Platform(s): PlayStation 2
Back in November 20, 1984... a Japanese man by the name of Akira Toriyama wrote and drew a chapter for a manga series called Dragon Ball made to entertain Japanese boys but beyond all expectation, it lead to one of the most successful and influential media franchise ever created (and arguably most popular anime). With such a of a franchise there's destined to be tons of merchandising- including many, many video game licenses that are released at a rate rivaled only by Star Wars and WWE. For a story with such a flexible concept of collecting Dragon Balls and superpowered warriors beating the shit outta each other you would expect the games to be good but sadly, DBZ games for the longest time have generally ranged from mediocre to pure shit *cough*Final Bout*cough*.... however, that all changed with a game called Dragon Ball Z: Budokai released in late 2002.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai.... wasn't great but it showed potential. It's sequel Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 2 did improve several things (notably the graphics) but as a sequel it fell a bit short and still suffered from most of the same problems that held the first game back from being a truly great game on it's own merits. In 2004, Atari announced Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 which promises to actually address the suggestions and complaints people had of the first two games. Does it deliver?
This game doesn't go for "more of the same thing with but with a new coat" like Budokai 2 does, Dimps truly went out of their way to give the combat a significant overhaul with the "Saiyan Override Fighting System" to make it closer to the action in the anime series and just an overall better experience. On the surface, Budokai 3's combat may seem largely the same as it's predecessors' but further playthrough yields they not only improved it to make for a good DBZ fighter but a good fighting game in general. First off, there is much more defensive maneuvers and movement options this time so battles don't quickly devolve into a matter of "Who can hit who first?" after just a few seconds in. You now have the ability of dashing backwards which is also used for dashing into or from the sky, you can perform quick dodge against physical attacks at point-blank distance when timed with an enemy's attack by simply pressing the G button, and you can also counter your opponent's attack to teleporting behind them when timed with the attack by pressing forward and the G button simultaneously... this can come in handy when you're trapped in a combo and it can also be used as a pursuit after sending an opponent flying to ping-pong them around by pressing the E button, but be careful as an opponent can counter your teleport with their own. Third, the basic attacks shared between characters now have much more diversity (such as Piccolo using his mystic ability, Trunks/Dabura using their swords, Frieza using his tail, etc.)... of course a couple of the canned moves and strings are still present but the added variety makes them far further and few in-between. Lastly, a lot of the death moves have been added and improved upon... some can even clash together to cause a beam struggle like in the show which is like Burst Mode where you either have to roll the analog stick or mash buttons faster than the opponent to gain the upper hand. The vast increase of overall speed in combat also helps with the experience as well.
The ki system has been completely revamped from the last two games. Rather than only existing for energy attacks, ki management is now essential to certain maneuvers (such as quick dodges and teleporting) as well as maintaining peak attack and guard powers. Every character now has a ki baseline specific to them which adds some strategy to picking a character and ki slowly increases or decreases to said baseline when not in use. This new system encourages strategic play like no fighter before it as you always have to make sure you have enough ki before you take your opponent head on.
Transformations are no longer a huge pain to maintain like in the last two games... it's in fact almost encouraged. Instead of draining ki, it can increase ki baseline and only runs out if you're attacked when you have basically no ki or are fatigued with a few exceptions (like Frieza or Cell).
Budokai 3 also introduces two completely new mechanics which are Hyper Mode and Dragonrush. Hyper Mode is a power-up which makes you not flinch to weaker attacks and allows you to use ki moves freely (though they still take energy) depending on how much ki you burn but it's also a high-risk technique as you lose the ability to guard, you can't replenish ki at all, and it's the only way of doing most ultimate moves... though at least you don't have to do a combo in order to execute them, it's as simple as pressing all the face buttons and it's started with an unblockable launch attack. Dragonrush is a mechanic which is activated by using Hyper Mode then attempting a pursuit to go into a cinematic 3-part button-guessing game where the opponent has to match your button input to avoid taking damage. It's basically the same for every character and is destined to annoy more devoted, less forgiving players as it can do great damage and is often spammed by the AI despite being one of the game's biggest attractions. It also doesn't help some ultimate moves are connected to Dragonrush (like Goku's Warp Kamehameha).
Much like Budokai 2, Budokai 3 introduces a new single-player campaign with RPG elements called Dragon Universe only it does away with the tedious board game setting from Budokai 2's Dragon World in place of a much more interesting system where you can choose from one out of 11 characters (half of which are unlockable) from the 40 character roster and fly across the world of Dragon World going from one point to another. Your main objective to fly towards to the location of the red dot found on the map in order to progress and engage in battle (with some having you fight under special conditions) but you can do other things like in Budokai 2's Dragon World such as collect dragonballs, find zeni and capsules, fight in battle points for extra experience points, earn voice data by reenacting moments from the series (a treat for fans), and get hidden unlockables. Also, unlike Dragon World, Budokai 3's Dragon Universe actually tells the story of Dragon Ball Z but not only that it also covers material from the movies Cooler's Revenge, The Return of Cooler, and Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan as well as some of Dragon Ball GT. They are apart of several alternative paths in the game... of which you can cross after your first playthrough with certain characters in Dragon Universe along with other unlockables giving players more incentive to unlock extras. There's also a Leveling Up system which is similar to the power ups you find in Budokai 2's Dragon World but the system is much deeper and will last throughout Dragon Universe. You can increase health, attack and guard power, the damage output of death moves, the effectiveness of your support capsules, and the computer's intelligence (when it plays as your leveled-up character). However, like Budokai 2's Dragon World, you still can't backtrack so if you miss something you would have to start all over to retrieve it.
