Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Review - The game that started it all

Release(s): November 2, 2002 (Europe)
                 December 3, 2002 (North America)
                 February 13, 2003 (Japan)
Platform(s): PlayStation 2, GameCube
Genre(s): Fighting
Developer(s): Dimps
Publisher(s): Bandai (Japan/Europe)
              Infograms(North America)
Player(s): 1-2






Overview

Ahh... 2002, back then Dragon Ball Z was at the height of it's popularity in North America. The series was everywhere... it had multiple toylines, a training card game series, birthday supplies, has been published on several major newspaper articles, and was the dominant show on the Cartoon Network block Toonami... this new found interest in the show was so great that the franchise as a whole was revived in Japan from years of inactivity in the wake of Dragon Ball GT's lack of success. There's no doubt in mind there would a video game license for this juggernaut of an anime and a Japanese video game development company by the name of Dimps thought "Hey, why not make game for the hottest consoru on the market?". However, many gamers and older fans of the series alike were skeptic of the game's success as most DBZ games up until that point have amount to little more than low-quality cash-ins... but what does Budokai do exactly to change that? Let's find out.

Gameplay

Budokai is a 3D fighting game that's structurally similar to Soul Caliber or Virtua Fighter and though it resembles a traditional fighter, it's fighting mechanics are quite unorthodox. You can't crouch or jump, there's only one blocking zone so there's not much strategy involved when it comes to attacking high or low. There's a special move meter in the form of a ki gauge where every character starts off with a baseline of 3 (out of 7) bars which can be refilled without having to attack an opponent by charging (hold guard and press back twice). Combos in this game are done by performing a series of punches and kicks of which technique can be changed by doing a punch or kick in junction with pressing left or right, and there's quite a bit of combinations to memorize. The set combos varies between characters but the variety isn't that good as characters tend to share the same canned moves between each other. Special moves are even executable after performing a series of punches and kicks meaning battles have to be at close-range at almost all times which does help in reducing spamming but it's not very exciting to pull off in combat either and makes signature Death Moves kinda useless since good players can do just as much damage (if not more) with using basic combos alone. 

On the bright side, the control scheme is easily accessible and the controls themselves are smooth like butter. You have one button for punching called the P button, you have another for kicking called the K button, another for guarding called the G button, another for using energy attacks called the E button (at the cost of some ki), and the directional buttons or analog-stick moves the character. Combining each button can do various types of attacks... like combining the P and K buttons allow you to perform a strong attack called the Charged Punch (you can also change it's technique in junction to pressing left or right) which can be charged into being unblockable or have nullifying attributes that allow you (up to a point) to take other physical attacks. You can also preform throws by pressing the P button and G button at the same time but an opponent can escape the throw by doing the same as you attempt to grab them. 

The game also features some other quirky mechanics that that fans may be familiar with like the ability to send opponents flying into environment hazards, stage transition, or the stage boundary wall to deal damage along the ability of flight and doing dash attacks which can either be performed while dash towards an opponent or simply pressing the P button and/or K button while tapping forward twice... dash attacks can also break an opponent's guard. Something called a Burst Mode cab be activated when two attacks with nullifying attributes clash together... here both fighters starting really fast like in the show and you have to roll the analong stick or mash buttons faster than your opponent to gain the upper hand. You can even transform while in battle which boosts your attack power by 10% with each transformation (making Goku's Super Saiyan form the strongest in the whole game) and gives you access to certain moves... but transforming slowly eats away your ki and the higher transform the faster the ki gauge drains which makes maintaining a transformation a real bitch as you lose that form if you get knocked down while below the minimum required number of ki bars. 

With all that said, the combat in Budokai is rather... stiff. For not for the fact you can't execute special moves outside combos and the characters' lack of diversity in their movesets, your defensive maneuvers are limited to guarding and back/side-stepping for the most parts. The flight combat aspect of the game is unreliable too as you can only go airborne if you knock your opponent up into the air (same for getting out of the air) and because of these limitations, battles tend to feel like you're trying to outlast a war of attrition so unless you're already a fan of the series you may not get much out of this game's combat.

