Reinventing Dragon Ball

More than a decade has passed since Dragon Ball Z first hit it big on Cartoon Network. But despite the enormous progress that other licensed games (Star Wars, Transformers, The Bourne Identity, etc.) have made in recent years, DBZ has only given birth to games that are merely fun, entertaining, or decent.

The trend started with Dragon Ball Z: Budokai for PlayStation, a game that helped Dragon Ball launch a successful career as a fighting game franchise, but failed to do anything that hadn’t been done before. The developers kept fans interested in the annual sequels – which included not one, not two, but five consecutive iterations – by adding new characters, new combos, and by fine-tuning the gameplay.

This by-the-book development attitude has continued with the current generation. Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit is an exciting fighting game for PS3 and Xbox 360. But underneath the fast gameplay and the ultra-shiny coat of paint, Burst Limit is essentially the upgraded (“Super”) edition of the previous releases. Hey, it worked for Street Fighter, so why not everybody else?

Then there was the actual “Super” game, Super Dragon Ball Z. Released for PS2 in 2006, this fighter had nothing to do with the other releases. Super DBZ had more in common with Darkstalkers and Marvel vs. Capcom than Budokai and Budokai Tenkaichi. It was a fun title, but players had seen all of its content before, minus the Dragon Ball license.

Outside of the fighting genre, Dragon Ball games have been hit or miss. Dragon Ball Z: Sagas attempted to push the series into the world of action games, but its clunky (and boring) gameplay prevented that from happening. Dragon Ball Z: Infinite World wasn’t more successful, even though it included a 2D fighting mode to satisfy the needs of Budokai fans.

In the area of action/RPGs, Game Boy Advance owners were treated to the Dragon Ball Z: Legacy of Goku series, which later spawned the Buu’s Fury spin-off. All three were decent games, though the second one (Legacy of Goku II) seems to be the fan favorite. On the Nintendo DS, Dragon Ball: Origins took the popular touch screen controls from The Legend of Zelda and applied them to the Dragon Ball universe. The results have been very impressive. But again, innovation is not a part of the experience. Without Zelda, would Origins even exist?

If it sounds like I’m angry with the Dragon Ball video games, make no mistake: many of them have provided me with hours of entertainment. I’ve continued to play the series because, even though the games are never exactly what I want, many of them are still pretty darn good. Dragon Ball: Origins 2 is the perfect example – the game doesn’t break new ground, but I still couldn’t break away from it before finishing every stage.

Addictive gameplay, however, isn’t good enough. I want more than entertainment – I want Dragon Ball innovation.

Is that possible? Can this famed series be turned into gold? Yes, it can. But only if someone has the strength to pull it off.

No More Zzzz Story Lines

Publishers seem to confuse the “Z” in the title for Nyquil’s infamous slogan. I feel like I’ve sat through the Raditz, Vegeta, Frieza and Cell story lines in the DBZ video games more times than I’ve been able to re-watch the actual anime.

Solution: Create an open-ended story line that starts in a familiar place but allows the player to decide everything that follows. Persuade the enemy to do some good, give in to their temptation and join the dark side, or sit back and do nothing while the world falls apart – the choice should be up to the player. This would allow purists to stay true to the source material (and ensure that everything happens as it is supposed to), while giving everyone else a chance to explore new territory.

Solution 2 (for developers on a budget): Re-write history and change everything we know about the Dragon Ball and DBZ sagas.

Start with a few unexpected and irreversible deaths (Bulma and Chi-Chi instantly spring to mind), adjust the dynamic of the villains (every villain seems to be the worst Goku has ever faced until he/she is defeated – that needs to change), and produce a definitive ending that brings the story to a close without giving players that “until next time…” sensation.

Fight For New Ground

At this stage, I think it’s time to drop the fighting game angle and focus on an area where innovation is actually possible: the action genre. Oh sure, any developer could throw together a Dragon Ball-themed action game and cash in on the license, but that isn’t going to cut it. We need something bigger, something better – something we will never forget.

Solution: Design the most expansive open-world action game of all time.

In a nutshell, Dragon Ball Z needs to be made into a game that surpasses the level of depth and interactivity of Just Cause 2. It needs to reach a level so high that we truly feel like we can do anything: travel across planets, fight whoever we want, whenever we want, and become whatever kind of Saiyan we want to be.

Dragon Ball’s developers need to look to its own accomplishments – no matter how small – and work hard to apply them to a 3D universe. It wasn’t merely the button-heavy combos that made Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi fun. Rather, it was the mixture of fighting game elements (such as the energy blasts, which were not unlike the projectile attacks of the Street Fighter series, or the teleportation technique, which was mechanically reminiscent of Mortal Kombat) that made the game work.

The developers need to take those elements and bring them into 3D. Producing a Devil May Cry or Bayonetta clone will not be good enough. The next DBZ video game needs to differentiate itself by taking advantage of other features from the show, such as the Nimbus and Goku’s own ability to fly. Granted, the developers would need to be careful with any flying mechanic, as they do not want this to turn into Star Fox with Dragon Balls. Krillin might be a nice match for Fox McCloud in the next Smash Bros., but that doesn’t mean that anything related to Star Fox should invade Goku’s world.

Go Big or Go Home

If the current (and perhaps permanent) license holders – Atari and Namco Bandai – aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to create a sequel that won’t get lost in the ocean of repeats, then it’s time for these publishers to pull the ultimate “playing it safe” move and stop the series altogether. Why risk killing the franchise – and release a game that flops – when risks are, as publishers love to remind us, really big and scary?