Release(s): November 2, 2002 (Europe), December 3, 2002 (North America), February 13, 2003 (Japan)
Platform(s): PlayStation 2, GameCube
Publisher(s): Bandai (Japan/Europe), Infograms(North America)
Back in 2002, Dragon Ball Z’s popularity in North America was at an all-time high. The series was everywhere whether it be record-breaking TV ratings, newspaper articles (Fun Fact: It was the first anime ever on the Wall Street Journal), multiple toylines and action figures, a trading card game series, accessories, clothes, etc.
Aside from Pokemon, no other anime ever came close to having that level of mainstream recognition and on top of that, DBZ was a perfect candidate for a video game license which is where Dragon Ball Z: Budokai comes in as the first ever Dragon Ball game for home console in five years.
A lot was riding on the game especially as virtually every DBZ game prior have been short of being shovelware, but what does Budokai do exactly to change it?
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai plays like your standard 3D fighting game. The camera mostly fixed to both players’ sides but you can circle around your opponent by moving off the side. However, there’s quite a few quirks that set it apart.
For starters, there is no jumping or crouching maneuvers so you don't have to worry about blocking high or low. Secondly, combat in this game revolves around memorizing punch-kick combinations. Each character has their own set of combo moves though the variety is limited. Even special moves require you to perform a pre-set combo chain in order to execute them which does help in reducing spamming but at the same time, it forces you to be at close-quarters at almost all times which isn’t very exciting and it makes signature attacks (which are called Death Moves in this game) like Kamehameha or Galick Gun kinda useless since decent players can do just as much damage with basic combos. Lastly, there is the Ki gauge system which allows you to perform special moves and other ki-based techniques (at a cost) such as transformations. Only certain characters have them but transformations increases your attack power and gives you access to certain moves but at the same time they drain your ki and you will lose the form if you are knocked down while below the required amount of ki gauges.
Oddities aside, the controls in Budokai are simple and feel pretty tight. The directional buttons and analog stick allow you to move the character while the face buttons allow you to punch (P button), kick (K button), guard (G button), and perform energy attacks (E button). You can combine two or more of these inputs to perform different techniques like a throw (P+G), charge attack (P+K), power kick (K+G), or taunt (P+K+G+E) to give the opponent something extra to think about.
When two attacks with nullifying attributes clash, both players will start trading blows at high speed like in the anime series and whoever can roll the analog sticks the fastest will come up on top. You can also send your opponents flying into stage boundaries, transitions, or rock formations to inflict extra damage.
But with all that said, Budokai is not a terribly deep fighter. In fact, if you’re not already a fan of the series, you probably won’t get much out of this game’s combat. It’s lacking in terms of advanced defensive manuevers and movement options. Sure, you can deflect ki blasts and escape grabs but that’s pretty much it as far as complexity goes. There is also flight mechanics where your technique changes slightly while when in the air but they’re unreliable as you can only fly if you knock the opponent into the air.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai has a healthy number of game modes to choose from. The primary single-player campaign is Story Mode where you follow the story of Dragon Ball Z from the Saiyan Saga to the end of the Cell Games. Story Mode is pretty straightforward as you simply go from one scenario to another and fight an opponent under the objective of defeating them (there are a few exceptions) with a set list of skills (more on that later) in order to progress. It also has arguably the best representation of the Z storyline in any DBZ game to date as it faithfully recreates many of the series’ most iconic moments along with recaps and next episode previews (all provided by the narrator from the anime) which really makes you feel like you’re thrown into an episode of DBZ.
Keep in mind, the story for this game heavily condensed for the fans so a lot of plot details and character development are left out, but for a fighting game, this abridged storyline is a real treat as it does away with all the fluff and gets straight to the action.
Anyways, you mostly play as Goku at first throughout Story Mode but after your initial playthrough, a number of additional scenarios are available including some what-if scenarios like what if Frieza achieved immortality or what if Cell absorbed Krillin instead of #18. Story Mode is also where you unlock most of the characters. Speaking of which, all the major characters who have thrown a punch in each saga are playable.
Aside from Story Mode, there is Duel which serves as this game’s traditional versus mode where you play against another human player or the computer.
World Tournament is where you compete against various fighters to claim the grand prize. There are three different classes (two of which you must unlock) each with more contestants and are more difficult than the last. The main objective is to of course defeat the opponent either through knock out or ring out (which is fairly easy to do) in order to process. World Tournament is also the only way of earning money which this game has in the form of Zeni (the official currency of Dragon World). Being a runner-up gets you half the prize money.
Practice is self-explanatory. In this mode, your opponent serves as a training dummy that can perform various actions like doing nothing (making them a perfect punching bag), guarding (constantly or passively), or fighting as if in a real match. You can also mess around with the display setting to check on stats and/or learn combo moves. Budokai’s practice mode is not as expansive as other fighting games’ practice modes such as Virtua Fighter, but it’s still a great way to learn the ropes.
