Jamie Block: My TV nerd battle royale

BY JAMIE BLOCK
Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published December 10, 2009

The way I see it, there are four great TV shows that either spawned or were spawned by game franchises: “Beyblade,” “Yu-Gi-Oh!,” “Pokémon,” and “Digimon: Digital Monsters.” These terrific 'toons held my childhood self rapt on many a Saturday morning. And to this day, I find myself perusing YouTube listening to the old theme songs that captivated me, every so often watching a full episode.

But there is one mystery regarding these four shows that remains unsolved, even now: Which one is the best? They are all magnificent works of overdubbed art. But which one rises above the rest as champion of the children’s anime world? There’s only one way to solve this. As Yugi Moto so wisely yells, “It’s time to d-d-d-d-d-duel!”

The Underdog Bracket: “Beyblade” vs. “Digimon”

In the blue corner, we have “Beyblade,” an epic anime centered on battle tops — yes, battle tops. But these aren’t your grandma’s fighting dreidels. These twirling towers of weaponry are equipped with blades, spikes and, most importantly, the spirits of ancient mythical beasts.

In the red corner, we have “Digimon,” a world of computer-generated giants and the kids who must save it. With such convoluted, ripped-off terms like “digivolution,” “digivice” and, oh I dunno, “Digimon,” you know the show is full of tacky, overblown digi-goodness. And as the theme song proudly proclaims: “Digimon are the champions.” But are they really?

“Beyblade” launches into the arena, armed with a simple formula of showing off tournament competition in its fictional, top-centric world. But in stomps “Digimon” atop an angry Raidramon, highlighting the show’s subdued-yet-spiky anime style.

All of a sudden, a giant dragon emerges from “Beyblade” for some unexplained reason, but “Digimon” swiftly evades the monster and lunges in for a bite to the jugular (if tops have jugular veins). The dragon re-emerges, and “Digimon” once again evades. With such limited subject matter and repetitive plot form, “Beyblade” can’t win. The engaging plot advancement of “Digimon” is just too quick. “Digimon” wins the bout, and the dreidel comes up nun.

The Popular Bracket: “Yu-Gi-Oh!” vs. “Pokémon”

In the mauve corner, we have “Yu-Gi-Oh!,” the ultimate in spiky-haired, card-dueling tomfoolery. With a strong set of developed characters, small-business struggles, corrupt CEOs and a more-than-healthy dose of Egyptian mythology, there was no theme “Yu-Gi-Oh!” couldn’t touch. Combine all that with elves, dragons, traps, magic and giant holograms and you’ve got a nerd’s wet dream.

In the chartreuse corner sits “Pokémon,” which requires no introduction. Accompanying one of the best game franchises of all time, the show made everyone’s favorite cute and cuddly companions even cuter and cuddlier. Add to this an unfailing sense of humor, great music and moral messages and you’ve got one hell of a series.

“Pokémon” chooses you, Pikachu, with your adorable, children-friendly pugnacity. Meanwhile, Yugi Moto summons his favorite monster, Dark Magician, revealing the darker fantasy vibe of “Yu-Gi-Oh!” Pikachu tries to use tackle, but misses when he does a pratfall for attempted comedic affect. It’s not very effective. But Pikachu recovers and uses Thundershock, illuminating the visual spectacles of the “Pokémon” series. But then Yugi yells “You’ve activated my trap card,” and you fuckin’ know all is lost for the little electric mouse. With unpredictability inherent to the card game it features, “Yu-Gi-Oh!” defeats the overly immature and formulaic “Pokémon” series. “Meowth, that’s right,” everyone. “Pokémon” fainted.

The Championship Round: “Digimon” vs. “Yu-Gi-Oh!”

All right, readers, this shit just got real. Let’s slow things down and have a real, detailed fight here. Nothing dirty. Nothing below the belt (not that the target audiences for these shows even know what that means). And no more oddly scripted pseudo-battles. This is important stuff we’re doing.

It’s no coincidence that the two darker shows made it to the finals. It’s an indescribably impressive feat to create a show that keeps children engaged (by something other than paralyzing fear) while still maintaining a sense of foggy, sinister intrigue for older audiences. Yugi’s grandfather was kidnapped by a corporate monster, and there’s an entire alternate reality in “Yu-Gi-Oh!” appropriately titled “The Shadow Realm.”

The Dark Emperor of “Digimon,” on the other hand, was none other than the depressed, overachieving pariah from school with a vendetta against the world. Both shows pull off the drama to a point, but “Digimon” undeniably goes deeper into the perils of human and digimon psyches. “Yu-Gi-Oh!” presents trauma in the form of an epic mission designed to inspire impressionable kids while “Digimon” shows life’s hardships as they really are, except the show’s brooding anti-hero gets a virtual world in which to vent.

But for any fantastical show, the fiction realm where it unfolds must be perfected and captivating. “Digimon” presents a stereotypical middle school experience, paired with a visually stunning digital world. But, at least in the first season, much of “Yu-Gi-Oh!” takes place purely in reality, with fantasy elements appearing only in the form of the namesake card game. And even when the show takes a trip to ancient Egypt, there is a stronger sense of reality. Because “Digimon” doesn’t make its real-world setting sufficiently exciting, “Yu-Gi-Oh!” wins the setting scuffle with its corrupt corporate metropolises.

Visually, both shows are equally matched, though they sport notably different aesthetics. In the end, the true decider must be addictiveness. Both shows are great diversions, but only one keeps you coming back week after week. Barring the last few episodes of each season, it’s safe to miss an episode of “Yu-Gi-Oh!” and just assume someone challenged one member of the main cast and lost. But with “Digimon,” every moment is vital. The world is under constant threat, the characters are constantly forming and shifting their relationships with their digimon and with one another. And new powers, forms and realms are always being discovered.

It was a long and noble effort by both competitors, but in the end there can only be one winner. And as the show itself so presciently postulated, “Digimon are the champions.”