I remember a period of about two months, back in 7th grade, when Dragon Ball Z was about the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I’d rush home from school to catch each episode on Toonami, get disappointed that most of it was grunting and idle boasts, and then get ready for tomorrow’s episode when the real fight would finally, hopefully, go down. The mid-to-late 90s were a strange time, when anime was just starting to take off in the greater nerd subculture. Like being a Star Wars fan in the barren late 80s, as an anime nerd you were pretty much in the closet about it and there wasn’t a whole lot of extraneous material to feed the fever. I remember seeing Goku action figures at a small local toy store and wishing the “obscure” Dragon Ball anime was more popular.
Naturally, like most nerds my age I saw Cowboy Bebop on Adult Swim, promptly forgot all about Dragon Ball Z and missed its explosion into ubiquitous popularity in the early 2000s. Nowadays you can’t mention anime without Dragon Ball coming up. The accompanying merchandising blitz has produced the same plethora of toys and video games that dominated Japan in decades past.
It seems like there’s a new Dragon Ball game coming out every handful of months, most published by Atari but more recently by Namco-Bandai. The Spike-developed Dragon Ball: Raging Blast 2 is a sequel to last year’s DBZ adventure/fighting game, and unlike the many other disparate DBZ games that elaborate on various aspects of the anime, this game continues the Raging Blast formula of condensing as much of the source material into a single game.
Make no mistake—Raging Blast 2 is deep martini glass of fanservice, mixed up with all the franchise ingredients in equal proportion and garnished with a small encyclopedia of DBZ trivia, archival content and bonus material. Functionally it’s the Dragon Ball equivalent of Smash Bros Brawl, but in terms of gameplay it skews closer to a traditional fighting game.
Battles are waged between only two combatants, but they contain the customary level of DBZ chaos you’ve come to expect. The controls are fairly complex, with multiple levels of combat, health and power systems that dictate when you can power up and use special attacks. Instead of small, tight arenas though, you’ll be fighting on enormous battlefields, seamlessly transitioning between land and air fights. This really opens up the fighting for all sorts of crazy action, including frantic mid-air light speed combos and bone-snapping, supersonic crater-making faceplants into the ground. There’s a wide variety of environments to fight in but even the smaller ones are huge compared to a typical fighting game’s levels. This grand scope can be overwhelming at first, but the game breaks down the action into a well organized structure based on two main modes.
Galaxy Mode is an extensive map of tiered challenges, ranked by difficulty and presented in a chronological order that very loosely mirrors the plot of the anime. Each character has a different path through the galaxy—impressive, considering there are over 70 total characters. Think of the adventure mode in the Soul Calibur series and you won’t be far off. Galaxy Mode is how you unlock most of the extra characters and background material in the game, but this method is really a double-edged sword. If you just want to boot up the game and play some multiplayer, a lot of the characters will be unavailable from the start, requiring you to play through most of the gigantic Galaxy Mode to open them all up. It isn’t a problem if you just want the typical Goku/Vageta or Trunks/Gohan match, but if you want the super ultimate final evolution of Frieza you’ll have to work hard for it.Battle Zone is comparatively simpler, more like an extended training mode. Most challenges require that you defend a capture point from waves of enemies, which can grow boring after a while but at least it gets you acclimated to each character’s moveset. Of course there are also plenty of multiplayer options, from the standard one-on-one duels to tournaments and online battles where you can test your skills against the best players. While much of this is pretty standard fighting game setup, just on the requisite DBZ steroids, Raging Blast 2 isn’t necessarily among the purest or hardest in the fighting genre.
Raging Blast 2 seems just as focused on recreating the anime’s look and feel as it is on being a competent fighting game. The characters are recreated perfectly, looking like 3D cel-shaded animations ripped right out of the show. The voice actors from the original episodes don’t reprise their roles but with 70 characters I can understand why Namco-Bandai went with sound-alikes, and all said the new actors do a decent job emulating the iconic voices. The focus here is obviously on the characters and the fight; the battle effects and animations are crisp, fluid and truly something to behold when the action gets crazy. As I mentioned the arenas are massive but unfortunately they don’t meet the caliber of the characters; most are low-poly and only averagely-textured, probably to keep the framerate smooth with so much open space and chaos.
The actual fighting gameplay works well and has some real depth but again it’s hung up on mimicking the anime, not providing the deepest or best-balanced combo system. Button mashing is sadly more effective than it should be, but you’ll often feel like you’re cheating yourself by not pulling off the super powerful flashy moves to get the same result. While truly experienced players will still own your butt online, you can do pretty well for yourself with just a few combos and blind mash-typing the face buttons. You’ll feel disappointed with your utilitarian approach, however, when you see pros (and the computer) get the same results through a skill and finesse that makes you feel like you’re in one of the episodes. The experience of an epic, well-played fight is just as rich a payoff as winning the battle, if not more so.
Unfortunately, that also describes Raging Blast 2 to the letter. It’s more about replicating the experience of the source material rather than building a deep, accessible fighting game for fans and non-fans alike. Smash Bros can get away with this fanservice approach because most everybody playing action games on the Wii is a huge Nintendo fan, and will eat the customary Smash Bros fanservice up with a spoon. Raging Blast 2 is a similar story--just about everything a Dragon Ball fan could ever want in a single comprehensive game, but an impenetrable, strange and sometimes frustrating fighting game to outsiders. The only problem is that Dragon Ball fandom isn’t nearly as broad as pure Nintendo fandom, so Raging Blast 2 is aimed squarely at the dedicated fan. If you’re one of those fans, though, you’ll be very happy with the combat, production values and sheer volume of bonus content in Dragon Ball Raging Blast 2.