Edit Skill focuses on another unique aspect of Budokai’s gameplay. In Edit Skill, you can customize each character to your likings using the E.S.S (Exciting Skill System) System…. redundant, isn’t it? The E.S.S is divided by three skill types which are represented through capsules. The red Special capsules are Death Moves, transformations, and Ultimate Attacks. The blue Physical capsules are combo moves that function like the Special capsules and can be either a grab, a follow-up pursuit, a high-speed beat down, and/or a shower of ki blasts. Physical capsules vary between characters but lack diversity. The green Support capsules can boost stats or enhance abilities in many ways like increase attack power, guard power, reduce ki consumption, auto-deflect ki blasts, etc. There are even Support capsules can adversely affect you along with the opponent like the Viral Heart Disease (which drains the health gauges of those without Vaccine till it’s red) and revive a character when they have all their health depleted like Frieza’s Spaceship.
All in all, it’s a neat core system but it’s ruined how the skill tray for each character is set up. There’s a total of seven slots which at first seems fair but it’s way of balancing things is fairly arbitrary. First, transformations have to slacked in order meaning you can’t add Goku’s Super Saiyan without adding his three different versions of King Kai Fist (Kaioken for any purists) first and Special/Physical capsules must be stacked twice to be made more effective. Secondly, some capsules may take up more than one slot each. With these limitations in mind, it’s hard to make the most out of this system.
Skill Shop is the fasting method of collecting capsules. You can buy one for each type, but the skill picked out for you is always random. The only certainty of getting the skill that you want is through the recommended section but even the way that works is random, so you’ll have to continuously go in and out of the shop till you get the capsule you want. Not to mention some skills are more expensive than others so you may want to go and grind for more Zeni by entering the World Tournament then repeat the cycle. This constantly going back-and-forth makes unlocking extras an incredibly tedious process.
Lastly, there is Legend of Hercule which is an additional game mode that is unlocked by purchasing it in the Skill Shop. It’s an alternate story of the Cell Games where you play as Hercule as he challenges all the contestants leading up the final battle with Cell. You will be scored by well you perform each match while under a time limit, but you don’t really earn anything in the end so it’s just something to pass the time.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai is not the best looking game since it came out fairly early in the PlayStation 2’s lifespan, but even for its time you can tell its visuals aren’t anything special. While it does a good job at resembling the anime, character models are lacking in detail to the point where they can be passed off as clay figurines. The stages don’t fare much better here as they are bland and lifeless. Granted, DBZ isn’t exactly known for its lush background detail but Dimps could’ve added a dinosaur or something to make them remotely interesting.
The GameCube port does improve the visuals by experimenting with the cel-shading technique which gves the characters more detail and the shadows are actual shadows instead of being circles.
On a positive note, Budokai does sport fairly high production values with the lighting, auras, particle effects, etc. all being well-done and it runs at a consistently smooth 60 fps. The animation is also quite fluid even though it’s clear much of the standard fighting animation is recycled between characters.
The voice work for the English and Japanese versions are both solid as the casts from the anime series have reprised their roles. The English version in particular stands out as this was when FUNimation was growing as a dubbing company and found their own identity instead of shamelessly mimicking the Ocean Dub, although the occasional hamminess still comes in fully glazed. The sound effects are also pretty good especially during gameplay. Budokai uses the sounds effects from the anime series along with its own.
In spite of the alleged plagiarism committed by the composer Kenji Yamamoto, music is the true selling point for the sound department. It isn’t anything too fancy but it sets the mood quite well and there are a lot of memorable tracks. The music in Budokai is mostly a mix of techno and heavy guitar riffs with a few orchestral pieces like The Man Called ‘C’.
This is where Dragon Ball Z: Budokai truly shines. Aside from recreating key moments within its Story Mode, the menus and selection screens are very reminiscent of the tankōbon manga covers only it’s animated. On that note, there are many bells n’ whistles that can be found throughout the game that call back to both the anime and manga. Budokai even recreates the opening sequence for the anime using the game's graphics (albeit it doesn't look as good).
The only downside is the loading times. It can last up to 20-30 seconds if you’re getting into a fight.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai is not the greatest fighting game out there far from it in fact but looking at it strictly as a Dragon Ball Z game, it’s quite spectacular for the time. The combat while basic is fast paced and fairly close to the action of the series, it’s easy to get into, and the atmosphere just screams Dragon Ball.
While many DBZ games have since came and surpassed it even within the same series, it’s still a game I would recommend any Dragon Ball fan to check out even if just for the nostalgia factor. Copies are easy to find and come at a cheap price so there’s not much to lose.