Like a punch in the face.
As far as animé goes, as cliché as it might be, I’m a fan of Dragonball Z. It was my first animé, and it had moments I genuinely was amazed by when I first saw them… Son Goku wiping the floor with Nappa and his first fight with Vegeta, going Super Saiyan for the first time, seeing Gohan take the reins against Cell at 11 years old—I’ll never forget these characters. And while most of the games haven’t always been… let’s say, “good,” I’ve found some enjoyment in some, and others have actually been quite entertaining.
Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden is not one of those games. In what feels (and looks somewhat) like a throwback to two-dimensional SNES fighters, DBZ:EB is a bland mix of incredibly short and unfulfilling fights, problematic storytelling, and all of the personality of watching someone else step on a piece of gum at the park.
First, let’s clear up a misconception: This game touts that “over 100 characters from the Dragon Ball Z universe” are in the game, and I suppose technically that’s true… but the vast majority of them are non-playable. They’re unlocked throughout the game as support characters, people (or Buus or Cells or Saibamen) you can select to back your selected fighter in battle. And many of these are characters you either don’t remember or haven’t cared about one way or another because they’re unimportant; Tien may ring a bell, unused as he was in DBZ, but who cares about Dr. Briefs? Do you want Dodoria as back-up, or Bubbles from King Kai’s planet? Hello, do you want King Kai?
The main roster of playable characters is only around 25, and it’s an odd selection. Mostly because, of the main cast, there are so many duplicates that the actual diversity of the roster is underwhelming. There are two playable Vegetas (regular and blonde/SSJ), four Gokus (regular, SSJ, SSJG, and SSGSS… geez, that last one’s still a stupid name), and four Gohan variations (kid, SSJ2-sparking kid, teenage SSJ, and “Unleashed” after his training with the Supreme Kai). There’s SSJ Gotenks with the non-fusions of Trunks and Goten as support characters. And with the exception of Broly, the God forms of Goku, and Beerus, every playable character is available at the start. The support characters aren’t much different: multiple forms of Frieza and Cell, Super Saiyaman (which is Gohan. again), and Majin Vegeta. When half the 100+-touted characters are only maybe seven different characters, I’m calling that number outright bullshit.
At first glance, the world and characters look just fine—the animation is fluid, and every character that does appear looks true to form. Each sprite is well-detailed, and they move like they're expected to. And each character does have a different animation for their special ki beams—the Kamehameha forms are right, any of the Gohans with a Masenko beam move right, Krillin’s Destructo Disc looks great to be honest. The soundtrack sounds like it might be recycled from any of the previous games, but that does tie in to make it feel like a DBZ franchise game with upbeat and occasionally dramatic tunes.
The fights themselves, the bread-and-butter, consist of only a few buttons and generally mashing. Weak attack button presses can chain, strong attacks are generally two-hit affairs, and the “special” button is different for each character (usually a projectile, sometimes a throw or rushing attack). It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t lend itself to much complexity, since it forces a player to rely on the same combos and attack strategy each time. There is a charging meter that’s used for more powerful attacks, pressing “L” and using an attack button and “R” to stand still and charge, and… that’s about all.
There aren’t unique combinations for other characters, just the same combos. There is a combo (only one) that launches an enemy up or down and sets up a special beam attack, which can turn into a beam power struggle or just damage if the meter isn’t charged enough to counter. But the computer allows you to press the right shoulder button and charge pretty much at will. I was mid-battle in later story arcs and charging myself right next to my opponent while they waited. I know sometimes it’s just Krillin, but c’mon… shoulder-to-shoulder I’m charging for specials.
With human players this might be fun, provided players pick characters relatively equal in power, but the balance here is generally way off. Each character is given a tier worth a certain number of points, and are therefore physically weaker than other characters no matter the circumstance. It’s amusing as a way of nerfing yourself, but having to add artificial challenge—even after turning the difficulty all the way up and figuring out the all-encompassing spamming algorithm of the CPU opponents—is as boring as a DBZ “charging” episode. When I’m have to resort to fighting a Super Saiyan CPU with Raditz sans support or other characters, I’m not enjoying anything. At least the controls are tight enough that I feel I’m in control, there’s not any delay in attacking or summoning allies or switching characters (unless you’re being spammed by the computer, which gets annoying).
Story-wise there are two aspects to speak of: the main “Z Story” canonical tale and the “Adventure Mode” alternate story. The only rule of storytelling I understand as a hard-and-fast rule is “show, don’t tell,” and that’s something the storytelling team wasn’t made aware of. There is so much talk about the fights that are infinitely more interesting and more integral to the story, like the death of characters and the battles leading up to Frieza’s final form, that are mentioned with a sentence or two and quickly forgotten. For someone who’s not already aware of the storyline, it’s glossing over most of the great plot points simply because… I can’t figure out why. For someone who is a fan, it dilutes the story just to quickly start another battle, which leaves out so many of the 100+ characters they boast on the packaging. Individual storylines, maybe this makes sense since not everyone’s present, but in the main line, it’s inexcusable.
The alternate story is even worse; it’s a mess of throwing characters into fights that make no sense, presenting them as shells of their fully-realized-over-nearly-three-decades selves, and—this actually angered me—promoting a fight as if you were fighting one character or group, but instead only offering one or even a substitute character. I thought I might fight the entire Ginyu Force, but it’s only Captain Ginyu and the rest are supporting characters. I saw the face of Majin Vegeta and I assumed I would get a new character, or fought Frieza and saw his transformations and got excited before I realized—as I said before—they were all just supporting characters, and I fought the one form available. Lots of false hope for interesting things to happen, but they all fell short of the mark.
As a fighting game fan, I’m disappointed by the simplicity and small-mindedness that seems to have gone into Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden. As a fan of the animé series for so many years, and having played many, many versions of this story over my years as a professional reviewer, this attempt at a cash-in just hurts my feelings. After so many different fighting games and experiments one might think developers would have a handle on to how to make such a game work, even in two dimensions. This is a prime example as to why people don’t trust licensed anime games, and why they shouldn't trust licensed anime games.
This is the Raditz of fighting games. Plain and simple.