Nostalgia is a tricky mistress, and it tends to play games with our perceptions. Much like "fanboydom," reminiscing on past experiences tends to show us something that we aren’t seeing clearly, such as a generally weak plot in Call of Duty or a convoluted one in Metal Gear Solid. Nonetheless, weaknesses like that can be forgiven if the game itself brings a little something to everyone who plays it. CoD, for example, gives gamers a simple but masterful experience in gameplay that’s mimicked by nearly every other shooter out there, while MGS sports a storyline that any storyteller would envy writing. Such is not the case in regards to the Dragonball Z HD Collection. It has its perks, and it’s a welcome addition to the collection of any avid gamer, but it requires a little warning first.
This collection, unlike so many before it, only includes two titles out of the three Budokai titles that were released on the PlayStation 2. Before I get into that, however, the games that are included need to be assessed.
The first Budokai covers the time in Dragonball Z lore when Raditz, Goku’s saiyan brother, arrives on Earth touting the capture of the planet; and the lore ends with the conclusion to the fight between Goku and Frieza on the planet Namek. What’s frustrating about the plot delivery within the game is that it’s regurgitated in such a way that only fans of the series would know what’s really going on. Little nuances and quirks about each character are given a moment of presentation, where the anime had given them ample time to develop. Thus, the game shoots itself in the foot and presents itself like an inside joke that only those involved will understand.
The third Budokai game changes in many ways from the first title, and the most gleaming change is the artistic direction. Characters that were once rendered 3D representations of each character become cel-shaded and appear more in an anime-esque fashion. This change is more than welcome, since the bright and almost overbearing abilities that characters use in DBZ appear more like flying energy would, if there was such a thing. Motions and animations are beautiful too, as movement feels dynamic and intense without really trying too hard or doing too much. The story is also navigated in a global free roam. This allows for players to search the world for the Dragon Balls to get a wish from the dragon Shenron at the end of each character’s story. The free roam aspect of this game isn’t detailed at all, so figuring it out either requires prior knowledge, trial and error, or a quick Google search.
Both games essentially revolve around the same combat mechanics with only a few enhancements along the way. Players each have seven bars of Ki, or energy, and that energy can be used for series-stapled abilities like the Kamehameha, Spirit Bomb, or Final Flash. There are even more powerful forms that can be activated mid-combat for more damage, but they require a constant use of energy. Energy is returned by executing physical attacks on opponents or "powering up," where the character crouches and channels its energy. Abilities are also applied the same way across both titles. Completing events and defeating enemies often yields capsules, yet another example of unexplained references to the series, that can be equipped to use in battle. This aspect of the game is the strongest, since it makes the player decide what’s important to take into each fight; some capsules require other capsules to be equipped, so being more powerful often compensates defensive abilities. Ultimately, the way that players can manipulate capsules is a great way for a player’s play style to shine without having to spend an exuberant amount of time in the game.
When I played this game as a kid, I was able to pick it up and do very well. I never knew why it felt so natural to me then, but the evidence was there the whole time. Most fighters feature combat that can be executed easily, but the strengths of many of those fighters is in the sheer visual complexity of executing those simple commands. The combat in Budokai is simple, much like most fighters, but nothing ever becomes complicated or engrossing about it. Blocking stops all basic attacks, which means there’s no need for directional blocking; and combos often conclude with animations that do more damage than their effort is worth. The reward is high for minimal input, but that intensity soon fades as the fights fly by. Budokai 3 mixes it up a bit by giving players the ability to counter at the cost of Ki. Pressing X while moving toward your opponent will allow you to teleport behind your foe and hit him or her, thus ending his or her combo and evening out the playing field. This can be done up to three consecutive times by each player in one instance, and the only limitation besides that is the amount of Ki that each player has stockpiled. Ultimately, this mechanic overpowers a combat system that doesn’t really deserve it.
Both titles include a World Tournament mode, which pits players against random unlocked characters in three difficulty modes, those being Novice, Adept, and Advanced. I remember spending a fair amount of time in my youth repeating the World Tournament for in-game cash, called Zenie, so I could buy all of the capsule abilities, and I didn’t have many problems doing so. That was because the tournament allows for ring outs, so fighting strong characters is still fairly simple. What makes the mode frustrating is that the harder difficulty appears in the last round of Adept and the last two rounds of Advanced difficulty; this means that any difficulty above Novice simply extends past the lowest difficulty so the challenging modes aren’t programmed into the natural progression of the game. The inconsistencies in difficulty also carry into the story mode, where the final battles are always exponentially harder than any fights along the way. The sheer spontaneity of challenge is really off-putting to the whole experience, since most of the road along the way is a cake walk.
The main strength of this collection is that it’s incredibly easy to pick up and start playing, but it doesn’t really give new players many reasons to stick around for long. Since this game compilation only holds a strong appeal for avid fans of the series, it’s not really a surprise that Budokai 2 wasn’t included. The sheer appeal of the two games is pointed toward 3, which is the best game in the trilogy. The first Budokai game, which is dry in delivery and basic in execution, puts the third title in a false hierarchy, since the comparison is so dynamic. I can only imagine that the polarity between these two titles was utilized in order to emulate a major improvement; so, if the second game would have been included in the collection, the third game wouldn’t have looked as good, since cel-shading was introduced to the series in the second title.
Essentially, this collection is for the fans only, which is disappointing. The Dragonball Z series has always been known for taking a thousand episodes for each fight, but the Budokai games fly right past each fight on its way to the credits. Though the combat has sight inklings of complexity and discipline, the games themselves don’t really give players any reason to pursue that expertise. Remember, this is a fairly easy game, and the platinum trophy is even easier to get, but the brief experience that is the Dragonball Z HD Collection doesn’t really give those unfamiliar with the series any reason to pick it up. Unless you know what to expect, proceed with caution.