Content

As for Game Modes, I'd say there quite a bit to do in the game. Budokai's single-player campaign is generically titled Story Mode which tells the story of Dragon Ball Z from the start of the Saiyan invasion to the end of the Cell Games so no characters from the Majin Boo Saga are in this game (except Gt. Saiyaman for some reason). In this mode, you just go into scenario after scenario where you have to defeat an opponent with a certain character and certain set of skills (which I'll get into later) though some battles have you fight under a specific conditions or even a different objective (like rolling the analog-sticks for Piccolo's Special Beam Cannon)... though it may take away freedom from the player it's really effective at what it does as it makes you feel like you're part of the story. This is also where you unlock most of the characters and that's something you'd want to do as one of the first things with the game as only 5 out of the 23 playable characters are immediately available. 

The next mode is Duel which is the standard versus mode where you play against another player though you also have the option to fight the computer, have the 2nd player fight the computer, or have the computer fight itself. 

There's also the World Tournament in where you select one character to compete one-on-one in 3 classes of choice (2 of them are unlockable)... one each harder than the last and has more contestants with a bigger prize money waiting for you in the end if you go undefeated, and the way of winning is by either KO or knocking the opponent out of the ring (which can happen very easily). This is also the only method of earning money which called Zeni (that's also the currency within the world of the actual series). 

Then there's Practice which is the game's (surprisingly deep) training mode where you can use another character as a dummy to test your abilities by either having them act in a certain way ranging from doing nothing, performing a specific action (like guarding constantly or after being attacked , deflecting a ki blast, breaking fall, etc.) or using them as a sparing partner of varying difficulty so you can harness your skills. There is even an option to display status and button commands so you can practice more complex moves, gauge attack and defense power, maximize combos/damage, etc. It's not close to what you can do in the practice mode of other fighters like Virtua Fighter or Tekken but it's still a great way to learn the roles of the game and it's nice that the game even has it.

This mode has another unique factor in Budokai's combat system and it's called Edit Skills. It's revolved around a system the game calls the E.S.S (Exciting. Skill. System..... lame) and in this system these special skills are determined by 3 different categories of capsule. The red capsule is a character's special abilities (Death Moves and Ultimate Moves) such as Goku's Kamehameha or Piccolo's Special Beam Cannon. The blue capsule is a character's physical move which are Throws, Rush Attack moves, Ki blast barrage moves, and Follow-up moves. They vary between characters and each character has at least 3 of them but they lack diversity. The green capsule is a support skill that enhances a character's abilities in various ways (such as increasing states, restoring health, handicapping your opponent, etc.) and some that do very specific things that only certain characters can equip. Sounds like the makings of a great mechanic in the combat system but it's marred by one problem with the Skill Tray which is what allows you to customize set skills. Each character is limit to only 7-slots which wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't for the fact you have to equip two of the same ability or physical capsule to increase it's effectiveness and certain capsules take more than one-slot. This makes it rather difficult to make the most out of the system especially for characters like Goku who have several transformations so you may find yourself resorting to getting the Breakthrough capsules (a capsule that allows the character to use all their enhanced special moves) and getting that opens up another problem within the Skill Shop.

The Skill Shop is where you buy these aforementioned skills and you can buy one capsule for each type but the one picked out for you from the type of capsule buy from is completely random... in fact, the only bit of certainty is with the recommended option and even the way that works is for the most parts random. This is also the only effective method of getting the Dragon Balls of which you need all 7 balls in order to wish for each character's breakthrough capsule, though they are rare and really expensive so you'd not only have to constantly go in and out of the Skill Shop before a Dragon Ball become purchasable in the recommended option but you'd have to do quite some grinding at the World Tournament along the way. The constant going back-and-forth between the World Tournament and getting the capsule you want added with the randomness of the Skill Shop can get very tedious, very fast. On a positive note, you can trade skills with other player to bypass the efforts for getting a lot of the capsules via memory card. 

