By "Semi-Saiyan" James Wiles
Whether you like it or loathe it, Dragon Ball Z should be the perfect source material for a video game. It's chock full of colorful (albeit simply drawn), characters who are all loaded with their own trademark moves and strategies, duking it out in simple, easy-to-render environments. But even so, it just seems that video games have never managed to quite capture the speed and fluidity of DBZ's unique brand of combat (Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout, anyone?).
With the release of Budokai, another example can safely be added to the pile of DBZ games that could have been good. Somewhere along the line the designers of the "multiplayer arena combat" game we were supposed to have been getting must have contracted Goku's heart virus or something and died, leaving the world with some sort of exceptionally pretty pre-Beta version of their game as a legacy.
Poor little fellas….
The game starts out with very few strikes against it; the graphics are rather nice, with perfect character models, passable-looking arenas, and even a stylishly-done rendition of the show's opening credits that plays upon booting the game up. The menus all scream DBZ, with minor characters like Bulma, Oolong, and Pwar (yeah, I likely botched the spelling on that one…. And to all the fans of Yamcha's weird flying cat, I apologize.) dancing in every corner of the colorful menus. And in one of the greatest pieces of fan service imaginable, the game employs the vocal cast of the show to deliver all of the characters' trademark lines and screams of pain. The options appear to be in place as well, with a nicely laid out story mode following the events of the series up through the Cell Games, and the requisite versus modes allowing for simple bouts against the player and AI all present. And the ability to customize a fighter with moves and abilities from capsules earned in other modes is a nice addition, with a wide array of goofy unlockables for DBZ fanatics to ogle (Anyone care to check out "Trunks' jacket" or "Old Saiyan armor"?).
Sound's pretty good so far, right?
Yeah, that's what I thought, too.
Unfortunately, once one starts playing the game it becomes crushingly apparent that while tons of effort was spent getting the look and sound of DBZ just right, next to none was spent on getting the feel of the series down. Combat is a horribly robotic affair (be glad I'm resisting the urge to insert an android joke here) that resembles something akin to a mutant cross-breed between Tekken's dial-a-combo style of play and the over-simplified style of the recent multiplayer fighter Barbarian and its ilk, albeit without the mobility of either of the aforementioned games. As kinetic an affair as DBZ combat is, the fighters in this game are remarkably immobile; While characters are able to dash forward, they are unable to retreat at any more than a short hop, which typically leads to fights consisting of two characters standing in place smacking each other in the head and occasionally running forward if the gap between them gets widened. There is none of the circular movement that is a fixture in contemporary 3D fighters. There isn't any jumping either. In fact, the only aerial action that occurs in the game happens after a character is launched into the air by the opponent, and even then the result is simply the two characters standing on some form of invisible floor several yards above the ground. Combat remains exactly the same, outside of the fact that dashes now occur at odd angles.
This is not DBZ. This is easily one of the cheesiest attempts at visual trickery outside of Plan 9 from Outer Space. At least DB GT: Final Bout had a REAL flight mechanic, as wretchedly flawed as it may have been.
Sadly, things don't get too much better in the moves department. While there are plenty of accurately-replicated maneuvers present for each character, many of them are essentially recycled from character to character (standing energy bursts, bombardments of tiny energy blasts, big specialty energy shots, etc.), right down to the motions used to execute them. And as exciting as seeing the Kamehameha Wave in different colors and with different names and animations may sound, it's still the Kamehameha Wave. Sadly, even while the variety of moves is potentially there, most of them are too frustrating and unrewarding to learn to save the already flawed fighting engine. More often than not, the player simply relies on one or two of the many shared moves ad nauseum to defeat their opponent, with the occasional grab move tossed in for good measure. This frustration factor also in affect kills the possibility of making some of the characters like Captain Ginuu, who do have some interesting moves, ever be very enjoyable to play. Also, while there are some rather nice-looking transformations for some characters (Saiyan characters enter Super-Saiyan states, Cell and Freiza go through their various transformations, etc.), they also simply amount to the same effect: the character hits a touch harder.
As nice as Budokai's presentation may be, nothing can save it from the overwhelming mediocrity of its fighting engine.
It's just not fun, kids.
And don't start on me with the "well, it has the real voices" crap. The show has the "real" voices, too (and right about here is where I ask all of the anti-dubbing folks to forgive my blasphemous pro-dubbing statements and stifle themselves with socks or something). And more often than not watching it is not comparable to driving rusty nails into my own eyes on the ol' Fun-O-Meter (certain parts of the Cell and Buu Sagas notwithstanding).
But I digress. That soapbox does grab me on occasion, especially when a game gets my blood all angried up like this one has. I had really high hopes for this one. But the bottom line is this is not a good game at all, regardless of the phenomenal production values behind it. If you must have a DBZ game, go the extra mile and look up the import Dragon Ball Z: Greatest Legends title somewhere and avoid this thing at all costs. Your time and money will be far better spent.
James' score: 1 (out of 5)