Release Date: October 18, 2005
Buy 'DRAGON BALL Z: Budokai Tenkaichi' PlayStation 2
My God. Someone finally did it. After all these years of waiting, someone got it right. Not completely right, mind you, but enough so that there's finally hope.
Since darned near the dawn of time, Dragon Ball Z fighting games have been made. When one sees the epic battles that take place in the manga and anime, who could blame anyone for trying to cash in, especially during the fighter craze of the mid-'90s, when the games started being produced with frequency?
Unfortunately, most attempts at recreating the fast-paced, beam-laden, teleport-happy, million-punches-per-second fights to date have been sub-par. Be it through technological limitations or developers more concerned with cashing in on a franchise with worldwide appeal than making a good fighting game, only a small handful have been considered to be worth bothering with by DBZ fans and fighting gamers alike.
A few gems have slipped through the cracks — one or two obscure Japanese-only 16-bit installments, and as far as sprite fighters go, Arc Systems' Supersonic Warriors games definitely hold their own. The series that has gotten the most attention to date in the past years, however, are Atari and Dimps' Budokai. Budokai took the series into 3D much the same way Tekken 3 expanded its system — sidesteps were implemented to give a sense of depth, and the fighting system was simplified at the core while being added upon for functionality. Budokai 3 is where the series came to a head, incorporating tons of special moves, teleports, fast-punches, cut scene-like special moves and rush supers that do their best to recreate the fights most folks have gaped at on television for so many years. To many people, it stands as the pinnacle of DBZ fighting games.
Now that you're up to speed on Budokai and its history, allow me to promptly throw all of it out of the window.
Tenkaichi (known as Dragon Ball Z: Sparking! in Japan), for all intents and purposes, may well be its own spin-off series. It's in no way related to previous Budokai games, except through the soundtrack, which is almost exactly the same as Budokai 3's, for some reason. Its developer is Spike, known for the Fire Pro Wrestling games — people like to mention that, at any rate, but honestly, it has little bearing here.
What makes this game so darned good is that there are things that its fighting system can do that any other DBZ fighting game can only dream of. Tenkaichi takes DBZ fighters into true, free-form three-dimensionality, sporting a behind-the-back third-person perspective for the player and his/her chosen character. From here, the fighting system and button setup allows you to ascend, descend, and navigate in all directions, much like a 3D adventure game. Different speeds are associated with movement depending on how much chi (super meter) you wish to burn, and a single button is used for energy and beam attacks. It can be charged, or it can be melded with chi for a super attack. High-speed physical attacks are also part of the equation, and of course, there are the ever-popular multi-punch rush combos and beam supers.
Should two rush supers/beam supers/chi balls/etc., of equal power meet, they will either cancel each other out, or a punch/beam battle will ensue, with whoever rotates the analog sticks the fastest being the winner. All I've mentioned above are merely the basic techniques, however. The engine's even deeper than this. Air, ground and underwater tactics abound, along with the lock-on system and the ability to smack your foe across the landscape like a giant pinball. You can teleport in the middle of combos or away from them, set off explosive barriers to ward off enemies, smack away chi attacks with your bare hands, and so much more.
All of these things add up to make the most involved DBZ fighter ever. While other fighters had to make do with scripted combinations and cut scenes involving the series' flashier attacks, Tenkaichi allows you to create your own, and combinations based on such. It's like you're really playing the manga/anime, and if you're a DBZ fan, expect to grin like an idiot more times than you can count with this game in your system, especially if you have a friend who knows how the fighting system works.
Alas, that's one of the game's few caveats — Tenkaichi gives the player so much freedom that it can be a handful to get used to at first. The control scheme doesn't help matters much because it's not exactly set up intuitively. The first day you mess with this game will be Learning Curve Day(tm); after that, however, especially once you tackle the single-player modes, you'll get a feel for how the system works, and soon you'll be flying around with the best of them … hopefully. Some people never get the hang of freeform flying, but gain other strengths. It's worth sticking with the system, though, as the reward is quite hefty; being able to faithfully re-enact any fight from anywhere in the series, to me, seems to be worth the initial frustration. Still, due to this, it may be a while before you can find yourself some decent competition.
There are some other things to note: people who've played Budokai 3 and liked it will notice that this game plays far slower than that one. Don't get me wrong, Tenkaichi is fast, but Budokai 3 moved at the speed of light, and it's hard to reproduce that kind of speed when you have the entire world (outside of some hokey force fields that enclose the stages at a certain radius) at your disposal to fight in. Also, in the older games, you could switch forms (i.e., Super Saiyan upgrades, fusions, etc.) on the fly, but here, we're back to Ultimate Battle 22, where each and every character's form is a separate fighter. That's a letdown. Finally, the 3D system itself isn't perfect; there can be camera snags, the lock-on system doesn't always lock on to your opponent correctly, and sometimes, odd enough as it seems, you want to just walk around on the ground, but the game does not want to let you do that. Hopefully, these things will be fixed in the hypothetical sequel.
The game's pretty barebones when it comes to versus fighting, but the one-player modes are quite robust, and include a story mode that lets you relive almost every fight ever staged in DBZ, from the anime, the movies, and even a few "what if?" scenarios that never really happened, but are interesting to watch play out. They're worth it just to be able to assume the role of Frieza just as he's about to kill Krillin and watch him shake in his boots.
All of the Budokai games have only gotten better in the visuals department. We've gone from fast-paced fighting to shiny beams to camera swooping to destructible terrain to God knows what else by now. Even through all of these evolutions, the cel-shading and character models have continued to get better in quality, and Tenkaichi sports the best yet. It's a wonder when you think of the fact that this is the PS2 pulling all of this off. Possibly even more mind-blowing is the CG intro sequence that takes the place of the usual animated opening to the Budokai games (self-professed "purists" will scoff at this, but this reviewer finds the change welcome, and quite badass) featuring all of the main characters locked in battle. My only complaint at this point is that there's no progressive scan support, which is truly a shame.
Background music ranges from mediocre to decent; however, Funimation's dubbers are in full force, and their voices grace the characters from everything from the menus to the special moves to some ingenious custom introductions between several character matchups. (Pro tip: Krillin vs. 18 = comedy gold.) However, for supremely old-school DBZers, there's also an option to switch to Japanese voices. When the fighting actually takes place, you'll hear all of the shouts, kiai's impacts and chi blasts from the anime. No expense seems to have been spared.
DBZ: Budokai Tenkaichi is the best DBZ fighting game I've personally played to date, and it's one that I'll gladly play alongside my repertoire of "dedicated" fighting games. It combines loads of fanservice with a fighting system that rewards you if you take the time to learn it with a sense of control unlike any other DBZ fighter before it, and stumbles in very few places to boot. This is an excellent product put out by Spike, especially for the first time out the gate. If Atari sticks with this developer and allows them to fix what small issues exist (mainly regarding fighting speed, learning curve and the dodging system), I sense great times ahead for both DBZ and fighting fans alike.
We're almost there, folks. And it only took us 12 years.
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