If you believe in the heart of the cards, you’ll find good NES Dragon Ball games.
Dragon Ball is one of the most influential franchises to ever hit Japan, so you’d think there were some pretty good video games based on it.
I mean, it’s a no brainer, right? Dragon Ball is full of drama, humor, and high-octane battles to the most hyperbolic degree. It’s a winning video game formula no matter how you look at it. In fact, after doing some research, I came to find that there have been approximately ten hundred million Dragon Ball games made to this day (okay, not really of course, but it does feel like it). Rather than try covering them all with a word count surpassing Goku’s power level, I wanted to look at the roots of Dragon Ball video games by surveying all the applicable titles that came out on the NES.
To my surprise, if you include Japan-only games, I found there were seven official Dragon Ball games released for the NES! Honestly, even if none of the titles were great, I’m excited to see how this franchise could be interpreted in so many ways. Join me as I take a look at all the NES Dragon Ball games to find if there are any diamonds in the rough.
Note: Many screenshots listed here that feature English text are made possible by fan translations.
1: Dragon Ball: Shenlong no Nazo (AKA “Dragon Power”)
So this is great: the only NES Dragon Ball game to leave Japan completely ceased being a Dragon Ball game during its localization.
Yes, “Dragon Power,” which hit North American shores in 1988, was a few years early to the exploding popularity of anime during the mid 90s. As a result, the people in charge of localization decided to hew the game’s content closer to Journey to the West, because we all know that was hip with English-speaking kids in the 80s. While some of the localization choices here make sense – pervy stuff like collecting panties was changed to a G-rated alternative of collecting sandwiches- most of the main cast’s names were westernized and Goku was straight-up turned into a monkey. Well, more of a monkey-kid, but definitely more monkey than he used to be.
Fortunately, Dragon Ball fans have given us a way to enjoy Dragon Power in English with its original content restored (as pictured here). And let me tell you, this game is… not great. Even by the standards of the earliest NES titles, Dragon Power feels sloppy. Combat is awkward and stiff, despite being the focus of the game. While I do like how boss battles switch to a fighting-game style viewpoint, in reality these encounters are just battles of chance and attrition. You’ll need a lot of patience just to get a hang of this one, let alone enjoy it.
If there’s any reason to play this game, it’s for the hilariously bad translation. And even then, you can enjoy that without any of the rough gameplay by loading up a Youtube video. Now, I do see that this first Dragon Ball game received 2 sequels. But for the sake of my own sanity, let’s skip to the Dragon Ball Z games.
2: Dragon Ball Z: Kyôshū! Saiyan
Dragon Ball Z: Kyôshū! Saiyan is one part turn-based RPG (cool!), one part card game (okay!), and one part board game (Um… sweet?).
It’s a strange combination to be sure, but it sort of makes sense. Japan was deep in Dragon Quest fever by this point, and clones of the seminal title ran rampant. If you wanted to set your RPG apart, you needed to have a crazy gimmick in tow. Dragon Ball Z: Kyôshū! Saiyan takes the fundamentals of the genre and plants it into a board game setting. Characters move from location to location using a deck of cards, and that same deck is used to fight battles. This is especially huge in the latter case, since it dictates whether your characters get power boosts for that turn or can use special abilities. It’s really daunting starting out, but it’s not impossible to get into if you look up an FAQ.
Credit where credit’s due, Dragon Ball Z: Kyôshū! Saiyan has a great visual presentation. Rather than using basic animations like most games of its time, battles come to life with elaborate combat sequences that feel like scenes from the show. Since the game retells the events of the Vegeta Saga, the visuals help you recall all the corresponding moments from the story. It’s especially great during the game’s final battle, where your hero is basically a pixel compared to Vegeta in his great ape form. To say the polish here is leaps and bounds better than Dragon Power is an understatement.
