Ukai Zero saves three troubled teens from a Suicide Website, and together chooses to work as 'Robin Hoods' of society. However, one of Zero's friends are caught by an organization he got in trouble with, and Zero is forced to enter a gambling competition hosted by a rich, rotten old man who is looking for talented gamblers to be his rep player. The reward money? ONE TRILLION YEN.
NOTE: This review only covers Part I of the Zero saga.
Tobaku Haouden Zero is Fukumoto's attempt at bringing a more shonenized, fast-paced gauntlet of deadly gambling games to life in his distinctive style, and it results in a quite enjoyable; though somewhat bumpy ride throughout.
In terms of characters, the poster-boy and titular protagonist Zero warrants a full paragraph written about him. While he is definitely not the most "memorable" of characters crafted by Fukumoto, he is still an interesting character to observe and root for. Zero is a genius, but he is not a cold, unfeeling machine like we are used to. Zero, fitting the
shonen demographic of this manga, is a far more moralistic character than Fukumoto readers may be used to. His altruistic nature often results in a handicap for him, with many other characters leeching off him or trying to take advantage of his smarts. We often get the sense that these games would be a breeze for him to handle if he let his morals slide, but this is an interesting addition to his character and works quite well. Due to his tendency to help out stragglers in need of saving, we occasionally get to see Zero having to flex his leadership muscles in times of danger, which is very fun to see. Whether or not they listen to him is something I will not divulge here. He is a character reminiscent of Robin Hood, and he shows enough emotion throughout the series to humanize him plenty. Despite the fact that Zero fits comfortably into many tired old shonen character tropes, it still interesting to see what Fukumoto does with this character and results in some quite unique drama throughout the series.
The set-up for the games is nothing special but provides enough context for the crazy games to begin. Without spoiling anything, it involves collecting stars, one trillion dollars, a ticking time-limit and a sadistic old geezer. Fukumoto has rehashed elements that he has used before, and none of it feels like an improvement on his previous manga. These elements are just "good enough" to give the games context, and it is really the games that are the selling point of this series. The games are short and have great variety, but unfortunately some of them do not feel like they had as much effort put into them as others.
The very best games of Tobaku Hauoden Zero are simple and incredibly devious (wait until the Quarter Jump, my favourite game). There is a LOT of cheating and underhanded methods used by the villains in this series, and while some of it may feel a little over the top, I think it is excusable because of the way that it pushes Zero to his limit and allows us to see him trying to think in a state of panic. Some of the games have multiple possible solutions, and it is especially interesting to see what they are.
Other games are quite different from what Fukumoto has delivered before and may not be to everyone's liking. Some games are based off simple high-school maths, but still deliver enough twists to be worthwhile. Other games are based off Japanese riddles, which may prove to be a slog for non-Japanese readers. Unfortunately, Fukumoto occasionally tries to ramp up the tension in some rather cliche ways. Whereas in his other manga body parts and lives are often at stake, these additional dangers usually feel appropriate to the situation or occasionally work to the benefit of the main character. In this manga, a lot of danger is simply peppered in for the sake of it, and it can often come across as goofy. We see some eye-roll inducing traps such as spiked walls closing in on the characters, or a character walking into a game partnered up with Zero only to become a hostage later on just to give Zero more of an incentive to complete the game on time. The "danger" presented in this series rarely feels natural, and as a result makes the games as a whole feel "dumbed down" in comparison to Fukumoto's other work.
Unfortunately, the later games in this series feel like a real buzzkill, taking a noticeable nosedive in quality and ingenuity. The last few games are overly simplistic in premise and could be cobbled together by anyone without much effort. One basically amounts to quiz show and the other is an extremely unfair scavenger hunt. These two are resolved in hasty and unbelievable ways where instead of solid logic, Zero employs bullshit levels of intuition to worm his way out of the situation. These two games left a bad taste in my mouth and affected my overall enjoyment of the series.
Overall, Tobaku Haouden Zero is a solid entry in Fukumoto's line of high-stakes gambling manga that explores new territory despite being comprised of familiar elements. The roster of games has its ups and downs, to the point where I could say that there is one mediocre game for every good one. It is no masterpiece but it whets the appetite and makes you eager to delve into future installments in this series.
Ive read Liar Game, bits of Kaiji/Akagi/Gamble Fish, and a few other psychological or game based things. Personally, Gambling Emperor Legend Zero is the best of them in my opinion. Ill go through each of story, art, character, and then tell my thoughts in the enjoyment and overall sections. There may be spoilers for some of the games.
A group of people are gathered to play games of intelligence, risking their lives to get three rings, which will advance them to the next stage. If they fully win, they will be able to earn a fortune, and numerous people aim for this. Zero joins as well,
but the games are not simple. A simple "medium" level game would require risking your fingers (and nearly getting them cut off), while other mediums or hards would require betting your life.
While I dont think the premise is the greatest, the setup works in my opinion for these games, and I really enjoy the various games and clever solutions. Many of them are unorthodox, but I find those even more enjoyable. The pacing is much better than manga like Kaiji too, as it moves along well and isnt purely psychological; it has a nice balance of Zero's internal struggles and the external issues at hand. The high risk compared to manga like Liar Game increases the tension for me, and I prefer this one as a result. The main character also still fails, despite his geniusness, which I quite enjoy.
Typical of the author. In my opinnion, the characters and design are very ugly. I dont particularly care though, since I like the trials of intelligence and wit so much more. The action and backgrounds are understandable, and I can tell whats what, so thats enough. I also do like how some people look, like Zero and Shirube at least.
Many have compared Zero to a Robin Hood of sorts, and I would agree he is to an extent. I enjoy watching him constantly save people and try to prevent any deaths. This is augmented by how the series started with a suicide pact, which Zero saved the people of. It was a nice loop, to the beginning.
Zero is very smart, but you can see his humanness, as he does make mistakes such as being overly trusting, and you can also see him sometimes lose out to others. Theres one side character in the mafia who is also very smart and almost beats Zero to the punch in one of the trials. Shirube in particular is a completely superior rival, as Zero never managaes to overcome him at all. I find Suezaki and most other characters pretty bland, but once again, I find the characters tolerable enough given the enjoyability of the gambles.
Okay, so based on what Ive said, I think you should have an idea of if this is gonna maybe be enjoyable for you. I really only recommend this for those who like gambles and games like I do. The high risk gambles are tense and exciting, and its the best and main reason to read this manga, even if you have to suspend your disbelief.
Overall, Id say this is highly worthwhile if you liked things like the mind games in Liar Game, but if youre looking for more characterization or real storylines, you may want to look elsewhere.
P.S. I do NOT recommend the sequel, as it is completely different and imo extremely bad. This first series is very enjoyable and ends on a weird, unresolved cliffhanger, but I personally was indeed satisfied with Zero's accomplishments.