The Budokai series first launched on the last generation of consoles. It spawned three games, each sporting their own take on the epic Dragon Ball Z story. Dragon Ball Z Budokai HD Collection repurposes the first and third titles from the franchise – but are they enough to capture your attention in the HD era?
Let’s get straight to the point: Dragon Ball Z Budokai is rendered completely obsolete by Budokai 3, which means that half of this collection is more or less a waste of space. If anything, Budokai can only serve as an introduction to the basic gameplay mechanics of the series. But even then, Budokai 3 features a great training mode itself. If you find yourself committed to playing Budokai, whether it’s for the very easy Trophies or for the story mode, chances are you’ll never go back to it after starting up Budokai 3.
The main difference between the two games is the story mode. In the first, Dragon Ball Z is retold up until the end of the Cell saga, mostly through in-game cutscenes. It’s a simple formula – cutscene, fight, cutscene, fight – but it’s relatively well done. At least, that is if you already know the story of Dragon Ball Z. Without any previous knowledge, it’s difficult to understand who any of the characters are or why they’re fighting. Upon finishing the story, it’s possible to play through the same scenarios as different characters, and even take part in some ‘what if’ stories, where baddies like Vegeta end up killing off the heroes of the franchise. Regardless, this mode only lasts for a few hours, and Budokai is very light on content outside of it.
Budokai 3 switches up the story mode quite a bit. Gone are the cutscenes, which are replaced by 2D portraits of characters and dialogue – though any context is still just as vague as the first game. However, the third game’s story redeems itself through gameplay. Taking control of one of 11 characters available in the newly named Dragon Universe mode, you’ll need to explore the world of Dragon Ball with an RPG-esque world map. You can collect the seven Dragon Balls in order to acquire rare equipment, or search the environment for optional fights and random items. It’s a time consuming mode that can get repetitive, but it captures the spirit and style of the franchise extremely well.
Speaking of style, Budokai 3 has benefited from its HD treatment. It was a colourful game to begin with, but with touched up visuals it’s an impressive cel-shaded title, let down only by some muddy PS2 textures and an annoying, ugly border that squeezes the game into a lower screen ratio outside of fights. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the first Budokai. It’s horribly bland in comparison, and without cel-shaded graphics, even Dragon Ball creator and artist Akira Toriyama’s utterly fantastic character designs aren’t enough to save it.
Thankfully, unlike its prequel, Budokai 3 has a large amount of content outside of the Dragon Universe mode. Because of the game’s large character roster, taking part in the World Tournament can remain a fresh experience for a surprising amount of time. This mode is essentially a standard fighting tournament which varies in difficulty. By winning or finishing as the runner up, you’ll be awarded prize money, which can then be spent at the capsule store.
And this is where Budokai 3 shows some real depth. Capsules are essentially items that can be equipped to your characters. They include special moves, stat-boosting equipment, and items that can be used in mid-fight. The stronger a specific capsule is, the more slots it takes up, the maximum being seven. This system gives a very personal feel to developing your favourite characters and adapting them to suit your own style of play. It’s an RPG element that gels specifically well with fighting games, and it’s a shame that we don’t see more of it these days.
Budokai 3’s biggest mode is one of the last things that you'll unlock, and it’s well worth the trouble. Dragon Arena allows you to pick your favourite character and fight through a ridiculous amount of opponents, all while levelling up and customising their stats. It isn’t the most varied mode, but it holds up due to the sheer amount of content and the top-notch fighting mechanics.
Indeed, it's the gameplay that makes Budokai 3 arguably the greatest Dragon Ball fighter ever conceived. While most other titles in the franchise have been panned critically, the third instalment of the Budokai series was well received throughout the gaming community, and with good cause. Unlike the fiddly, over-complex Tenkaichi series, the Budokai games solidified themselves as more traditional fighters, and Budokai 3 all but perfected the formula.
Basic attacks are easy to pull off by mashing the punch and kick buttons alongside different directions, while character specific moves can be initiated by tapping the circle button after a combo string. Things get slightly more complex when it comes to avoiding incoming blows, with side steps and trademark Dragon Ball Z lightning-quick dodges coming into play. But again, these manoeuvres are simple and easy to pull off, giving fights a satisfyingly fast pace. It’s helped further by some brilliant stage hazards, which are both devastating and a joy to watch unfold.
Despite simple basics, though, Budokai 3 can get quite technical. Managing your energy or ki is paramount to keeping your opponent at bay, as both special attacks and dodging rely upon it. Going all-out on an enemy may seem like a good idea at first, but starving yourself of ki leads to disaster, especially when your character becomes fatigued and unable to move.
Of course, Budokai 3 wouldn’t be Dragon Ball Z without ridiculously huge, explosive attacks that decimate opponents. Any character can enter 'hyper mode', a temporary state where they can’t be stunned by normal attacks, and are able to perform ultimate moves. They can also initiate a 'dragon rush', a three-stage cinematic where both competitors must press one of the four face buttons. Choosing the same button as your opponent allows you to block their rush and end the sequence, and vice versa. Failing to block the rush results in a massive amount of damage, and can change the tide of a battle quite easily. The luck-based system is a touch annoying, but it does add tension and unpredictability to the bouts. However, there’s no limit to the mechanic, and if you come across an opponent who loves to spam it, the system quickly outstays its flashy welcome.
Fans of Dragon Ball Z will be pleased to know that the majority of the voice cast from the anime are present in the game, in addition to an option to set all of the spoken dialogue to Japanese. Budokai 3’s attention to detail – whether it’s found in subtle nods to the license or in a particular aspect of gameplay – is easily one of its greatest strengths, and well-versed fans will love every second of it. Those that played the original will also be happy to know that the game’s horrendous load times have almost been completely removed, too.
Sadly, Namco Bandai has replaced the entire original musical score with more recent soundtracks from other Dragon Ball Z games, presumably due to licensing issues. This is a massive shame, since the memorable soundtracks were one of the Budokai series’ high points.
The first half of Dragon Ball Z Budokai HD Collection is near pointless, but fans of the franchise will be delighted with Budokai 3. It's still the most balanced and detailed Dragon Ball fighting game available, and is a testament to how good licensed games can be when given the opportunity to evolve. It's just a shame that we never got a fourth instalment.