Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai brings Atari and Dimps' successful anime-inspired fighting series to the PlayStation Portable in a package that isn't particularly ambitious but is still well-executed enough to make it worthwhile. The simple, fast-paced action of the Budokai series translates well onto the PSP, and the presentation is both eye-catchingly vibrant and technically flashy. Shin Budokai's bare-bones set of features is in stark relief against the game's solid core and is a little disappointing.
That Shin Budokai takes its cues from the first three Budokai games, and not Budokai Tenkaichi, should be a great relief to fans. Like its predecessors, Shin Budokai takes a basic 3D fighting game model and imbues it with the hyperkinetic energy synonymous with Dragon Ball Z. The game's controls map easily onto the PSP, using two of the face buttons for melee attacks, one for blocking attacks, and one for firing off ranged energy attacks. As you might expect, melee attacks can be easily strung into combos, and pressing both at once lets you throw your opponent. Holding down the block button puts your character's guard up, though well-timed taps on the block button can dodge an attack entirely or even throw an energy attack right back at your opponent.
It's the ranged energy attacks that give Shin Budokai's gameplay such a distinctive flair. In addition to your standard life bar, there's a ki meter, which dictates what kinds of energy attacks you can throw. Your ki will increase naturally over the course of a fight, but you can also hold down the L button to quickly charge up, though this will leave you extremely vulnerable to attacks. Depending on how much ki you have charged up, your energy attacks can range from a puny yellow fireball to a time-stopping, screen-filling nightmare. Fully charged ki attacks aren't unbeatable, since a well-timed punch can cancel out the whole thing, but they're impressive looking and completely devastating when they land. Certain characters, such as the Saiyans, can use the ki energy to turn into more powerful forms, too.
Instant teleportation can also have a significant impact on the momentum of the game. With this simply executed move, you can instantly appear right behind your opponents just as they're about to throw a punch, giving you the upper hand. You can also use this to ping-pong enemies back and forth after an initial attack launches them into the air. Things get really interesting when both players use the instant teleportation back and forth several times in a row, making for a fun tug-of-war dynamic. There are some cool gameplay elements introduced in Budokai 3 that didn't make it into Shin Budokai. The dragon rush attacks, which introduced a fun little rock-paper-scissors mechanic along with some amazing cinematic camera angles, is the most unfortunate omission, though it's also disappointing that power struggles, where two characters throw massive energy attacks at each other at once, resolve themselves without any additional input from the players. Overall, the gameplay is still fast and furious, and the game's artificial intelligence can put up a pretty wicked fight.
The Budokai series has always done a solid job of translating the flashy Dragon Ball Z aesthetic into a 3D fighter, and Shin Budokai bucks no trends in this regard. Using a nice, clean cel-shading effect helps make the characters look all the more like their two-dimensional counterparts, and the animations, which are presumably lifted from Budokai 3, are fast and powerful. The game also uses a dazzling color palette that helps make the action stand out, but it's the special-effects overkill that really makes Shin Budokai great to look at. You can expect to see lots of small, anime-style motion lines all over the place. Even when characters are standing still, energy will crackle and swirl around them, and when they start throwing attacks, intense and colorful light and particles bombard the screen. Not as much work went into the game's sound design, but it didn't really need to, since it's easy enough to lift most of the sounds from the DBZ cartoon. It's a little disappointing that the game doesn't feature much voice acting, but as a minor consolation, you can choose to switch between the English or Japanese voice acting.
While the game is fun to play and great to look at, the modes of play in Shin Budokai are less inspired. There's a main story mode called Dragon Road, which models itself after the plot of the Dragon Ball Z movie Fusion Reborn (or Rebirth of Fusion, depending on your region), and it's basically a long, long series of fights punctuated with expository scenes composed of still shots of the characters. The dialogue is wincingly bad, and the story doesn't make a great deal of sense, but luckily the story sequences are easily skipped. It's a pretty half-baked mode, but it's worth playing through since you can unlock a ton of characters on top of the 13 you start with. The other modes are just as bland, including a standard one-on-one arcade mode, a time-attack mode, a survival mode, a stripped-down ad hoc multiplayer mode, and a training mode.
After you win a fight in any of the above-mentioned modes, you get your performance rated based on how much life you lost, how long it took you to win, and the overall technicality of the fight, and you are awarded a number of points for your efforts. Rather than using these points to buy cool, powerful enhancements for characters, you can buy a variety of "stamps," which feature lots of recognizable DBZ characters, locales, and items. You can combine purchased stamps to create your own custom "profile card," which you can then share with other players. It's all exceptionally lame, like some kind of anime scrapbooking thing, and it doesn't add to the overall package.
Despite its rather paltry set of features, the absence of some of the coolest action from Budokai 3, and the almost criminally lame profile card system, Shin Budokai is still a solid 3D fighter, thanks to some great visuals and action that's easy to pick up and play. Those looking for a hardcore, highly technical fighter aren't going to find what they need here, but DBZ fans are sure to eat it up. As long as you're not expecting the next Tekken, Shin Budokai can prove to be a manic fighter with its own style.