Between the original franchise, the more popular “Z” series, the divisive GT and the recent Super, we’ve seen Goku and friends shout, power up, and fight each other for almost thirty-five years. Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball has transcended its manga beginnings, becoming a pop-culture phenomenon (though the less said about the live-action movie the better), so it’s no surprise that there’s no shortage of video game adaptations – dating back all the way to 1986.
While it might seem obvious that the majority would be fighting titles, there’s a surprising amount of diversity to be found throughout Dragon Ball’s pixelated history, ranging from action RPGs all the way to card-battlers, and even a short-lived MMO. In honor of the first Dragon Ball game of the 2020s, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, let’s take a look at the games that came before. Whether you know your Goku from your Gohan, it’s time for a trip down Snake Way.
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Flip through the gallery above to see all the Dragon Ball games, or scroll down for a breakdown of some of the franchises best, worst, and most unique games since the 1980s.
1986: Humble, Muscley Beginnings
A top-down shooter for the Epoch Super Cassette Vision, Dragon Ball: Dragon Daihikyō sent Goku into battle atop his cloud companion the Nimbus, tasked with collecting the Dragon Balls by firing Kamehamehas and swinging his Power Pole at enemies in a top-down shoot-em-up.
Dragon Daihikyō was unique at the time, thanks to it’s more tactical take on the action/shooter – the hungrier our hero gets, the shorter his Power Pole becomes; meaning he has to refuel with items occasionally thrown by Chi-Chi. This nod to the anime (Goku is constantly eating) – is something latest release Kakarot builds upon with stat boosts awarded when our hero eats.
1986 – 1996: The Famicom/Super Famicom
The early nineties saw a multitude of Dragon Ball titles on the Famicom and Super Famicom consoles, and while many mesh into a homogenous blur of 2D fighting titles, there are a few surprisingly unique additions.
Dragon Ball Z: Gekitō Tenkaichi Budokai was a 1992 fighting game that required a peripheral for the NES called the Datach Joint ROM System, which was in many ways a precursor to Amiibo. It would scan barcodes on trading cards that would unlock characters and items in the game.
In 1994, the Dragon Ball Z Gaiden: Saiyajin Zetsumetsu Keikaku titles, Chikyū-Hen and the re-release, Uchū-Hen, (which translates to the catchily-titled DBZ Side Story: Plan to Eradicate the Saiyans), were Japanese-exclusive card-battlers – similar in many ways to something like Slay The Spire, where moves and attacks are dictated by the cards drawn by the player.
With animated battle scenes and a wealth of characters (and an original story, something not found often in the franchise), Uchū-Hen was well-received by fans.
Both Chikyū-Hen and Uchū-Hen even made their way to Playdia, Bandai’s proprietary console. The system only lasted on the market for two years, but boasted a wireless joypad (with infrared connectivity – a fairly novel idea at the time but one that Atari championed as far back as 1983 with the 2600’s CX-42 Joysticks) and was one of the earlier consoles to adopt running games from CD Roms.
The disc-based medium led to plenty of FMV-style titles, but short of licensed titles like Sailor Moon and the aforementioned Dragon Ball titles, the console faded into obscurity – despite a bizarre late push from Bandai to publish more… “adult-themed” titles.
1996 – 2000: The 3D Era
The arrival of Sony’s PlayStation in the mid-nineties offered a fresh opportunity for the Dragon Ball franchise – though its transition to 3D graphics wasn’t exactly an easy one.
The first PS1 Dragon Ball game, Ultimate Battle 22, had 3D backgrounds but 2D character models, and was panned critically for its imprecise controls and outdated graphics (yes, even back then). One review called it “one of the worst-looking titles ever released on the PS1,” which is impressive, considering the fact that Bubsy 3D had come out seven years earlier.
The following year’s Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout shifted to a fully 3D fighter along the lines of its contemporaries like Tekken. While the character models were well received, the gameplay was not – with many critics noting that flight animations were punctuated by characters just standing idle in mid-air.
Despite disappointing critics, the original Japanese version sold enough to earn a spot in PlayStation’s “Best for Family” branding campaign – there’s likely a lot of disappointed families.
2002 – 2010: The Budokai Years
The three Budokai games of the early 2000s restored Dragon Ball Z games’ public favour. These fighting games offered retellings of the anime storyline alongside an increasing number of playable characters, all modelled fully in 3D – with Budokai 3 reaching 42, including characters from outside of the anime’s story, such as Gogeta and Cooler from the movies.
The care given to the franchise clearly paid off, as reported sales of all three Budokai titles reached 3.9 million units in the US by July 2006 across PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube – a huge increase from the 10,000 shipped of GT: Final Bout back on the original PlayStation.
