If there was ever a franchise that was tailor-made for video games – it’s Dragon Ball. Featuring more drawn out battles than a free to play RTS, countless episodes devoted to grind-y training sessions, and of course – more action than you can shake a Power Pole at – the mere mention of Dragon Ball is enough to get game developers licking their lips.
Unsurprisingly, over 100 licensed Dragon Ball games have made their way into the public’s hands since 1987, delighting and disappointing anime fans in equal measure. From the soaring highs of the PlayStation 2’s Budokai series, to a slew of SNES games so bad they would make even Mr. Satan blush, Dragon Ball’s interactive history has been as much of a rollercoaster as the anime itself.
But where did it all begin? And why have the vast majority of Dragon Ball games been, well, more Krillin than Kakarot? With the recently released action RPG Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot playing like the nostalgic interactive hug we always wanted, it seems fitting to take a look back and remember how far these Saiyan-starring adventures have come.
So, whether you’re hoping to discover a long-lost Dragon Ball classic — or just fancy getting giddy with gaming nostalgia — pull up a nimbus cloud, whack on your best gi and get ready to explore the weird and wonderful history of Dragon Ball video games.
The early years
You might not know it, but since its inception, gaming and Dragon Ball have been cosier than Tien and Chiaozu. When a youthful Akira Toriyama sent the first chapter of Dragon Ball to print, he admits he had no idea how the story would end. Inspired by a mix of Hong Kong martial arts flicks and classic Chinese novel Journey To The West, Toriyama assumed that his odd new creation would be too bizarre to find true success.
Yet, it was one surprisingly game-y element that glued the mismatched pieces of Goku’s tale together. Taking influence from his newfound love of video games, Toriyama opted to have Kakarot and his companions race against each other as they rushed to collect seven Dragon Balls.
What would his heroes wish for once they found these dream-fulfilling orbs? That wouldn’t matter, Toriyama thought — the series wouldn’t be popular enough for the story to continue past then…
Poor planning aside, it turns out that basing the core plot on a giant fetch quest isn’t the only way that gaming and Dragon Ball are intrinsically linked. In an early interview, Toriyama revealed that the Red Army’s Muscle Tower storyline was actually inspired by a fast-paced beat ’em up he became slightly obsessed with called Spartan X.
Given their shared history, you’d think Toriyama’s creation would inspire gaming classics right off the bat. Yet, sadly, Dragon Ball’s first official foray into video games landed with more of a thud than a scenery-destroying Ki blast.
The year is 1986. Dragon Ball mania is gripping Japan, and a promising new company called Nintendo is finding success with its title-specific Game & Watch devices. However, another company called Epoch decided to er, ‘borrow’ the idea. While many fondly remember the NES and SNES DBZ outings, Goku’s first virtual adventure was actually an obscure Epoch-made Game and Watch rip off called Dragon Ball: Pilaf no Gyukushu.
Featuring black and white visuals and rudimentary gameplay, it was, well — a bit crap. Let’s hope Toriyama didn’t actually play this one. Thankfully though, gamers didn’t have to wait long to get their first proper taste of Dragon Ball.
Only a month later, the surprisingly ambitious Dragon Ball: Dragon Daihikyou instantly transmitted its way into the hands of the Japanese public. Released on the short-lived Super Cassette vision console, Dragon Daikiyou boasted full-colour visuals that were years ahead of Epoch’s rudimentary LCD handhelds – despite arriving only weeks later.
Dragon Daihikyou saw players navigate nimbus-cloud Sh’mup-esque levels, as they steered Goku away from oncoming laser fire, Ki Blasting wave upon wave of enemies. In a nice (and pretty pioneering) twist, these sections would then segway into side-view one on one scraps against notable foes from the world of Dragon Ball. An idea that countless Dragon Ball video games have liberally copied since.
