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Super Dragon Ball Z

(Atari; US: Jul 2006)

I like when developers mess with my games a little, and you probably do, too.  After all, what’s more annoying than picking up a long-awaited sequel, playing it for a while, and realizing it’s the exact same thing you’ve been playing for the last few years, except now there’s just a new character or three and maybe a few new special (read: useless) features to go around?  Very little, that’s what.  That’s why when it was announced that the latest in the long-running series of Dragon Ball Z fighting games would be helmed by Noritaka Funamizu, who was responsible for plenty of games in the latter stages of the classic Street Fighter series, the buzz was palpable.  This was the sort of excitement, particularly among those who already appreciated the Dragon Ball Z series of fighters, which could have led to a blockbuster.


And instead… this.


Were the developers on a tight schedule?  Was there simply not enough room on a DVD for more?


As an arcade game, I’m sure that Super Dragon Ball Z (actually known as Chou DBZ in its Japan-exclusive arcade incarnation) is fine.  It eats coins.  It gives the (rare) single player a decent challenge.  It’s fast paced and features plenty of decent combos for the advanced players to use while they’re overwhelming the newbies.  And it’s colorful!  Oh yes, the colors are fantastic, making for perhaps the most vibrant Dragon Ball Z game ever committed to ones and zeros.  All of this is translated near-perfectly to the PlayStation 2, allowing for an experience remarkably similar to the arcade.


The problem, then, is that a PS2 is not a coin-operated machine.  It is a home console, which means that the people who scrounge up their $40 to buy this game are expecting it to have console-type features.  You know, there should be things like a myriad of unlockable secret characters, lots of play modes, stat-keeping, multiple endings, and bonus features out the wazoo.  Or at least some permutation of such.  There’s just so much more potential to be had in a console experience than an arcade one, simply because of those little memory cards and the ability to play as much as one wants without the stigma of having to put more quarters in the machine.


Sure, there are some new features.  There’s a Z Survivor mode that makes you play one-round battles over and over again without being able to regain your hit points (barring a lucky turn on the mini-lottery after each battle), which starts out fairly easily but ramps up the difficulty rather quickly.  Aside from that, however, it’s just the original mode (beat seven guys and win, which will take you about 20 minutes after you rip the cellophane off of the case), Versus mode, and Training mode.  That’s it.


The supposed variety, then, comes in the form of player cards, in which a gamer can take on the role of one of the fighters and, via a not-all-that-complicated combination of gaining experience, wishes from the dragon Shenron, and “training”, customize that fighter by adding moves, changing outfit colors, and granting powers. 


And that’s it.


All right, so there are a few characters you can unlock (though the frustration continues when, having already mastered Piccolo, one realizes that King Piccolo is one of the unlockable “new” characters), and you can even customize your gaming experience by having one of your favorite characters narrate the entirety of the game (go ahead, imagine listening to Majin Buu for hours on end), but the most egregious problem in the game is how you unlock these things: obtain seven Dragon Balls, go to Shenron, and wish.  Whether it’s via the original mode or the Z Survivor mode, you have to play and win enough matches to get seven Dragon Balls, and then you can go to Shenron and wish for, say, a new color.  Then, go back and get seven more Dragon Balls.  Wish for a new move.  Go back and get seven more.  Wish for a new character.  Seven more.  Extra strength.  And so on, ad nauseam.  It would literally take over a hundred of these wishes simply to enable all of the different colors and outfits for the playable characters, not to mention how many more it would take to actually do things that will affect gameplay at all.


Take into account that original mode has an incredibly unsatisfying ending that doesn’t change from character to character, Z Survivor’s arena and music never changes, and that so many characters have moves that are incredibly similar to each other, well, it all adds up to a seriously tedious gaming experience.


I don’t even want to get into the squirmy feeling I get when I’m using Goku, I happen to be fighting Chi Chi, and her pre-battle “taunt” is “Please, Goku, no more fighting for our son!”  As a married father myself (admittedly a minority in the demographic for this game), it suddenly gets awfully tough to find any satisfaction in then willing Goku, via my fingers, to try and beat the hell out of her.  A fighting game with undertones of domestic violence?  Not good times.


The more you play, the more things start to bother you.  Glitches appear (falling through the floor on multi-tiered levels), the music is utterly inconsequential at best, and the characters you unlock never get used by the computer in the otherwise-randomly generated single-player battles.  Sure, experienced players will find nuances and tricks in this game, mastering it like any other game, and Versus mode is obviously fun if you’ve got a buddy around to beat up on, but where’s the motivation?  Maybe that’s the biggest difference between a coin-op and a console: motivation.  The motivation for a coin-op is a short-term thrill, something that’ll allow a kid with a pile of quarters to get his jollies beating up on something.  The motivation for a console is a long-term gaming experience, something that you can keep coming back to and finding new ways to enjoy along with new things to do.


In the end, that’s the game’s fatal flaw: Super Dragon Ball Z is a PlayStation 2 game with coin-op motivation.

Rating:

Mike Schiller is a software engineer in Buffalo, NY who enjoys filling the free time he finds with media of any sort -- music, movies, and lately, video games. Stepping into the role of PopMatters Multimedia editor in 2006 after having written music and game reviews for two years previous, he has renewed his passion for gaming to levels not seen since his fondly-remembered college days of ethernet-enabled dorm rooms and all-night Goldeneye marathons. His three children unconditionally approve of their father's most recent set of obsessions.


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