When we realised that plot of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot spans the entire history of the franchise, we wondered: is it possible to gain a passable understanding of the series’ vast history through one video game?
It seems impossible, right? The Dragon Ball media franchise, in various forms, has been running for decades. It’s a ridiculous undertaking. You’d have to be an idiot to think you could cram the entire franchise into a single video game.
Luckily, we know just the right idiot for the job. So without further ado, here’s an idiot’s guide to Dragon Ball Z – learned entirely through playing Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot – by our own Callum Williams.
“Giant alien monkeys”
Although I’m sure it’s blasphemous to admit it, I’ve never watched Dragon Ball Z. While I’m aware a lot of kids my age watched the re-runs of the anime smash-hit on the Cartoon Network, I was far too pre-occupied living out my Star Wars fantasies to care what Goku and his merry band of supporting characters were up to. Before long, Dragon Ball simply became “that show where a load of dudes with weird hair shot laser beams at each other” to me. And until around two weeks ago, it stayed that way.
However, because of the thorough journalist I am, I decided to correct that mistake and finally experience Dragon Ball Z as it was intended: by skirting around sixteen seasons of well-paced anime and playing a brisk video game adaptation instead. That’s right, I’ve finally had my first experience with the Dragon Ball universe entirely through the newly released Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, and let me tell you, it’s been quite the ride.
From epic battles with giant alien monkeys to a newfound reverence for the words “power level,” I’ve almost learnt too much and too little about Dragon Ball Z in the thirty-hour crash course that is Kakarot. Whether or not this was the way the game was meant to be experienced – and the fact the Dragon Ball Z Wiki is now firmly lodged in my favourites tab seems to indicate the latter – there’s such a strong affinity for Akira Toriyama’s world condensed into this video game adaption that it’s almost overbearing. So, sit back, and let me explain what I learnt about Dragon Ball Z through not watching the show at all.
The first revelation that hit me fairly early into Kakarot was that this is far from the beginning of the Dragon Ball story. For one, there’s very little explanation of what the world of Dragon Ball is about and who on earth its inhabitants are. Essentially, the story takes place on a part-fantasy, part-science fiction interpretation of earth. From what I can gather, everyone is either cosplaying as Ryu from Street Fighter or Spock from Star Trek. Or both. (This means they can fire off some Hadoukens, but also fly spaceships, too.)
There are also some magical blue men in the sky and a whole realm for the afterlife, but Kakarot doesn’t think they’re important so it doesn’t bother explaining them. Just know the gods sometimes do magical stuff that essentially acts as deus ex machina whenever the writers are trapped in a corner.
In truth, the only thing that really matters in this universe is seven magical spheres known – surprise, surprise – as the Dragon Balls.
Bringing all these balls together summons a big dragon in the sky who lets you make a wish, but only if you follow a long list of rules that mean Dragon Ball’s writers can rebuff Redditers poking flaws in the series’ logic. They’re a McGuffin that every villain is at least partially interested in acquiring, but they also let any character that dies come back from the dead, no doubt resulting in a horrific overpopulation problem. Goku, who is the story’s main protagonist, defends the galaxy from a series of increasingly colourful antagonists that want these dragon balls to wish for immortality.
“A giant green pickle and a little bald man”
Now, in Dragon Ball’s universe, one thing is abundantly clear: Goku is the centre of everything. When you’re playing as Goku, you get every attack, thousands of experience points, and tonnes of combat variety. Every other character? Well, they can have a watered-down imitation of Goku’s move set. This is because Goku is a Saiyan, which in Dragon Ball terms basically means he can do anything the story needs him to do at any given moment. In short, if you’re not Goku, you might as well not bother, because you’re pretty inconsequential. This is increased ten-fold by the fact that Goku easily has the best moves in the game, so when you’re fighting literally any enemy, it feels like he’s a freight train hurtling towards a snail.
He does, however, have some lowly, lesser powered friends, because he’s such a humble guy. These consist of his son Gohan, a giant green pickle called Piccolo, angry Goku (AKA Vegeta), and a little bald man called Krillin. Where Dragon Ball Z seems to secretly excel is in the fact these characters are actually far more interesting than Goku will ever be. (See also: DC struggling to keep the perfect superhero, Superman, interesting and relevant.)
Vegeta wrestles with his pride. Piccolo struggles with his identity. Gohan desires to leave battle and become a scholar. And Krillin is… well, to be honest, Krillin just seems like a nice dude. I’m sure the show gives them ample screen time to blossom as characters, but the game cares little for their petty issues. After all, they are not Goku.
As I played the game and experienced my first two official sagas, I was feeling assured about my knowledge of the Dragon Ball Z world. Sure, I had no idea who the creepy blue god with sunglasses in the sky was, and I’m still baffled why a giant pink troll with a Viking helmet welcomed me to the afterlife, but the stories themselves were fairly easy to follow.
