Dragonball was a manga written and drawn by renowned illustrator, Akira Toriyama. The sequel series, Dragonball Z was published shortly after to capitalize on the success of the original. However, most audiences in the west will probably best remember Dragonball Z as a goofy little cartoon from Japan that always played it safe, touted the virtues of friendship and vigilance, dedicated at least as much time to build up as it is to action and shamelessly held the rule of cool above anything else. Given the popularity of the cartoon and Toriyama’s impressive resume in video game character design, a game based off Dragonball Z was a no-brainer. And thus, in 2002 (or 2003, depending on your region), Dragonball Z: Budokai was born.
Dragonball Z was a show fortunate enough to capture a massive audience, still young enough to appreciate superhumans flying through the air and firing lasers from their palms but old enough to let their media shape their future cultural engagement. Budokai was a perfect marketing decision trying to squeeze disposable income out of young teens and, as it so happens, a pretty good fighter based on a cartoon that was influential for a lot of people. And so, in an effort to keep the series in the cultural mindset, Namco-Bandai has released the Dragonball Z: Budokai HD Collection, which includes the first and third games of the series.
The first game included on the HD remake, Dragonball Z: Budokai was originally released for the Playstation 2 and Gamecube. It’s a simple but tightly designed fighter clearly designed for consoles in a post-arcade world. There are 23 playable characters in all, but many are palatte swaps and a few (like Great Sayaman and Hercule) are joke characters designed to pad the roster. There are only two basic attacks and special moves are virtually identical for every character. It’s easy to pick up and master every character in just a few rounds, but button mashing doesn’t yield the glamorous results it does in more complicated fighters like Street Fighter. Still it is so easy to figure out that button mashing is never required. It’s shallow, but fun in short bursts. The plot only presents the first three-quarters of the total Dragonball Z story arc, but it covers it fairly closely with the same voice actors that lent their talent to the show.
Dragonball Z: Budokai 2 is conspicuously absent from the collection. 2 saw a number of changes, including a bigger and more diverse character roster. The combat also became deeper and the aesthetics began to resemble the show much more closely. The campaign was modeled after a board game that tediously drew out the story’s length (much like all those episodes of characters just charging up and threatening each other), but it also covered the whole arc of the Dragonball Z saga. While it was a fair deal more sophisticated than its predecessor, it was not so different that it was unrecognizable. One could play Budokai 2 after a brief run through of the first game and grasp the changes and adjust more smoothly. It’s worth mentioning because without the second installment in the HD collection the third feels like an awkward leap mechanically.
Dragonball Z: Budokai 3, while the most refined of the series, is a far cry from the original. Without the second to bridge the gap, it’s very hard to leap from the humble beginnings of the first game (which anybody could pick up and play) into the complex mechanics that the series ultimately developed into (which required quite a bit of learning to approach for the first time). The addition of the second would have made the transition from the first to third Budokai more fluid and logical. That said, Budokai 3 really is the pinnacle of the series, even if it does come with a steep learning curve. It’s the game that the developers seemed to be trying to make all along.
Budokai 3 is flashy, stylish, and far deeper a fighter than the first or second are but it comes at a cost. After so many additions, it’s hard to keep track of all the mechanics, especially for new players. There are many special attacks and quick-time events that are activated under different combat conditions. Sometimes an attack or a counter will require the player to rotate the left joystick, other times it’s the right, and sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes players have to pull off a button sequence, yet other times they have to time the push of the A button, and the defender will occasionally have to match the button pressed by their opponent. It’s overwhelming at first, and it’s frustrating to teach and to learn.
The campaign of the third Budokai is also a mixed bag. The first game follows the major events of the cartoon using animated cutscenes, dialogue, and voice actors from the series, so it feels very close to the show. The major battles are set up through abbreviated cutscenes, and the game lets you play them out as the hero of that episode. The third, however, allows the player to choose one character and navigate an overworld map as that character seeking out the events of the anime and fighting them out from the character’s perspective. The overworld map is detailed enough to bring the series to life, but it doesn’t serve much of a purpose. There’s a leveling up system that has almost no impact on the character’s fighting ability and the horrible, repetitive music makes exploring tedious and obnoxious before long.
There’s also the fact that Dragonball Z didn’t take place from the perspective of one character; it starred many different characters who all had their own impact on the escalating events. The main protagonist, Goku, spends much of the series dead or absent, even during some of the major plot points of the show. So playing through the campaign as Goku and seeing only his contributions tells only a small part of the story. Moreover, the story is told through single frame character drawings with occasional fighting noises barked out in the background. The game could have used clips from the actual show, but instead it just features the actors speaking a few lines in character while a static image reminds the audience who’s talking. It’s like somebody took cardboard puppets and flapped them about in front of the screen before each fight.
Finally, while the exclusion of Budokai 2 leaves a sizable gap in the experience, the exclusion of online multiplayer makes the whole re-release feel pointless. Not only is it hard to introduce friends to the game to play the third (and best) game locally, there is no opportunity to find competition online. In the end, all fighting games come down to how satisfying a close match is. Without an online mode, the possibility of finding a close match drops drastically.
Dragonball Z: Budokai HD Collection is a pair of good games. It’s faithful to a series that spoke to a lot of people as children. The first is a simple no-nonsense approach to fighting games and the third piles on layers of depth and nuance — even if it is piled on a little too high a little too quickly. They are flawed but good games, worth a look for fans of the manga or anime and a must-have for owners of the original releases regretting a trade-in from years past. The Budokai series deserves an HD remake, but the one that it got is an incomplete experience. The decision not to include some key components makes it feel like only a partial look at the series.