The Yu-Gi-Oh! Franchise is well known for its wide array of colorful and interesting characters, some of the most interesting of which come from the first series of the franchise: Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters. As I child I used to watch this show consistently, and one character always stood out to me as being both incredibly relatable, as well as having the most interesting duels on the show. This character, a tough kid from Brooklyn with more street smarts than tact, is named Joey Wheeler, and he stole the show for me.
While the original show followed the journey of Yugi Moto, a young man who shares a body with a pharaoh spirit from ancient Egypt, and his attempt to save the world on various occasions. It is on these journeys, that we see the genesis of Joey Wheeler’s dueling career as he slowly learns the ins and outs of the Duel Monsters card game, eventually reaching a level where he sits among some of the best duelists in the world. It is this journey that really cements Joey, at least to me, as a sort of spiritual protagonist of the show.
Joey’s motivations throughout the Yu-Gi-Oh narrative are human, in the first arc of the show, Joey decides to get into dueling so that he can make enough money to pay for an eye operation for his sister. Contrast this to the primary first arc of Yugi Muto’s who joins the first tournament because his grandfather’s soul is stolen by the owner of the tournament, and Yugi wants to fight to get it back. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who have had their parent/guardian’s souls stolen by a maniacal card game developer who dabbles in dark magic.
It is this first arc of the show that really does an excellent job of laying the foundation for Joey Wheeler, and his journey to becoming a great duelist. Joey travels with Yugi to the Duelist Kingdom tournament, a Duel Monsters tournament that is advertised to be filled with all of the best duelists from all over the world, who are all competing for the opportunity to face Duel Monsters’ creator Maximillion Pegasus (the aforementioned evil sorceror/board game developer) for a cash prize and an opportunity to make a request to Pegasus, who will do his best to make this request come true.
Joey enters this tournament without permission, and over the course of the tournament, is forced to learn the ins and outs of dueling against some of the very best duelists in the world. At this point, Wheeler is a novice at best, having just learned the importance of utilizing a slight few of the various techniques and strategies involved in the game of duel monsters. But we experience Joey pick up win after win, each time learning different ways to utilize his cards to win a duel. Now, to be fair, Joey loses quite a bit too, but he learns from these losses, and thus further progresses in his knowledge.
It is this human aspect of Joey that makes him so relatable. His greatest enemy over the course of the series is his own limitations, and how he lets those limitations affect him. Watching him incrementally overcome those limitations and allow them to help him grow as a character really pushes him forward in my mind as both a great character, but one who I myself can identify with.
This narrative builds slowly, but by the end of the series, we see Joey on the top of the mountain, as he considered one of the best duelists in the world. And it is this long journey told over the course of 224 episodes and several movies that makes it all the more rewarding because we have seen Joey progress and advance every step of the way. We remember the early episodes where he may not even know some of the most basic of strategies or card abilities, to the end of the series, where Joey reigns as a well known name in the dueling world, and it is very narratively satisfying.
It is the very nature of the Joey Wheeler character, a young man who gets involved in a situation that he doesn’t necessarily understand in order to help the ones he loves, that is so compelling. And through tenacity and hard work, Joey forces himself into a world that he doesn’t understand, and eventually fights his way to prestige. Joey isn’t a mystical, pharaoh possessed, savior of this world; he is just a kid from the streets who wants to help out his sister and his friends.
While Yugi is the character that drives the narrative forward, Joey is our bridge to the vast and varied world of Yu-Gi-Oh! and it is through him that we are able to connect with and enjoy the narrative of Yu-Gi-Oh! to the fullest extent.
And that is why, in my opinion, Joey is the most relatable character on the show, as well as one of its most interesting.
What do you think? Do you have a favorite Joey Wheeler moment, or a favorite moment from the show as a whole? Let me know in the comments!