Unfortunately, all these gameplay gimmicks lead to one major flaw with the game: it moves sloooooowly. Even compared to other RPGs of the time period. The majority of the game is spent level grinding until you can fight the map’s boss, but experience points do not come easy. Between the elaborate battle animations and the time it takes just to move anywhere, you’ll be grinding for a long while before making any relevant progress. You can train your characters with random mini games, but I wouldn’t say this enhances the game experience exactly. Hardcore DBZ fans might be able to stomach it, but even as a huge RPG fan myself, I’d say the gameplay here is a tall order. Not necessarily awful, just really tedious.
It’s unfortunate that all the board game and card game elements mostly add pointless RNG rather than meaningful strategy. But all things considered, Dragon Ball Z was an interesting experiment. Even if I wouldn’t want another game like it, I was glad to check it out for its sheer ingenuity.
3: Dragon Ball Z II: Gekishin Frieza
Dragon Ball Z II: Gekishin Frieza is one part RPG, one part card game, one part… oh no.
Yup, Dragon Ball Z II: Gekishin Frieza is a direct sequel to the first game. It throws you into the Frieza arc right off the bat, and your characters even come pre-leveled to correspond to that point in the show. In other words, you’re expected to have played the first game before going into this one.
Honestly, if expansion packs were a thing on the NES, this would be one. Though there are some small refinements to the gameplay, it really is just more of the same overall. If you were a fan of the first game, you’ll find lots to love here. Otherwise, you’ll probably pass on this one.
4: Dragon Ball Z III: Ressen Jinzōningen
Dragon Ball Z III is… wait… what does that three in the title mean!?
IT’S ANOTHER ONE!?
Man, and people say the Mega Man games were carbon copies of each other. Look, I do appreciate that this one does streamline things a bit. The cards in particular get some new symbols that help you figure out what they do at a glance, which is an especially huge boon for people who can’t read Japanese. But again, it’s more of the same in Dragon Ball Z III. Everything looks and feels a little better, and there are some subtle differences, but otherwise this could have been part of the first game without raising any eyebrows.
For what it’s worth, you probably could start with this game if you wanted to play just one. It’s still following the plot of the show, so the only hurdle would be learning its esoteric gameplay. And even if you were starting with the first game, you’d probably be researching a walkthrough to get a jist of it anyway. So in a sense, I might give Dragon Ball Z III more of a nod than the other games, but not by much.
Still, I got to hand it to them: making a trilogy out of such a weird concept is unexpected. I mean, even Final Fantasy only got three games on the NES. Getting this many games made is a miracle, even if it has tested my sanity a little.
5: Dragon Ball Z Gaiden: Saiyajin Zetsumetsu Keikaku
Finally, we’re out of the Dragon Ball Z card game / board game trilogy. Let’s see what Dragon Ball Z Gaiden has in store…
Four games!? FOUR GAMES!? Are we being serious right now? Was this concept really on par with Dragon Quest to warrant the same number of games on one system? Look, I understand that Dragon Ball Z is a huge cash cow, but how in Toriyama’s name did this happen!?
For what it’s worth, there is at least one piece of interesting trivia about Dragon Ball Z Gaiden. Since it wasn’t directly based on the show, it actually launched alongside a two episode OVA that was billed as a strategy guide for the game. So if you’re a hardcore Dragon Ball fan but didn’t know this existed, there you go. The OVA was remade in 2010 and included with the game Dragon Ball: Raging Blast 2 for the PS3 and Xbox 360.
But seriously now, after all these crazy DBZ board games, I think I’m ready to see what those original Dragon Power sequels were. Even a bad action game would be welcome by this point.
6: Dragon Ball: Daimaō Fukkatsu
No no no no no no no no no no no
7: Dragon Ball 3: Goku Den
I’m throwing in the towel.
I don’t care if the Dragon Ball games actually have some different gameplay systems than the Dragon Ball Z games. I don’t care if these games are actually fun for the right audience. All I know is that there are seven Dragon Ball games for the NES, and six… SIX of them are board game / card game / RPG hybrids. I apologize to anyone who grew up in Japan who has fond memories of playing these games as a kid, because my uncultured western sensibilities have been shaken to the absolute core.
Tune in next time when I look at some Dragon Ball games for the Super Nintendo, which features games like…
… Not even the legendary dragon balls can save me now.