It’s safe to say that Dragon Ball Z is one of the most iconic anime properties in history. It stands alongside Pokemon and Gundam as a rare breed of Japanese culture that’s instantly recognizable to anyone in the world. That level of influence is a no-brainer for video game adaptations and Dragon Ball Z is no stranger to them. Years after the original anime ended broadcast here in North America, DBZ games are still being made. But even with such a long stint on the gaming circuit, Dragon Ball Z has yet to come into its own in that medium. Dragon Ball Z games are at a constant tug-of-war with themselves, divided between the bombastic edge of the anime and the sturdy, precise gameplay of fighting games. Because of that conflict, we may never see a truly cohesive Dragon Ball Z game.
Dragon Ball Z games got their first big exposure here in the West with Dragon Ball Z: Budokai on PS2 and Gamecube. A serviceable tie-in, Budokai’s flashy aesthetics and intense action hid simple fighting mechanics. Its sequel fared similarly, a steady-paced button masher with all of the crazy special attacks you’d expect from the anime. The series got its first critical hit with the next game in the Budokai series, DBZ: Budokai 3. Budokai 3 is widely regarded as the best game in the series, improving upon the action with more balanced techniques, energy clashes and strong focus on in-game transformations. The game was a smash hit to fans and reviewers alike, setting the bar high for future installments in the DBZ game library.
But despite this praise, Budokai 3 still had a crippling flaw: it didn’t feel like Dragon Ball Z. This is a problem that stemmed from the Budokai series in general, but it stands out most in Budokai 3 due to its high acclaim. Budokai 3’s improvements were a step in the right direction toward making a fighting game that translates the over-the-top intensity from the anime. The beam struggles, the transformations, and the teleportation countering system were all great additions to the game engine. However, Budokai 3 felt slow and deliverate. The movement on the ground was always sluggish outside of the counters and the scripted special attacks. When compared to a scene from the anime, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 feels like it’s masking its true power level to trick a scouter. Budokai 3 might have been an excellent fighting game, but because of its restrained mechanics and slower pace, it was not a true Dragon Ball Z game.
This conflict is exacerbated in the next major DBZ game, Tenkaichi Budokai. The Tenkaichi series was ambitious in that it aimed to emulate the fury that characterized the anime. It featured full 3D movement in much larger arenas, coupled with considerably faster movement. This allowed the player to experience fighting in the DBZ world instead of just watching from the sideline like a spectator. Special attacks rose in scope and even destructible environments came into play (which offered an interesting cat-and-mouse element when you were looking for a hidden opponent). Tenkaichi Budokai was the ambitious move to make Dragon Ball Z games more like their source material: fast, intense, and over-the-top.
But the Tenkaichi series did not function nearly as well as its predecessor. The games suffered from a persistent camera issue which made fighting into a nauseating affair, while super moves became extremely convoluted. Button combinations and timing your dodges were near impossible already, but completing these tasks when the camera doesn’t even show your opponent made things worse. The Tenkaichi series did tear down many of the walls set up during the Budokai era, providing a much more frantic combat system, but with this heightened intensity, control was lost. Even worse, Tenkaichi’s framework became a standard for later Dragon Ball Z games like Raging Blast and Battle of Z, both of which shared the camera and control issues that Tenkaichi Budokai established.
This is where the two series clashed kamehamehas. While Budokai limited the over-the-top action in favor of a tighter, more manageable game, Tenkaichi expanded its focus on action, but gave up on sensible controls altogether. Dragon Ball Z’s fast-paced action is always at odds with its demand for precision in these insane confrontations. The only moments in Budokai 3 that demonstrated DBZ levels of spectacle were the scripted action sequences where the player was given very limited input over the game itself (aka the “Sonic the Hedgehog” effect). Similarly, the only moments in Tenkaichi that demonstrated precise control were the slower and simpler skirmishes, where locating your opponent and executing combos wasn’t interrupted by camera and navigation issues. This leaves the franchise itself in a tough situation where a balance between spectacle and control has yet to be met. In order to feel exactly like Dragon Ball Z, there needs to be a level of over-the-top intensity. However, at the same time, that intensity can cause a number of gameplay problems, as seen with Tenkaichi.
Can that balance be met? Is there a way to strike a balance between flashy spectacle and honed precision? At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be. Budokai 3 was a great fighting game, but its representation of the source material is hamstrung by the dictates of the genre. In order to make Budokai 3 such the success it was, corners had to be cut and the pace had to be slowed . Fighting games have always been fast experiences, but Dragon Ball Z’s best battles dwarf them in speed and complexity. Projectile blasts, teleportation counters, flight, these all add more and more to the table. Including all of these combat maneuvers in a single fighting system is not easy and it’s why Tenkaichi was such a mess. There were so many eggs in the basket that using every single element over-encumbered the gameplay. In that regard, making a good Dragon Ball Z game (one that doesn’t just play well, but also represents the source material), is nearly impossible. It would demand using all of these combat elements in a balanced and controlled way, but still leaving ample room for flare and bombast.
This idea has yet to be realized. Even with next-gen hardware on their side, Dragon Ball Z games continue to suffer from the same problems that plagued Tenkaichi Budokai nearly ten years ago. The series’ game adaptations provide cinematic battles and pitch-perfect control, but never simultaneously. This all stems from the source material itself: a masterful martial arts anime that offered so many attacks, techniques and maneuvers that you never knew what would happen next. It’s almost too multifaceted for any single game to encompass.
Because of the persistent conflict between DBZ style and fighting game substance, we’ve yet to see a true DBZ game, and if recent entries are any indication, it might never happen.