Dragon Ball is fucking weird. Remember when Goku and Piccolo took driving lessons? Remember when Trunks knocked a petrified Piccolo over, shattering him into thousands of pieces, and then he was fine a few episodes later? Remember when Mr. Satan was so bad at assassinating Majin Buu that they became best friends? Remember when a werewolf tried to fight Roshi because he had transformed during the full moon the year before when Roshi blew it up, so he couldn’t change back, and so Roshi hypnotised him into thinking Krillin’s head was the moon to fix him? Dragon Ball is weird.
There’s also a very big problem with the series, and its a character one. Over the years the show increasingly gravitated towards the Saiyans as the central fighters. The introduction of the Super Saiyan concept during the Frieza saga suddenly limited the roster of characters that could constantly escalate as the series had before with every character; by the Cell Saga not long after, Piccolo and Android 18 are the only Z-Fighters capable of keeping up, and by the Majin Buu Saga Android 18 doesn’t fight at all (occupied with raising her daughter) and Piccolo is relegated to being mostly a support fighter for Gotenks. The housewife status is something that happens to almost every female character – Chi-Chi in particular goes from being an axe-swinging child to having her extreme strength turned into a mood-swing joke. Not only this, but practically every woman who ever appears becomes a target for either Roshi or some other lecherous character to ogle or grope. It’s fair to say Dragon Ball has a serious problem with its women.
Since the revival with the 2013 film Battle of Gods, Dragon Ball has escalated even further – the introduction of Super Saiyan God essentially created a reset for the Saiyan race’s power to escalate from, and since then Super Saiyan Blue (also known as Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan (good grief…)) has been introduced. This leaves only a few characters capable of constantly escalating their power – such that eventually Frieza is given a Golden form in order to keep up as a popular character. This idea of innate power that the series has constantly doubled and tripled down on has some big problems in terms of the kinds of power it portrays for me, but for the majority of the audience it has concentrated all the fighting ability away from a diverse cast into just Goku, Vegeta, their sons, and the current monster-of-the-month. To try and make amends for this the most recent arc of the Dragon Ball Super anime (Universe Survival) has given several now smaller-part characters like Tien Shinhan, Krillin and Android 18 a chance to fight again, however, of course, as the arc goes on the team is reduced to being just the Saiyan characters and Frieza. The series has dug itself into a hole in terms of how it portrays its action and who gets to be in the spotlight.
While Dragon Ball games have been steadily releasing from Bandai Namco for 30 years now, they’ve been hit and miss with their portrayal of the series, and their gameplay adaptations have rarely given the right impression of fighting a tense battle between two powerful beings. With the announcement of Dragon Ball Fighter Z the prospect of a modern game that combines a faithfulness to the best of the show’s visuals with a well-balanced and complex fighting game is extremely promising. The developers, Arc System Works, are no strangers to creating a compelling fighting game, and in terms of anime fighters there’s few people who would ask for anyone else to front a project like this. However, it also means that certain characters get a position that the series couldn’t afford them. Among the usual suspects of extremely powerful characters like the Saiyans, Cell, or Frieza, there are also some that were left behind during the series’ escalation, such as Yamcha, Krillin and the Androids, including a new Android character created specifically for the game.
In particular Android 18 is the character I’m most excited to be able to play as. Her no-nonsense approach and cool demeanour set her apart from the cast and quickly made her a favourite of mine (Piccolo’s gruff sincerity coming in second), but since her introduction, her role in the show ended up horribly mishandled. While she is introduced as having killed every character in a future timeline, she rarely gets to flaunt this destructive ability. One of her best moments involved the World Tournament she participated in, in which she reaches the final and extorts Mr. Satan for twice the prize money before throwing the match. It’s clear that she could at least match every other fighter in the series, yet whenever the series brings up a major threat she finds herself quickly defeated. Cell absorbs her in his second form; Majin Buu turns her into chocolate and eats her; Beerus swats her away almost immediately, forcing her to be a bystander; she’s killed almost instantly by Golden Frieza without even participating. Her next major participation in the series’ action is during the aforementioned Universe Survival Arc, but even then her role feels like a support role for other characters, eventually sacrificing herself to keep her brother 17 in the tournament. This in particular is a cheap, unearned story beat; 18 has proven herself to be a capable fighter already, and yet she throws her strength away to save a character who we haven’t seen on-screen in a major role in decades (outside of GT, which many fans rightly dislike and which has been disregarded as non-canon).
Fighter Z, then, is a second chance for many characters. Rather than focus on the big battles of the series like in previous games, such as Xenoverse which pits you as a time travelling OC participating in major events, the game promises a wholly new story in much the same style of the filler arcs of the anime. Besides the Story Mode, the main attraction in the Versus Mode imagines everyone on an equal plane of power – no more Power Levels, no more becoming plot fodder, no more watching from the sidelines. You can have that Android 18 vs Kid Buu fight that 18 rightly deserved to have! Not only this, but in contrast to her role in Super, 18 is supported by 17 and not the other way around. Even Yamcha, the fan punching bag, is given a chance to be a proper Z-Fighter rather than an eternal onlooker. Fighter Z promises a lot in terms of fanservice, and while the faithful recreation of manga panels, anime moments and locales are fun for people who grew up on Dragon Ball (read: everyone born in the early 90s), its the promise of no-bullshit matches between two series icons that are really exciting about the game.
The roster of Fighter Z currently has a disappointing number of female characters, but this is more a side-effect of picking up from the legacy of the main series. The inclusion of the totally new character Android 21 shows the team’s willingness to amend this, and with the fighting game standard of adding new characters we could see a few more – hey, people liked Super‘s new addition Caulifla, right? – and the still-ongoing series could still make amends for the franchise’s past mistakes. But in the meantime, I’m more than happy to enact the Android 18 vs Cell revenge bout of my dreams.