Before I knew it, I’d fought both Vegeta and Frieza, and finished my first two major story arcs. It was an exhilarating handful of chapters, and I’d learned as much about the Dragon Ball world as Kakarot’s exclusively action-packed take on the story could show me.
Then, I got stuck into the third and fourth sagas. It didn’t take long for a distinct sense of repetition to set in. Not only were most of the game’s characters practically just standing around going, “Oh no, here comes a massive new villain, and he’s way stronger than the last one,” multiple times every hour, but a number of the story’s beats seemed to be yanked directly from previous sagas.
“I’m a big scary anime villain”
As always, Goku gets a major rest at the start of both stories – in which all his supporting cast get to play hero for a bit – before eventually returning to save the day. Both Cell and Majin Buu – the villains of the third and fourth sagas – have suspiciously familiar world domination plots, seemingly yanked from the same “I’m a big scary anime villain” handbook. Granted, I was getting far more accustomed to the world, while Kakarot’s incredibly bland side missions were a boring – yet still somewhat welcoming – introduction to who most of the side characters were. But something was still a bit fishy.
It didn’t take me long to lock down a pattern for every Dragon Ball saga I had played up until this point. Now I’ve completely finished Kakarot, I have a distinct summary of what I call the seven steps of Dragon Ball. It goes a little something like this:
- Goku is written entirely off-screen for some bizarre reason. He might be dead, have severe heartburn or just be sleeping. All that’s important is that he’s gone.
- All of his little buddies then have to group together to face some dastardly villain who wants to get the Dragon Balls, for reasons.
- They push themselves to the max, but every time they can’t quite topple this massive foe. One of them then has to die or be really badly injured.
- Goku’s friends are about to perish. “I guess this is the end,” they say solemnly. BUT WAIT! WHAT’S THAT?
- Goku flies in. He looks at the big villain and says, “Hmmmph. You’re no match for me anymore. I’ve dug deep and found a new level to my seemingly limitless Super Saiyan abilities,” and then beats them to a pulp.
- The villain then decides to only now unleash his true power, which basically means he just gets buffer. In retaliation, Goku dyes his hair and takes his shirt off. Now, somehow, he’s equally matched in power.
- Goku hits them with a massively OTT super move. They die, and everyone goes home.
Now, this is almost definitely because, without the presence of the TV show, Kakarot was essentially showing me a condensed version of Dragon Ball Z that lacks any semblance of filler or quiet story moments. Kakarot is seemingly so against downtime that it even flashes cue cards to avoid filling these giant narrative gaps.
If somebody isn’t fighting, Kakarot acts like an impatient friend that fast forwards a TV show to every fight scene. When you dare to protest it gives you a concise version of the story, as though it will give you any context as to why Goku is currently fighting a giant pink bubble-gum man.
“So damn endearing”
I’m sure within each televised season of Dragon Ball there’s a lot of character development between the story’s epic battles, but going on what the game shows you, Dragon Ball quickly becomes a tale of severely jacked warriors shooting laser beams at each other and saying cringey one-liners. They don’t want to develop as people; all they want to do is dye their hair yellow, beat each other up, and show off their flashy new power levels to their friends.
Yet, as my time with Kakarot went on, I started to learn that not only is the eccentric and formulaic nature of Dragon Ball Z sort of what makes it so entertaining – it’s also what makes it so damn endearing. Akira Toriyama’s incredible designs, the show’s bonkers characters, and the cyclical formula that sees Goku going head to head with endless psychotic villains; they all make for a story that’s hard not to get behind. I felt like I was getting the “my parents are tired but I’ve insisted on being read a bedtime story’” version of the narrative, but even through the confusing lens of Kakarot, it grew on me.
Goku transforming into a Super Saiyan was powerful, Future Trunks demolishing Mecha Frieza was shocking, and Gohan eventually defeating Cell was elating. All the moments my friends had raved about when they watched the show still made their impact through Kakarot, even if all the bits and pieces weren’t exactly in the right place.
It’s a testament to the game that I genuinely feel like I have some attachment to the world of Dragon Ball Z now; well, Dragon Ball Z and the Dragon Ball Wiki anyway. Perhaps it’s more like Stockholm Syndrome? Anyway, I digress. If you’ve ever been interested in getting into Dragon Ball Z, Kakarot is the equivalent of skip reading a novel (or reading the Cliff Notes, or watching the movie) the night before an exam. It’s far from the most detailed analysis, but hell – you’re in a rush. It’ll do.
Let us know on Twitter if you’ve enjoyed this idiot’s guide. (We’re sure the idiot will be willing to do more if we ask him nicely.)