The last game mode is unlockable from purchasing it in the Skill Shop. It is called Legend of Hercule and you play as the World Champion Hercule where you have to face all the present fighters Cell Games right from Yamcha to Cell. Some have you fight under a certain condition but for most part you have simply have to beat an opponent under a time limit and you earn score points depending on how well you do in each battle. The mode is pretty limited so it serves as little more than a time killer.

Graphics

Another point in the game comes up a bit short... though that isn't to say the graphics are horrible but they haven't aged gracefully either. In fact, even from the time period when the game first came out the graphics on the game weren't very impressive to begin with. Though they do a great job at resembling the look and feel of the anime series, the models are seriously sparse in detail to the point where they could be passed off as clay action figures. The GameCube version of the game does have a more cel-shaded look with better shading and the shadows being actual shadows instead of simple dots but it's not nearly as up to par with later games. It also doesn't even change how the dull the environments are... the color schemes are bland and there's nothing interesting going on within them. Even unique stages like Hyperbolic Time Chamber amounts to being little more than being a stretched out area.

On the positive note it does sport high production values with the particle effects, beams, and auras all being well done though they're not extreme or stylistic like in the show and the animation on the characters are quite sharp with consistently smooth 60 fps though in-game it's clear they share a lot of the same basic fighting animation between each other. 

Sound

One of the game's stronger points... the FUNimation dubbing cast have reprise their roles for the game and they all do pretty good job here though the glazed ham found in the dub for the anime series can sometimes be shown in full display. The soundtrack in the game isn't anything too fancy but it's good for what it is and there's a lot of memorable tracks (my personal favorite being the one that plays on the Cell Games stage) right from the calm, yet unsettling in a way, at the same time tune for the vacant yet mysterious Hyperbolic Time Chamber stage to the hard-hitting electric guitar/drums and synthesizers score that plays during the intense battle between Goku and Frieza, and to the triumphant orchestra during the final showdown between Gohan and Cell. The sound effects are also very close to what is found in the anime series and run at a great clip.

Aesthetics 

This is probably the game's greatest strength. The game's Story Mode has like the greatest representation of the DBZ story in any DBZ game to date. It faithfully recreates key moments from the anime through in-game cutscenes before and after battles adding with the fact it gives each Story Mode scenario a recap to the last scenario and the next episode previews with narration courtesy of the narrator from the show Kyle Hebert which makes you really feel like you're thrown into an episode of DBZ... there's even some what-if scenarios such as "what if Frieza achieved Immortality" or "what if Cell absorbed Krillin instead of #18". Though bar in the mind the storytelling in this game's Story Mode is very condensed so a lot of plot details and character developemt is left out but for the fans of the series, this abridged storytelling is a real treat as it does away with  the filler bullshit.

Aside from that the menus within the game have several visual cues to the Dragon Ball series such as character being chibi style similar to the tankĊbon volumes of the manga with Goku riding on his nimbus cloud in the main menus and Puar turning himself into a menu for the options in Duel. Even the combat for Budokai has many DBZ fighting quintessentials. The mechanic Burst Zone has fast fighting similar to what's found within the show, you can also send opponents flying into environmental hazards, many of the characters' have their signature moves from the series, and ultimate moves are quite a sight to behold as you devastate your opponent. Even stuff like big explosions, destructive environments, and power auras are here for the course.

The loading screen even has something interesting going on with the radar showing the DBZ logo which you can toggle around though load times themselves are rather long taking up to 30 seconds even for well-working copies of the game.

Overall

Dragon Ball Z: Budokai is not the greatest fighting game out there... in fact, quite far from it even compared to many of the contemporary fighting games but as a game based on the insanely popular anime series it was great for the time. The combat, though limited, is fast-paced and fairly close to the action shown in the show, the art direction just screams "DRAGON BALL", it's easy to get into, and there's a whole lot to do. This game started what I'd like to call the "Golden Age of DBZ Gaming".

I give this game a 6.7 out of 10.