When I was a poor kid growing up in rural Washington state, my sisters and I made a pledge to ourselves: when we grew up, we were going to own all our favorite animes on DVD. At the time, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z had only just become popular, thanks to Canadian TV and the Toonami block on Cartoon Network, and we were among the many signing online petitions demanding more episodes. Eventually we all branched out to other shows but the goal remained the same. We knew one day all the shows would come to DVD, transcending the sad little two-episode VHS tapes we rented at a miserable pace from the dingy video rental store and allowing us to enjoy them from start to finish in their full glory.
Fast forward years later, and I’ve kept my promise to my 11 year old self. I have all of Dragon Ball, both the original series, and Dragon Ball Z (but not GT, because fuck GT), as well as Dragon Ball Z Kai, and a Funimation subscription for Dragon Ball Super. I have dutifully watched everything I couldn’t when I was in middle and high school, zeroing in on the sagas I’d only read a synopsis of online. My daughter and niece, both still very young, don’t quite understand when my sister and I badger them with stories of how anime was once inaccessible, when fans like us had to pave the way.
These worlds collided when I first fired up my copy of Dragon Ball FighterZ this past weekend during my daughter’s birthday party. My family and I gathered around the TV and within seconds everyone had a unique emotional reaction to what was unfolding on screen. My husband, a huge Team Fourstar fan (who isn’t?) who watched the entire series a few years ago and insisted we buy Dragon Ball Z Kai, pulled up a chair. My niece screamed and clapped. My daughter got tears in her eyes, reminiscing on happy memories of watching the show with her uncle. And my sister and I gaped in awe at the opening sequence, marveling at how well it recreates the ‘90s edgelord glory of the originals. I realized, suddenly, that when it comes to Dragon Ball Z, I have nothing to be nostalgic about. Dragon Ball isn’t in my past, it’s my present, and, thanks to the kids and even my partner, it’s still a part of my entertainment life today.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is a typical fighting game in its structure and conventions, in that players assemble a team of three fighters to battle one-by-one against an opposing trio on a 2D stage, using basic and special combat moves to chip away at their health bar to ultimately defeat them. In Dragon Ball FighterZ, these attacks are specifically tailored to a character’s abilities as first established by the TV show (for example, Piccolo can over-extend his arm towards an enemy, mirroring the limb growth and manipulation he exhibited during Dragon Ball Z). Team members can be swapped out at opportune times to assist with attacks or take over the battle, adding opportunities for strategy in each match. A loot system, held together by the accumulation of Zeni points at the end of battles, awards avatars and outfits that can be used in the lobby, where players gather to form groups or find their preferred play mode. The Story Mode consists of three arcs, revisiting the Android Saga to deliver a whole new adventure to the Dragon Ball universe, while local multiplayer and world ranked matches are also available for traditional vs. play.
Having fully played through the Story Mode, I’m confident that this game is Dragon Ball at its best. All the pieces of the Dragon Ball puzzle are intact, from dramatic turns of events that force unlikely pairings and alliances, to cheesy guitar solos, mouthy posturing and long-winded battle boasting. I’m actually really impressed that the developers managed to combine the premise of a fighting game with that of Dragon Ball itself. Story Mode is a masterpiece. The Enemy Arc in particular does a solid job of marrying the absurd logistics of a fighting game roster with the conflicting goals and alignments of the many characters in the Dragon Ball series, and I’m enchanted with how the deep Dragon Ball history plays into the dialogue and banter between each of them in the cut scenes. Not a single corner of lore is overlooked; the relationships and backstory between every fighter is openly acknowledged in every key interaction. Their pre-fight taunts, a staple of fighting games, feel more dramatic and real because there’s so much potential for emotional investment.
I can’t speak to the technical merits of the game in context of the greater fighting game genre; while I’m a fan of Soul Calibur and Super Smash Bros., I lack the experience to comment on how Dragon Ball FighterZ holds up compared to its peers, or its predecessor, the celebrated Guilty Gear series. However, the game is smart in that the moves and animations are spectacularly over-the-top and easy to maneuver; the fluid, fast-paced dodging and constant explosions can make even a novice feel like a badass while playing. Some of the most pace-elevating visuals can be pulled off with a simple sequence of buttons. This game is very good at making you think you’re good at it, which I suspect will help with maintaining long term interest with beginners.
In terms of smaller details, I’m pleased with the production values, including the score and stages. The art for the backgrounds is light on details but pleasant, bright and interesting without being distracting or busy. The grand, sweeping soundtrack, meanwhile, beautifully adds appropriate tension to the dramatic blocking of each cut scene. I also appreciate the ability to blast through the dialogue at my own pace; while many games now allow the player to hit X to hurry a conversation, in the case of Dragon Ball, it’s one of the best things to happen to the series. A lot of the exchanges between the characters in the show amounted to filler, and not having to sit through that while waiting for a match to start is refreshing. I wish the cartoon had the option.
As far as technical things go, I found a few issues. Getting in and out of the game is much too tedious and difficult, due to excessive menu barriers. The lobby servers are often overburdened, which is to be expected and will likely even out over the next few months, but at the moment, it’s an obstacle. I also dislike the layout of the lobby, and its fixed view, which (in putting limitations on the field of view as the player navigates the foyer) bothers me more than I thought it would. The lobby itself is adorable, and I love the different areas and how they’re styled to look like iconic Dragon Ball locations (my favorite is Kame House). The chibi style lobby avatars are also to die for. But I’m annoyed by the lack of intuition in the user interface, and it shouldn’t take so long to leave a game.
As much as I enjoyed the soundtrack and stages, I encountered the occasional audio glitch. There should also be more stages to choose from, though I’m sure DLC will take care of that in the future.
The best thing about Dragon Ball FighterZ is its ability to capture the look and feel of Dragon Ball while fixing some of the mistakes of the episodic cartoon. Given the inconsistent quality of the TV show, Arc System Works were under no real obligation to make an effort when it came to writing the story, and yet, this is one of the best contributions to the series yet. Dragon Ball has always been about building on its own inanity, fielding an ever-escalating series of shark jumps until even the hairstyles look like they have abs. Like wrestling or soap operas, Dragon Ball relies on constant shakeups to the line-up of its rotating cast to court fan loyalty while maintaining their interest, prompting multiple conflicting plot devices that kill off, revive and reinvent the characters with absurd regularity—first with dragonball resurrections, then Super Saiyan transformations, then Majins, then fusions, and now clones and linking. While it seems absurd to debate Dragon Ball from a literary perspective, the quality is improving such that we may soon be able to actually engage with the material on a critical level. It’s fascinating how far it’s come now that it’s in the hands of a new generation.
This is both the fighting game and Dragon Ball spin-off I never realized I always wanted. The production values are better, and the narrative tension is vastly improved. Given how Dragon Ball FighterZ amps up the drama on existing Dragon Ball storylines, increases engagement by allowing the player to take dialogue sequences at their own pace, and puts a polished, beautiful spin on the old cartoon, this isn’t just my favorite Dragon Ball game. It’s my favorite Dragon Ball anything.
Dragon Ball FighterZ was developed by Arc System Works and published by Bandai Namco. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and Mac.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.