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I loved Dragon Ball Z. If there’s one show from my childhood that I somehow managed to retain the most information from, it’s probably DBZ. The show, which features hyperbolic fights that can span over several episodes, is perfect for getting the video game treatment. Japan saw a lot of those being released, and even the West got its fair share. The first adaptation that I got to play was Dragon Ball Z: Budokai for the PlayStation 2. Fourteen years since its release, it is time to take a look back and see whether I can look in fondness to the game or banish it from the recesses of my mind.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai accounts for three arcs from the show. The introduction of Saiyans (a powerful alien race), the journey to Namek to find the Dragon Balls (collecting all seven means you can make a wish), and the Cell games (a competition of the strongest against Cell, a powerful foe attempting to achieve his perfect form). Those familiar with the show will have no problem following along with the game’s story mode, which quickly goes through significant moments of these arcs.
However, if you have not been privy to the show prior to playing Budokai, you are in for a very confusing narrative. The thing about Dragon Ball Z is that its protagonist is technically switching between Goku and his son, Gohan, at an indeterminable pace. For Budokai, your first time through the story focuses on Goku’s perspective, with very few exceptions. The issue is that Goku is often sidelined for various reasons in the show, which means jumps in time have to happen if the game wants to spend its time exclusively on him. These jumps are jarring and often lead to utter confusion. Characters will appear and have no introduction at all, or even the most bare bones of explanations.
Meanwhile, the story is moving so fast that you can’t possibly keep up with the information it’s giving you. Fights occur to break up the cinematics whenever a fight is actually going to happen. However, as I mentioned, brawls can last several episodes in Dragon Ball Z and serves to make things more epic in scope. With Dragon Ball Z: Budokai, fights feel anticlimactic despite the very quick transitions from gameplay to cutscene. When summarizing 194 episodes of a show into a six hour game, it’s a daunting task. Budokai is secretly up to it, but on your first playthrough, you wouldn’t know that.
The baffling decisions are realized when you start the story a second time, in which you can select episodes to play through. There you will find large gaps in between story beats where players can take control of other characters like Piccolo, Frieza, or Vegeta. Hidden in this second wind of narrative beats are some of the most compelling moments from the show, conveyed effectively. I’m not sure why developers Dimps decided to break the game up this way, but it seems like a ridiculous idea.
What matters most is what Dimps does with the fighting though, as that really is the crux of what makes the anime fantastic. Fights feel large, especially in later chapters of the game. The ability to change into a more powerful state like Super Saiyan on the fly is both smart and helps feel like the scales are turning in your favor – or vice-versa. Plus, death moves such as the famous Spirit Bomb have a crazy amount of weight to them when pulled off. Every special ability requires a specific combo of button presses, not dissimilar from other Dimps fighting games. Stronger attacks require more precise combos, so you will have to practice if you want to pull off some of the stronger moves.
As for gameplay options, once you beat the story there are still other features to explore. The Duel mode is your basic versus, so you can square off against a computer-controlled opponent or go against a friend locally. The big mode is World Tournament, where players can see how good they are by taking on several rounds of AI-controlled fights. Divided into three difficulties (Novice, Adept and Advanced), winners will be rewarded with Zenie (the game’s currency) that they can use to purchase skills from the Skill Shop.
This is pretty much the only form of customization in Dragon Ball Z: Budokai, but adds some strategy to how a character is laid out. Throughout story mode and from the skill shop, players can attain skills that they can then attribute to characters. Customizing a character’s moveset makes for some variety in matches. You also have limits to how many skills you can have, which means a character like Goku might have to sacrifice becoming Super Saiyan if the player wants more attacks to use, rather than having to charge an ability.
World Tournament mode is a fun distraction, and I remember spending hours playing it to collect every skill available. It’s also the only mode that doesn’t require you to knock out your opponent. You can still do that, of course, but you also have to option to simply knock the opponent out of the ring instead. So there is an element of strategy as you try to keep yourself away from the edge of the ring. That’s easier said than done sometimes.
The Legend of Hercule is also a mode that is sort of like World Tournament, except there are no ring outs, and instead you are faced with multiple challenges. This could be having one health bar for two fights, or a shorter time limit, or even just having to fight several enemies in a row. It also forces you to play as Hercule, a character who isn’t weak, but definitely isn’t as fun to use.
Overall though, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai does offer an aesthetically and mechanically accurate representation of the show. However, it is marred by its absurd decision to jump over powerful moments the first time through and have players fill in the blanks later. While a fun game to play, it is also one where the encounters don’t tend to vary too much in how opponents fight. It’s safe in its mechanics, but does a good job keeping them engaging. Nailing a high-powered combo is just as satisfying to pull off as it is to see. Which is the best compliment you can give any Dragon Ball Z game.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai
- Captures the look and feel of the show
- Pulling off strong moves is very rewarding
- World Tournament mode is a neat idea
- The game does cover a large expanse of the show
- Not sure why the story is broken up and has large gaps of time missing in the first playthrough
- Fights are not very varied