"It wasn't in the manga, therefore it isn't canon" is a common argument, that you might get with certain anime series, where fans try to defend their favourite series' by only attributing the original authors material to it, as opposed to the overly prolonged anime adaptations. I'm starting this review with this excursion, not to start arguing about what's canon and what isn't, but because Yu-Gi-Oh! is a series, where things get especially interesting in this regard.
Why so? Because I wouldn't be surprised, if most Yu-Gi-Oh! fans would consider the anime as the main canon, when asked, while being mostly unaware of how abrupt Takahashi's manga output actually is. As far as Takahashi's Yu-Gi-Oh! is concerned, it's only "Season 0", "Duelist Kingdom", "Battle City" and I guess the last movie (while I do admit, that I'm not too sure, how much involvement Takahashi had in other things connected to YGO). Simply put, the anime series along with the card game became way too profitable to be depending on the slow manga releases too much. The TCG and anime just kept running, while the manga department had to reconsider on how to function next to their now bigger brothers. The final idea was to put out new storylines using the same characters. The first attempt at this was Yu-Gi-Oh! R, which tried to pass itself of as a sequel to the Battle City arc. Following that they decided to make a GX-manga. Here, they chose to make no implications whatsoever, that the anime and manga could be happening in the same universe. With that said, I would also like to forwarn, that this review will be heavy on drawing parallels between the two versions. I am also a casual fan of the card game, so there might be some lines referring to the card game dropped as well, since this review might be of interest for the "TCG-informed"-crowd as well.
All in all the concept was interesting enough, but did it work out?
The premise is the same as for the anime version; There's a ridiculously popular card game and now there are schools for people to get good at said card game. The characters go about their campus everyday and play card games with eachother, but their happiness is shaken, when some evil from thousands of years passed comes to claim it's revenge. There's not much to say here; it's the standard YGO-formula. Plot progression is nothing impressive either; this happens and now people have to settle it by playing card games. There's no twist you won't see coming and if something out of the ordinary does happen, it's a predictable alternative twist on what you'd expect to happen anyway. The duels are (as is classical YGO-fashion), for lack of a better word, "rigged". Duelists, as the card game players are called, don't win because their strategy is better (or if we are fair, particularly good), but because the writers favor them in the chapter over their oponnent and make them draw the cards they need. It's predictable, but in all fairness also fun.
Ultimately I enjoyed the first half of the series quite a bit, unfortunately the second left me pretty disappointed. It all becomes rushed and they introduce characters from the second and third season of the anime, mostly (I guess) because they were in the anime, but establish and utilize them poorly.
Not to mention nearly every plot progression, that transpires is mostly, because some super talented duelist has returned to his academy after studying abroad, got followed by a bunch of american duelists and they have to do tournaments and exhibition matches, because of it.
I guess I'm merciful today for giving this a star and not a minus, but in all fairness I do like the twist the writer had for the main character. In the anime original, Jaden Yuki (I'll be using the english names, by the way) seems like a tabula rasa at first and we have to wait seasons for the writers to decide what to actually do with him other than him being a generally likeable nice guy, who's talented at card games. The manga Jaden is kind of similair, but he does have a backstory, that ties in well with what is actually happening with the plot. Additionally to this I do like the manga-"Elemental heroes" and "Masked Heroes" he uses.
Then there is Chazz Princeton. In the anime Chazz was an ultimately likable narcissistic duelist with a rich-family background, who thought the world of himself, fell, had to realize he sucks and has to get better, succeeding in the end. Initially as a kid I only liked him, because he happened to use an "Armed Dragon"-deck, which I used back then too, but looking back and considering his anime-character arc, he would have made it as my favourite character regardless. His manga counterpart is not that interesting. Basically they did a 180° spin with him; now he is a prodigy from the start, but people think he only came this far because of his family ties, so he has to prove himself now. This would have been fine, if they didn't establish, that he was a junior champion back in the day, which undermines the fact, that people would not believe into Chazz's abilities. The fact, that his deck is boring, doesn't help the case at all. For some reason the writer kept coming up with random dragons for his deck, that had no purpose other than being relatively strong and it took until the second half, that his ideas ran dry, so he could start repeating cards Chazz already used.
Besides Jaden and Chazz there's also other recurring characters, but I don't really have much to say about them. Bastion Misawa is the same card-game-"bookworm" as he was in the anime, but his infatuation in this series is not directed at a muscular amazon, but at Alexis Rhodes, who with no missing brother character arc, is reduced to being "the girl, whose good at card games". Syrus Truesdale is Jaden's best friend and self proclaimed "little brother", who just like in the anime has big brother issues, just that his relationship is not as distant and dysfunctional as in the early anime.
The villains are relatively stock. Though I must admit, I thought there would be more to David Rabb, the evil jerk character, who ultimately got brushed aside for more panel-time of his more interesting colleague Reggie MacKenzie. The main villain is boring, but I did like the decent build up to his reveal.
The art is decent. Naoyuki Kageyama is good at tracing the anime's style and only rarely has a panel stood out to me as particularly bad. Of course this also means the art is kind of lacking personality and an individual style, but that's to be expected for a manga like "Yu-Gi-Oh! GX"
As seen above, I use a star system (symbols I have stolen from Yu-Gi-Oh!'s entries here on MAL) to rate the series/movie in terms of four categories, which can indicate its quality. Those ratings do affect the final score I give the series/movie, but I do not use a mathematical method to assign the score. Ultimately I weight the final ratings by considering the stars given. I do not consider the categories to be equivalent and value a good story and characters over good art or a cathcy soundtrack. As far as the stars given go, I use a four stage scale:
(-) - bad, a series/movie is terrible in this category
(☆) - okay, it's fine, tolerable, but likely nothing special
(☆☆) - good, it's good, but may have flaws or isn't quite among the best I've seen in the category
(☆☆☆) - great, the best rating I can give, when it's truely remarkable in the category
As a final verdict, I have to say that I enjoyed the overall experience of the GX-manga, even if my ratings don't reflect this too well. It's what it is, take it or leave it. It's not exactly good, but if you're a fan and want some fun card battles and see an alternative spin on the anime, this will likely satisfy you.
Final score: 4/10