Unfortunately for publishers Epoch, however, their ambitious new game wasn’t making them much cash. With Dragon Daihikyou failing to set the world on fire, Epoch got cold feet, selling the Dragon Ball license to Bandai. To date, Dragon Ball games have sold over 40 million copies worldwide. We’d wager the Epoch execs behind that decision are still crying themselves to sleep.
Anyway, back to the ‘80s. Wasting no time in milking their new cash cow, Bandai quickly churned out a series of copycat LCD Dragon Ball adventures – before turning their attention to a promising-looking new console: the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Journey to the west
Dragon Ball: Shenron no Nazo is not only the first Dragon Ball game for a mainstream home console, but also the first to make it over to the West… well, kind of. Retelling the story of the first few volumes of the manga, this top-down Zelda-esque beat ‘em up was a pretty generic fighter. It even stole the same boss battle format from Dragon Daihikyou.
Yet, with Dragon Ball still a fairly unknown property in the West, Bandai made a few, er, ‘teeny’ changes for its US release. Swapping Goku for a generic-looking short-haired Kung Fu dude, Dragon Ball: Shenron no Nazo was rebranded as Dragon Power hitting US shelves in 1988…. to a dismal response.
While Dragon Power didn’t technically count as a Dragon Ball game, its failure still seemed to temporarily put off Bandai from releasing much else in English-speaking countries.
Thanks to the rising popularity of turn-based RPGs in the East, Bandai’s next title found a winning formula – turning Goku’s adventures into a role-playing game. 1988’s Dragon Ball: Daimao Fukkatsu was the first to do this, swapping fast-paced button mashing and flying fists for a card-based battle system.
Thanks to its success, the publisher continued this turn-based trend with the Dragon Ball Gokuden series, re-imagining our hero’s globe-trotting journey as a virtual board game. Then a little grey box came along and changed everything.
When the beloved Famicom first hit japan (or SNES, as us Gaijin know it) Nintendo’s console perfectly aligned with the manga’s shift from Dragon Ball to Z. As Goku’s saga transformed from a whimsical child-like adventure into an increasingly violent martial arts drama, so too did the games that portrayed him.
One of Kakarot’s most notable early 16bit appearances was in the Shonen Jump crossover RPG, Famicom Jump: Hero Retsuden (1988), which saw our spikey haired Saiyan team up with the likes of Kenshiro from the Fist Of The North Star. With this being more niche than your average modern-day Sailor Moon expo, unsurprisingly, this game never left Japan.
Thanks to the unstoppable success of RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Bandai doubled down on its Dragon Ball RPG output, releasing Dragon Ball Z: Kyoshu! Saiyan and sequels – 1991’s Gekishin Frieza and 1992’s Ressen Jinzoningen – telling the DBZ story up to and including the Cell saga. While these games had a fairly devoted following, soon a far more notable Dragon Ball Z adaptation was about to blast on to Japanese shelves.
As Dragon Ball Z became an unstoppable merch-making phenomenon, a little game called Street Fighter II had suddenly propelled the once niche fighting genre squarely into the mainstream. Now it was time for a new breed of Dragon Brawler – and its name was Super Butoden.
Fighting for the future
Once again hoping to cash in on the current gaming trend, Bandai decided to move away from the reams of text that came with its RPG output in favour of something that everyone could enjoy – beating virtual Saiyans to a pulp.
Super Butoden was the first fighter to really do the series justice. Launching on the SNES to a buzz of anticipation, this pixelized pummel ‘em up didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but it shifted enough units for Bandai to hurriedly release a sequel a year later.
While it had nothing on Ryu and co, Super Butoden 2 and 1993’s Super Butoden 3 quickly developed a fan following, with the series even making its way over to Europe. Much to Yanks’ frustration, though, the US still got no virtual Dragon Ball love from Bandai.
Still, that didn’t stop American fans from trying. Thanks to their merciful lack of Japanese text, the Butoden games became an import hit, with many US players picking up the foreign language cult fighters at great expense. Can you really put a price on Spirit Bombing your friends?
