For a lot of people, Dragon Ball Z was probably one of the first anime shows they ever saw, and it's managed to retain its popularity for quite some time. Robotech marked my first introduction to Japanese animation, but I definitely fall into the same boat of people who didn't have a great deal of interest in the style until after watching Dragon Ball Z.
By the time the video games started to get released in the U.S., my adoration for the series was more or less over, but I still appreciated certain titles, like Dragon Ball Z Budokai, for being fun and showy fighters that played surprisingly well. I realize that the series has seen game iterations going as far back as the Super Nintendo days, but those fighters were my first introduction to the anime in video game form. However, the series that actually kicked off the franchise, Toriyama's original Dragon Ball, hasn't seen nearly as much of the limelight as the second chapter, which is why I found it kind of odd that we're just now getting a DS game based on it. Dragon Ball: Origins is definitely an odd pick for a new DB title, but in the end, it's one of the better entries for the entire franchise, and something that the fans won't want to pass up.
Dragon Ball: Origins features the first two major story arcs from the original Dragon Ball series, so you'll get the first introductions to characters like Bulma and the Red Ribbon army here. We meet Goku in child form as he joins up with Bulma to hunt down the mysterious Dragon Balls that are supposed to grant one wish to whoever manages to hunt down all of them. The game manages to retain a lot of the juvenile humor aspects that made the series so charming, and for the most part, the story is retold exactly as I remember from the original series. Any changes I noticed were pretty minor, and I definitely applaud the developers for selecting territory that hasn't already worn out its welcome (how many times do we need to see the Raditz saga in a video game?).
If you're going into this thinking it will be another fighter like previous games in the series, you're going to be a bit disappointed. This title goes for an adventure feel, with players controlling Goku through various stages as you fight against mostly nameless enemies and creatures while advancing the plot. The majority of the controls are handled entirely by the touch-screen, which lets you move Goku around by dragging the stylus from point to point, and you can attack your enemies simply by tapping or slashing across the screen, depending on whether you want to perform a punch or attack with his staff.
There are some special moves, but in keeping in form with the anime, Goku doesn't really have the same repertoire of over-the-top powers that he gains in Dragon Ball Z. You get a beam attack here and there, and you unlock new abilities as the title progresses, but a lot of them will be used to overcome some of the light puzzles that are scattered throughout the game. All in all, the main game isn't particularly challenging, but the departure from a fighting-centric gameplay formula to the adventure setting is going to put off a few people. Keep in mind that this change stays true to the series, as the original Dragon Ball anime always seemed to be less about the fighting and more about the journey.
Visually, Dragon Ball: Origins opts for 3-D models instead of traditional 2-D sprite work, and it manages to pay off quite well. There are a lot of cut scenes here in particular, which showcase the artwork really well. They've managed to nail the humor aspects, even going so far as to use the spacing between the DS screens in a way that ties into the comedy, something I'm pretty sure I haven't seen in a DS title to date. It's not groundbreaking material, but it's definitely good enough for a chuckle or two. I think that a lot of the places that you end up traveling to feel a little bland in design, and while I realize the DS can't knock out amazing textures, the large swatches of green and brown really make certain places feel too similar at times. The characters and enemies, though, do a great job of capturing Toriyama's original design work.
The audio, on the other hand, is largely forgettable. There's not much in the way of voice acting here, which doesn't come as a big surprise, but the music doesn't exactly stay with you. It's hardly grating, and works well enough in association with the on-screen antics, but it's not something for which you'll want to pick up a soundtrack in the future.
Altogether, Dragon Ball: Origins isn't quite the Dragon Ball game that fans have come to expect in the last few years, but that doesn't mean it's not one of the better releases that the series has seen in quite some time. The Budokai/Tenkachi series feels pretty stale at this point, and the series could definitely benefit from some new lifeblood being pumped into it. Origins is definitely a step in the right direction; the gameplay fits the nature of the original series well enough, and while it isn't the most challenging or overly original type of adventure game, it manages to be fun and does a great job of capturing the mood of the original Dragon Ball. The gameplay feels like it's lacking any particular "oomph" to it, and while the controls work fine, we've already seen a similar use from games like Phantom Hourglass, and the way they're used here doesn't bring anything new to the table. This is a title that's going to appeal strictly to fans of the franchise more so than the average gamer, and in the long run, I feel like it's hindered a bit by this. It does do a great job of translating some of the original series' appeal, but as a game, it doesn't do enough to make it spectacular.
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