From its outset, Super Dragon Ball Z has been touted as the first "serious" Dragon Ball Z fighting game, and there's a certain amount of pedigree to back that up, with Street Fighter II producer Noritaka Funamizu providing design input. Plus, it originally appeared in Japanese arcades, one of the rare places where fighting games still get played competitively. The action has a real traditional feel to it, and if you've played a Tekken, a Street Fighter, or a Virtua Fighter, Super Dragon Ball Z will feel extremely familiar. Unfortunately, Super Dragon Ball Z doesn't have the depth of the serious fighting games it patterns itself after, providing an experience that is hardly any more technical than certain past DBZ fighters, and without the exceedingly over-the-top charm that has been a series hallmark.
Super Dragon Ball Z's arcade roots are apparent from the main menu, which features a stock set of fairly standard features. There's an original arcade mode that pits you against a series of seven increasingly tough artificial intelligence opponents, and a survival mode that also pits you against a series of seven increasingly tough AI opponents, though the survival mode only gives you a single life bar to do it with. A versus mode lets you and a friend go at it in a one-off fight, and a training mode is provided to help you get familiar with each character's unique set of moves.
You can jump into any of the game's modes of play right from the get-go, but if you want to get the most out of Super Dragon Ball Z, you'll first want to create your own unique character card. Here you'll select a character from one of the 18 playables, give it a custom name, and choose from a few sets of unique color palettes. The character cards add a persistent character-building element to the game. Every time you finish a fight, regardless of which mode you're playing in, you're awarded battle points. Accruing enough battle points will give you access to a skill tree, where you can enhance certain character properties and assign new moves to your character. Additionally, playing through the original arcade mode, as well as the survival mode, can net you Dragon Balls. Once you collect all seven Dragon Balls on your character card, you can summon the dragon Shenron, who will grant you a wish, which can range from giving you an additional color palette for your character to unlocking a whole new character. On its own, the selection of gameplay modes available would feel a little too standard for its own good, but the implementation of unique character cards, while not the deepest we've seen, certainly makes it more appealing to keep coming back.
It shouldn't take long to get accustomed to the fighting mechanics, especially if you've played any other modern, conventional fighting games, though Super Dragon Ball Z isn't without a few unique twists. The face buttons on the PS2 controller give you two attacks, a block and a jump, and you can also use the shoulder buttons to pull off throws and dash attacks, though those are basically just shortcuts for moves that are accessible with certain face-button combos. There's a move list on tap for each character, though it doesn't take much feeling around to get the hang of things, especially since each character starts off with around eight moves, a lot of which are shared between different characters.
Since this is Dragon Ball Z, there are plenty of giant energy attacks being tossed around, as well as characters being knocked through walls and buildings. Plus, you can tap the jump button twice to make your character simply hang in the air, though the flying in Super Dragon Ball Z doesn't seem particularly well thought out. A limited angle of attack means that when one character is standing underneath another, neither one is really able to attack the other. Leaving the ground and meeting another character for some aerial combat feels kind of clunky, and the characters look more like they're just standing in the air rather than actually flying. In another authentic Dragon Ball Z touch, certain characters, specifically the Saiyans, are able to transform into more powerful versions of themselves mid-fight, which drains their special power meter, but gives them a big performance boost for a short time. Despite the variety of fighters--which includes ruthless alien warriors, murderous androids, demon kings, sword-wielding teens from the future, and put-upon housewives--the fighters have mostly comparable abilities, and everything balances out pretty well. Though 18 playable characters is certainly a respectable number for a fighting game, it actually feels limited here, partially because the game makes some rather odd character choices. The inclusion of Chi-Chi and the original King Piccolo is a boldly refreshing move, but multiple versions of Gohan and Vegeta at the expense of fan favorites like Goten, Kid Trunks, or Broly just doesn't seem right.
The characters that are included, though, look good when they're in action, partially because of the unique art style, which is modeled after Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball Z comic books. The environments--which hit all the expected DBZ locales like the World Tournament arena, Kami's lookout, the alien planet Namek, and of course, those expansive desert wastelands where so many Kamehameha waves have been thrown--feature a lot of detail that appears hand drawn, which goes a long way toward making the game look like a comic book that has come to life. The fighters are still cel-shaded, but they too have some of the hand-drawn touches on them. The character models look good, especially once they jump into action, with lots of fiery energy effects splashing around the screen, and little text bubbles with non-words like "zwang!" and "whomp!" appearing briefly to accompany an especially hard hit.
While the graphics might take their cues from the manga, the US voice cast for the Dragon Ball Z anime still shows up to provide the pipes for all the characters, and they put in a workmanlike effort that gets the job done. You can expect plenty of other trademark Dragon Ball Z music and sound effects as well, and it all fits together pretty well, though the prefight quips get repetitive quickly, especially if you're playing with a character card. Save for the occasional awkwardness of the flying elements and navigating the 3D environments, everything looks pretty natural, though there's also a certain rigidity to the presentation. The game rarely switches from the standard sideview of the action, and when it does, it's not as cinematic as it could be. Energy attacks can certainly pack a punch, but they're not particularly visceral, and you never get the sense that you're dealing with a genuinely overwhelming amount of power, which, quite frankly, is what draws a lot of fans to Dragon Ball Z in the first place.
The standing question about Super Dragon Ball Z is who, exactly, is it meant for? Though it conforms to a lot of traditional fighting game conventions, it's simply not deep or varied enough to really satisfy those that consider themselves hardcore fighting game fans. By conforming to these conventions, Super Dragon Ball Z loses a lot of the enthusiastic, over-the-top energy that has made the Budokai series such a fan favorite. Still, it's good enough at what it does that people from either camp should be able to find something to enjoy here, but both will find it to be a compromise at best.