With Dragon Ball mania reaching fever pitch and Bandai’s own LCD handhelds looking, well, a bit dead, they finally relented and released a slew of games on Nintendo’s seemingly unstoppable new handheld – the Gameboy.
The first was 1994’s RPG Goku Hishoden. Given the peanut butter and jam-like dream combo of Dragon Ball and JPRGs, Goku’s Gameboy debut unsurprisingly got a sequel, continuing the early DBZ sagas with the Namek-set Dragon Ball Z Goku Gekitoden.
Now though, it was time to usher in a new era of Dragon Ball video games.
With the SNES (or Super Famicom as it was known over there) all but dead, Bandai hurriedly released a few more JRPGs on the system – Dragon Ball Z: Super Gokuden: Totsugeki-Hen, Dragon Ball Z: Super Gokuden: Kakusei-Hen and Dragon Ball Z: Hyper Dimension, respectively. It’s a good thing they did because a year later, Sony released its first-ever console – a little device called the PlayStation.
Hedging their bets, Bandai shared the Dragon Ball love between both the SEGA Saturn and the PlayStation. For Sony’s edgy new box, Bandai released the pretty woeful Ultimate Battle 22, a side-scrolling fighter that blended 2D sprites with 3D backgrounds. Needless to say, with the likes of the fully -3D Tekken already on the system, Ultimate Battle 22 didn’t exactly wow Japanese or European audiences.
The SEGA Saturn also got another underwhelming mix of 2D and 3D Brawling, in the form of Dragon Ball: The Legend.
Two years later though, Dragon Ball fever would finally start to catch in the West. Thanks to Cartoon Network getting the rights to air Dragon Ball Z, English speaking audiences started to get wrapped up in the saga of the Z fighters. While the anime had already ended a year earlier in Japan, studio Toei Animation had now started airing its follow up – Dragon Ball GT.
OK, we all know that GT wasn’t exactly… well, let’s not micne words here — it sucked. But the good news was, a new dub saw Z’s popularity rise dramatically in the West — and Bandai saw its opportunity. For the first time, the publisher opted to release its upcoming fighter in both the US and Europe – (1997’s) GT Final Bout.
Fully embracing 3D, it was a good idea on paper — but much like GT itself, the actual execution was fairly dire. Ugly and Sluggish, when compared to the likes of peers like Soul Blade and Tekken 2, it looked and felt like a relic of the past. Still, Western Dragon Ball fans didn’t care — they were now desperateto pull off a virtual Kamehameha of their own. Final Bout received a limited 10,000 copy run in North America and a similarly sparse run in Europe – and it sold out.
So how did Bandai react to this glowing reception? By not releasing any more Dragon Ball video games in the West until five years later, obviously.
OK, now we’re talking
While Bandai was seemingly twiddling its thumbs as Japan’s interest in Goku and co waned, in the US and Europe, Dragon Ball Z was bigger than it had ever been. Thanks to Pokemon ushering in a newfound Western love for anime, Dragon Ball Z had hit the bit time — so once again, it was time for Bandai to cash in.
With Nintendo’s handheld reign still going unchallenged, like many other publishers, Bandai wholeheartedly embraced the Game Boy Advance.
The best example of this was the colourful (if fairly underwhelming) action RPG, The Legacy of Goku. Launching in Europe and America in 2002 (before Japan!) this fairly forgettable outing was a huge success, spawning the far superior sequels; The Legacy of Goku II and Buu’s Fury.
Now though, it was time for home console gaming adaptations to finally do the series justice. With Sony’s all-conquering PlayStation 2 seemingly occupying every living room across the globe, Bandai had to step up its game if it wanted to compete with heavyweights like Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto.
Thankfully, Bandai found its perfect developer – Dimps. While the Osaka based studio spent the first few years of the 2000s making Digimon and Sonic Game Boy Advance titles, it finally found its stride with the Dragon Ball Budokai trilogy.