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This success led to the Budokai Tenkaichi trilogy, which allowed players to mix up flight, melee, and ranged combat in open 3D arenas, able to move in all directions, with a third-person perspective. In fact, much of what helped revitalize the Tenkaichi games is still present in the series today, including the camera position, the mix of using Ki-blasts to weaken opponents, and the cinematic elements afforded by flashy new special moves.
While the first Tenkaichi title featured an impressive 64 playable characters, the roster would only grow from there – leading to an incredible 161 playable characters from all eras of Dragon Ball anime.
Budokai Tenkaichi 3 is still considered by many to be the pinnacle of the franchise (to the point that it earned an HD remaster alongside the original game in 2012. Its use of a cel-shaded art style not only made it look more like the anime, but also helped the game age more gracefully than the polygonal models of the past.
Many still consider Budokai Tenkaichi 3 to be the pinnacle of the franchise (to the point that it earned an HD remaster in [year]), featuring 161 playable characters from Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and Dragon Ball GT. It also fine-tuned the trilogy’s cel-shaded art style, which not only made it look more like the anime but also helped the game age more gracefully than the polygonal models of the past.
It wasn’t all fistfights and Galick Guns though, as three Game Boy Advance titles put Goku in top-down RPGs in Legacy of Goku. Despite simplistic controls and gameplay, the first two titles shipped over 600,000 units in the United States alone, and while the third entry dropped the “Legacy of Goku”, Buu’s Fury still sold over 400,000 copies – suggesting Bandai was right to continue releasing games in the franchise.
In 2005, Dragon Ball Z: Sagas became the first game in the franchise to be developed by a studio outside of Japan, with the honour falling to Avalanche Software (who had previously worked on Prince of Persia 3D, and would go on to helm the Disney Infinity series). Sagas again retells the anime’s story but was playable entirely in co-op with playable characters including Goku, Vegeta, Piccolo and Future Trunks.
After a disappointing critical reception (made all the worse in hindsight by launching in the same year as the much more competent Budokai Tenkaichi), the game still shipped around 750,000 units – although it’s still regarded as one of the franchise’s darkest moments, with critics pointing out a lack of moves in combat and a lack of visual polish.
After mixed fortunes in the years prior, Bandai Namco tried to spin the Dragon Ball franchise into an MMO – a genre that had gained in popularity thanks to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Age of Conan.
In 2010, Dragon Ball Online launched in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Hong Kong after a three-year delay. However, the initial reception was poor and the servers were unplugged before fans outside of Asia got the chance to jump in.
With the arrival of Microsoft’s motion-gaming peripheral, Dragon Ball Z: For Kinect launched in 2012 and was built on the same engine as Ultimate Tenkaichi. Unfortunately, poor motion tracking and repetitive combat couldn’t make throwing your arms around like a Saiyan fun – despite the game shipping with a cardboard version of Goku’s hair.
In 2013, Bandai Namco brought the wildly popular Dragon Ball Heroes collectable card game to Nintendo’s 3DS as Dragon Ball Heroes: Ultimate Mission. Equal parts CCG and quick-time event, Ultimate Mission tells an original story in the DBZ universe, even introducing new villains to the series that have subsequently been introduced to the Manga – while an entirely new anime based on the game, Super Dragon Ball Heroes, began in 2018.
2015 saw the release of Dragon Ball Xenoverse – a 3D brawler/RPG hybrid that allows players to create a character and interact with the heroes and villains of the Dragon Ball universe themselves. Playing as a Time Patroller, your task is to ensure the events of Dragon Ball’s past remain unchanged, which is a perfect excuse to head back into anime’s sagas again.
It would seem that Xenoverse (and its 2016 sequel, Xenoverse 2) provide the template that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot appears to follow – albeit that Kakarot focuses on Goku and friends instead of a bespoke player character while adding more open areas to explore – with multiple small zones connected together as opposed to Xenoverse’s smaller combat-only scenarios.
In 2018, Arc System Works released Dragon Ball FighterZ, arguably the best in the series so far. This 2D brawler uses much of the cel-shaded, accessible fighting template from the developer’s BlazBlue franchise, but adapts the visual style of the anime with stunning accuracy. With screen-filling super moves, a diverse roster, and three-on-three combat, it sold over 4 million copies by the end of March 2019 – and went on to win plenty of Fighting Game of the Year awards.
Which brings us up today – Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot launches today, taking the third-person combat of the Tenkaichi games, the RPG systems of Xenoverse, and even the stat-boosting dishes from Dragon Ball: Dragon Daihikyō to bring Dragon Ball Z games into a new decade.
For our thoughts on Goku’s latest adventure, check out our full review of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot.
Lloyd Coombes is a freelancer writer, and spends at least one hour a day chanting Sam Fisher’s name in the mirror. You can join him in this dark ritual on Twitter.