months, Yu-Gi-Oh! was Nielson's top-rated children's network program for boys ages 9 to 14, 12 to 17, and 6 to 17 — the groups most interested in cards and video games, according to Web site www.licensingworld.com.

In March, the Upper Deck trading card company began selling starter sets that included a game map, rule book and 50 cards. The set retails for about $10; nine-card booster packs, the real money generator, are available starting at around $3 a pack.

Although Yu-Gi-Oh! hasn't yet demonstrated the broad crossover appeal that the cuter Pokemon did, its earning potential is formidable. The TV series has bumped up its schedule from one to six days a week; Upper Deck has reprinted the first series of cards an unprecedented three times.

"The sales are fantastic," Mays said. "We can't possibly keep up. The hottest series are instant sell-outs. The waiting list is so long that a lot of times the decks never even make it to the sales floor."

So far, Upper Deck has released three English-translated Yu-Gi-Oh! card series (there are nearly 20 series in Japan).

Each card has a different value and function, and players can construct their personal decks with the most favorable cards. The game, essentially an more involved, monster-laden version of "War," therefore favors players with the broadest reserves of "strong" cards.

"It's a dream product for retailers because there's really no limit to the amount of packs a player might be willing to buy to get the strongest cards," Mays said.

Some rare cards are referred to as "broken" because they are so powerful that they break the rules and end the game.

"These would sell individually for $40 or $50 if — if — someone were to sell them to us," Mays said. "But that doesn't happen."

Mays estimates a player could buy a dozen boxes (24 packs in a box) just to find one of these cards.

"With sports cards, the value of the individual card is highly affected by factors outside it's intrinsic value," Mays said. "With game cards like Yu-Gi-Oh!, the value is determined by rarity and by the function of the card in the game"

Although there is some strategy involved in the game, its overall simplicity and its "instant win" scenarios make it more popular with elementary-age kids than older ones, who might favor something along the lines of "Magic: The Gathering."

"The ones who are into Yu-Gi-Oh! tend to be really young," said Rick Kubach, a manager of Cheapo Music and Books. "The average age is probably about 6. They come with their parents."

Because of their age, Yu-Gi-Oh! players also tend to play with siblings at home or with friends at school, rather than in formal tournaments or hosted gatherings, Kubach said.

A booster pack of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards contains a random assortment of nine cards (eight common, one rare).
Not that there are a lot of opportunities for tournament play.

Upper Deck recently started limited tournament play at selected sites around the country, but Mays said there isn't the same sort of corporate investment in community gaming that there was with Pokemon.

"They're in full money-making mode," Mays said. "They're controlling how many cards they produce to keep the value high. If there's a perception of saturation, it's hurts the value. There are a lot of prospectors who count on the cards having a secondary market value."

The success of the card sales hasn't carried over to other Yu-Gi-Oh! merchandise, despite a very liberal licensing strategy.

"There's everything from action figures to lunch pails out there," Mays said. "I'm conservative about what I bring in. They sell adequately, but not nearly as well as the cards."

Kubach said the related merchandise has been a relative bust at Cheapo.

"The profit margin on the accessories isn't good enough for us to stock them," he said. "They're expensive and nobody buys them. The figurines go for $20 or $30, and they just collect dust on the shelf."

Yu-Gi-Oh! also exists as a video game for Game Boy and PlayStation, but reviews have been generally tepid given the games' limited visual potential and thin plot.

"The video games are pure gimmick," Mays said. "What fueled sales in Japan was putting exclusive game cards in with the game cartridge. The kids wanted the cards, not necessarily the video game."

Just as Pokemon sales have tapered over the past year, Mays said Yu-Gi-Oh! will also face a predictable point of waning interest.

"Both Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! were aimed at very young children and, like most fads, there's a time limit and an age limit," Mays said. "At some point, the original kids that played it will start identifying it as being childish, and they'll move on to the next thing."