A 3D fighter with anime-esque cel-shaded visuals that closely followed the story of the anime, the original Budokai (2002) was the Dragon Ball game fans had been dreaming of. Its sequels expanded on the formula, with Budokai 2 (2003) adding a boardgame style world map for players to navigate between bouts, where Budokai 3 (2004) went one extra and added in an explorable hub world that players could fly around in.
In other words, in the early 2000s, things were looking pretty good for Dragon Ball video games.
THEY JUST KEEP COMING
The early to mid-2000s also saw esteemed fighting game developer Arc System Works given the keys to the Dragon Ball license. While they’d go on to make 2018’s critically acclaimed Dragon Ball FighterZ, they started off with the (also fairly well-received) Supersonic Warriors series on the Game Boy Advance.
With Nintendo gearing up to release a new handheld and Sony trying to get in on the action with its upcoming PlayStation Portable, more DB games were coming. The Game Boy Advance had its last kamehame-hurrah with the forgettable 1-2 of fighter Dragon Ball GT: Transformation (2005) and Dragon Ball Advanced Adventure (2006).
But back to the home console cash cow. With the Budokai series printing money, Bandai was keen to keep the console Dragon Ball fighters coming. Leaving poor Dimps to churn out a slew of fairly unremarkable licensed titles, it enlisted the help of Spike Chunsoft for a new series – Dragon Ball Budokai Tenkaichi.
Trading on the success of the Budokai name, these games opted for a bizarre over the shoulder camera, with its key selling point being wider battle arenas and more ‘realistic’ environmental damage. Sure enough, it sold like hot cakes, spawning two sequels across both the PS2 and Nintendo’s insanely popular Wii console.
Not yet friends. With the Budokai name now carrying a lot of clout, Bandai brought both Shin Budokai (2006) and a sequel (2007) to Sony’s beefy handheld, the PSP.
With the dawn of a new console generation on the horizon, it was finally time for some High Definition Dragon Balling. Unfortunately, Saiyan adventures in the HD era didn’t exactly get off to the best start, with the entirely forgettable sub-Budokai fighter, Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit (2007).
While Z continued to get the lion’s share of the love when it came to big-budget Western gaming adaptations, the original Dragon Ball got a few outings on the Nintendo DS. Moving away from fighters once again, the Nintendo handheld Dragon Ball titles offered fans some much-needed genre variety.
The action adventures Dragon Ball: Origins (2008) and its sequel – yep you guessed it – Origins 2 (2010) dropped one on one brawling for a more fleshed out action adventure.
Yet, where would a Nintendo handheld be without its Dragon Ball RPGs? Back to Z, Harukanaru Densetsu (2007) and Attack of the Saiyans (2010) gave the DS its mandatory dose of Dragon Ball RPG goodness. Yet, Attack of the Saiyans was — brace yourself — genuinely really good.
Developed by the studio behind Xenoblade, Monolith Soft, this is without a doubt one of Dragon Ball’s finest virtual outings. Featuring surprisingly deep customisation options, a Pokémon-style side quest and a Chrono Trigger inspired battle system, Attack Of The Saiyans is arguably the greatest straight up Dragon Ball RPG ever made.
Thankfully, the normal order of things resumed when Nintendo fans also got another helping of classic Dragon Ball – although it wasn’t the tastiest adaptation of Goku’s origin story.
Released as the series’ lone Wii exclusive, Dragon Ball: Revenge of King Piccolo (2009) was a rather basic child-friendly beat em up, chronicling Goku’s journey from his scrapes with the Red Army up to his battles with… King Piccolo. While it was nice to see a Dragon Ball-focused home adventure, this game is about as fun as being forced to watch the Teletubbies on loop.
Dragon Ball video games – the awkward teen years
While the HD generation hadn’t been the best for Bandai so far, they still were determined to milk their spikey-haired cash cow. Wanting to squeeze some more out of Tenkiachi-loving fans, Bandai tried to replicate the series’ PS2 success on the PS3 and Xbox 360.
