Between Raging Blast, Burst Limit, Ultimate Tenkaichi and even an ill-conceived Kinect entry, Dragon Ball Z has been all over the place in the past few years. With so many variations, it's starting to feel like Bandai is flailing around throwing ideas at the wall hoping something sticks. Every new title is trying to recapture the magic of the PlayStation 2-era Budokai games, yet constantly coming up short. With this generation of consoles coming to a close and so many ideas already tried, what is a company to do? If you're Bandai, you quickly toss together Dragon Ball Z: Budokai HD Collection for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Originally released in 2002 on the GameCube and PS2, Budokai was something of a revelation. Not due to being a stellar fighting game that could rival Soul Calibur or Virtua Fighter, but rather because it was the first Dragon Ball Z game to not be an epic failure. Up until that point there had only been a few adventures starring Goku, and not a single one of them was worth playing. Budokai changed that, giving fans of the popular anime series some hope.
Although presented using crisp polygonal character models and not 2D sprites, the original Budokai is essentially a 2D fighting game. Players are given the usual punch, kick and block buttons, as well as an energy attack that shoots fireballs. Moves are pulled off by completing a series of lengthy button combos, usually leading to an impressive animation that blasts a good chunk of heath off of the opponent's life meter. While it's not a perfect system, I'll give it this: Budokai is one of the few 2D fighting games that does not feel like a blatant rip-off of Capcom's Street Fighter II.
The story is told through a series of cleverly constructed summary videos. They tackle three different sections of the "Dragon" tale, including the Saiyan Story, Namekian Story and the Android story. The cinemas don't mince words; they are quick and to the point. They do a good job of setting up rivalries, establishing motivation and then throwing the characters into one fight after the next.
You start out as Goku, fighting bad guys and earning new moves. Along the way you'll switch between other fighters (including Piccolo and Kid Gohan, among others) and fill in different parts of the story. All told, you're looking at several hours of Dragon Ball Z storytelling (significantly less if you decide to skip all of the cut scenes).
Playing through the long-winded story is how you unlock new characters for the two-player versus mode. Here you'll have a choice between 21 Dragon Ball Z favorites, including Vegeta, Frieza, Cell, Raditz, Krillin, #17, Ginyu, as well as the protagonists found in the story mode. Each of these characters is equipped with their own unique special moves, though a lot of them share similar combos and attacks.
Even though it was technically sound, Budokai feels a bit shallow in retrospect. None of the characters are very deep and the roster is surprisingly small when compared to newer Dragon Ball Z titles. There isn't much to the gameplay, either. Outside of a few combo moves and a few throws, there isn't much to do here. What it did right was mimic the TV show, giving fans hope that eventually Bandai would get it right.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 is Bandai getting it right! Wisely skipping past the poorly-received sequel, this third installment ditches the animated cinemas in favor of an emphasis on character building. You choose one of a handful of popular characters, each with their own stories and fights to undertake. They fly over a giant map, getting into random fights and traveling through time and space. Along the way they'll earn experience, level up their characters, add new moves and ultimately collect all of the dragon balls.
Budokai 3 is a marked improvement over the original, offering an experience that manages to feel respectful of the source material. The combat mechanics still aren't as deep or interesting as other fighting games on the market, but they are close enough to offer an engaging experience with tons of unique content. Best of all, it sports a giant roster of 42 playable characters, backgrounds taken directly out of the anime and both English and Japanese voice acting.
The fights are also a lot more dynamic, full of characters being thrown completely through mountains. And while it's still essentially a 2D fighting game, it does feel like the player has more freedom in their movement. A number of defensive moves have also been included (teleporting, dodge, etc.), as well as mechanics that make better use out of the kai bar. It all adds up to a surprisingly exciting (not to mention visually arresting) Dragon Ball Z experience. Budokai 3 is fan service done the right way.
Both games come with the usual secondary modes. You get the usual versus mode, a tournament mode, practice mode, skill edit, etc. Unfortunately, neither Budokai 1 nor 3 offers any kind of online play. This is especially disappointing when you discover how easy the computer is. Omitting online play is especially disappointing when you see Capcom adding it to even their most niche fighting game releases.
Of the two, Budokai 3 is the only one that still looks good. The character models are nice and the cel-shading keeps the game from looking ancient. The 2002 original isn't as lucky. The simple graphics are endearing, but there's no question that it comes from a different console generation. There's a night and day difference between the two products in this compilation.
Even though the original game is simple and something of a novelty in this compilation, it remains a vital addition to Dragon Ball Z: Budokai HD Collection. It's a much more story-driven experience, something that the third game isn't nearly as interested in. The two games are different in ways that complement each other, ultimately making this package stronger.
Unfortunately, Bandai made a few questionable changes in bringing these games to current generation consoles. For one thing, much of the music has been replaced with tracks from Tenkaichi and other recent Dragon Ball Z entries. You'll also find a few frames of censorship, which I'm sure will ruffle the feathers of series purists. Interestingly enough, all of the fighting and gameplay is presented in 16 x 9 widescreen, while the menus and some cinemas are kept 4 x 3, with letterboxing on the side. None of these things are deal breakers, but they did leave me wondering what happened behind the scenes in making this HD pack.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai HD Collection gives fans almost exactly what they're looking for. Unfortunately, this compilation is dogged by a number of weird design decisions and a complete lack of online play. Fans will appreciate the little touches and large roster of characters, but the gameplay and easy computer AI was too simple to hold my attention for long. This is as good as a Dragon Ball Z game gets, and even that isn't enough to make this Budokai HD Collection a must-buy.