Dueling, World Tournament, and Training (renamed back to Practice) remain largely the same but there is a Cell Games class in the World Tournament mode which is unlockable by playing in the extra game mode (I'll get to it later) and in the Cell Games class, anything goes much like the Cell Games rules setting in the GameCube/Japanese version of Budokai 2 except it actually takes place during the Cell ring, Computer-controlled opponents are also equipped with a Breakthrough capsule, and there are 5 rounds like the Advanced class meaning the sum of zeni earned is the same. The Practice section of the Practice mode now allows you to play against another player and the Training section returns only it generally goes even more in-depth with Budokai's core mechanics as well as explaining the newly introduced mechanics though it's still a bit vague regarding certain details.
The redundant capsule (throws are now integral to characters) has been dropped completely in favor of the capsule. capsules are basically your character's thump card and it can turn the battle around in your favor in various ways similar to the equipment capsules ranging from increasing attack/guard power dramatically for a short amount of time to restoring health or crippling your opponent but you can only equip one capsule. This change makes equipping your character with the desired skills much easier. The Skill Shop is mostly the same as Budokai 2's but it's made even easier with an indicator for you buying an additional ability capsule and there is a new set of equipment capsules called Sparking that increases the sum of zeni you earn from the World Tournament... meaning you can even earn over 100,000 zeni playing through the Advanced/Cell Games class once if you're good enough at the game without having to rely on ability capsules.
Budokai 3 introduces yet another new additional game mode called Dragon Arena, which you can unlock from playing with every character in Dragon Universe (except Broly) and it has MUCH more longevity than either The Legacy of Hercule or Babidi's Spaceship. You choose a character and fight against many leveled-up opponents while you level up your character... even characters that aren't available in Dragon Universe (which are most of them). This is also where you get certain unlockables... which I find unnecessary but whatever... you can also fight against another player's leveled-up character or submit a password to fight against a player's leveled-up character as controlled by the computer. One complaint I have is the passwords are too long and another is you can't really play online with any of your leveled-up characters... granted not that many PS2 games had online play but it still would've nice to fight other players with this feature in mind.
Budokai 3 continues with the cel-shaded style from the last game but once again Dimps went the extra mile and made Budokai 2's already stellar graphics even better. Not only are the character models and shading more refined but the particles, ki blasts, auras, etc. look like they were taken straight from the anime. The environments are all also vibrant and colorful with interesting little details... the game even gives you time to admire the scenery in the Dueling mode. The animation for characters- at least the idle animation, is more unique capturing each character's personality such as Cell's arrogant and imposing pose or Kid Buu's unyielding wildness, but the basic attacks still has a lot of canned animation and sadly, that also reigns especially true for Dragonrush.
Just like Budokai 2 much of the voice clips are recycled from the previous games with exception of cutscenes, certain pre/post battle quotes, and of course... new characters. Likewise a lot of the music is recycled from the previous with a couple of new tracks thrown in... though the tracks Budokai 3 introduces are more versatile in terms of musical styles/genres ranging from rock, techno, funk, and electronic... but they're not as memorable outside a few. The sound clips...are pretty much unchanged from Budokai 2.
Since Dragon Universe actually tells the story of Dragon Ball Z, the storytelling within it is miles above the one found in the weird mess in Budokai 2's Dragon World but it still doesn't measure up to the storytelling in first Budokai's Story Mode as you would have to play through multiple characters' perspectives in order to make sense of what's going on (even then it still leaves out a lot of details) and the cutscenes are all represented by still portraits with text bubbles which makes the already convoluted storytelling even more confusing... but the mass amount of exploration in Dragon Universe and various bells n' whistles makes up for it.
In terms of ultimate move cinematics, Budokai 3 is the same as the last game but environment effects are much better presented here whatnot with the dirt building up into the sky as you power up and your opponent leaving skid marks as you send them sliding across the floor. Knocking your opponent into environmental hazards are even more satisfying to watch as the land makes the opponent their bitch as you do the same. There's also a lot more character-specific pre/post-battle quotes than the previous games (Budokai 2 actually had none). Even Dragon Rush is nice to look at as you smack your opponent around.
The manga-inspired menus still remain but in Budokai 3, pretty much every menu has one tidbit even with the stage selection where every stage is circled around King Kai's planet (as they're all within his jurisdiction... well most of them) and Bubbles is messing around. The characters even speak to you with voices as they explain each mode and section... which is amusing in that it gives the menu more liveliness but it can get annoying notably in the case of Launch within the Edit Skills mode.
Budokai 3 also has another mini-game in the loading screen where you roll the analog-sticks to make multiple Saibamen pop up on screen but the load times are a little worse than Budokai 2's.
The quality jump from the first Budokai to Budokai 3 is honestly quite astounding. Dimps took what was a relatively shallow fighter that pretty much strictly for fans and made it into a game that's simple, yet surprisingly deep DBZ-fighting experience with tons of replay value and can be enjoyed by even non-fans of the series. Could I ever recommend it over other popular fighting game series' such as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat? Probably not (though I don't see much of a reason to not get either), but all I know as far as DBZ games are concerned, Budokai 3 set a benchmark in DBZ gaming that no other has yet to surpass.
I give this game a 8.7 out of 10.