Here they had Spike Chunsoft back at it again, launching the forgettable Dragon Ball Raging Blast (2009) and its somehow blander sequel (2010), before ending the generation with the more traditionally named Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi (2011).
Hell, they even squeezed in another PSP entry, 2010’s Dragon Ball Z: Tenkaichi Tag Team. Yep, the PSP – in 2010. Can’t blame a multi-million dollar corporation for trying, eh?
As the 2010s transitioned into its teens, soon came the suitably awkward Dragon Ball experiences. From the tragic Kinect-only motion-controlled game Dragon Ball Z for Kinect (2012) to the dire Battle of the Gods movie tie-in Dragon Ball Z: Battle Of Z (2014), fans found themselves suddenly pining for the golden Goku days of the PS2.
It turned out, as the 2010s went on, smartphones were becoming quite a thing. Who could have predicted? In typical Bandai fashion, they threw all their Dragon Balls at this new platform, launching three card-based battlers on mobile, including the absurdly popular Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle (2015) which racked up over 15 million downloads in Japan – in just three months. Dokkan also is available in the US and Europe, if you fancy carding it up.
With Spike Chunsoft presumably all Dragon Ball-ed out, Bandai recruited its old faithful Budokai bros Dimps to get back to their bread and butter.
This resulted in 2015’s Xenoverse and 2017’s Xenoverse 2. While both were mechanically solid and had some refreshingly deep RPG elements, it was a series that failed to reach the highs of the Budokai series. Its mix of action and MMO lite elements combined to create an experience that felt somewhat soulless. Still, as far as the 2010s go, these games were godsends for DB fans, righting a lot of the wrongs that they had endured during the post HD gaming era.
But we are, of course, forgetting something– the adulterous relationship that Dragon Ball enjoys with Nintendo’s handhelds. Feeling far less tragic than a lot of the games at the start of the decade, Arc Systemworks returned with 2015’s middling mash ‘em up, Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden. While it paled in comparison to the finely crafted RPG thrills of Attack of the Saiyans, Extreme Butoden was a welcome respite from the arm ache and heartache we all endured with Dragon Ball Z For Kinect.
In keeping with tradition, Nintendo fans got yet another Dragon Ball RPG – 2016’s Dragon Ball Fusions. Boasting a customisable protagonist and a surprisingly ambitious Pokémon-like adventure, this was so close to being a great game. Unfortunately, repetitive battles and snail-pace progression kept this in the ‘passable’ rather than ‘powerful’ category. All in all, this was the ‘GT’ of decades for Dragon Ball video games.
Resurrection of Fighting Games F
Thank Kami for 2018 then, eh? Atoning for their sins with Extreme Butoden, Arc Systemworks came back with a bang. Releasing a stunning 2D HD fighter (the originally named Dragon Ball FighterZ), this was the first game to launch Dragon Ball as an EVO-ready, proper competitive fighting game.
Rather than focusing on just retelling the same stories for the countless time, FighterZ instead nailed the look and feel of the anime, combining charm with airtight fighting mechanics. For the first time in the history of Dragon Ball video games, this wasn’t just a brilliant Dragon Ball fighter – it was a release that stood up against pretty much any of its contemporaries.
While the West didn’t get a lot of Dragon Ball love from Bandai in the 90s, ever since 2002 there has been a Dragon Ball game released (almost) every year. 2019 – you let us all down, for shame.
Now, we find ourselves at the dawn of a new decade – and it’s already looking like a strong one for Z Warriors. With the recently released Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, developers Cyber Connect 2 have combined the best elements of action RPGs with the action-packed one on one fights of the Budokai series. Featuring much of the original anime voice cast and lovingly written side quests, it’s a charming and highly nostalgic adventure.
But what’s next for Dragon Ball video games, you ask? Well, with Bandai currently remaining tight-lipped — you’ll have to slot in a reading with Baba if you want to find out. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, however, it’s that Goku and the Z Warriors won’t be leaving our consoles anytime soon.