There is no doubt that Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 is a curious thing. Like Morris dancing or Bollywood movies, it plays by a whole different set of rules to the ones we are used to here. I say 'here' specifically meaning New Zealand, but really I'm talking the Eastern-Western thing. When I fed the disk to the machine, I was expecting a standard fighting game, the kind that we're all familiar with. I wanted to choose or build my character; I was going to call him Blazer because I'd just seen Dodgeball on the weekend - funny stuff. I wanted to be walked through a few simple, winnable fights that taught me some of the basic combos and maybe even one big special attack, and I wanted to be impressed by flashy, smooth, detailed graphics. In short I wanted that typical western hook, a game that grabbed me in the fist couple of minutes before my attention span demanded I text someone random or go on Bebo or whatever. But I got none of that, and I was disappointed.
To begin with Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 is totally faithful to all the Anime and Manga that has come before it. It is supposed to look like an animated series from the 90s and it does. Secondly the opening menu screen is pretty extensive, to say the very least, and has very little indication where you should go first. There are story modes, tournaments and single player battles as well as training simulators and stores. There is also a comprehensive character reference library with pen portraits of the 150+ playable characters.
That's right, over 150 playable characters. Of course many of the characters are locked to begin with but right from the start you have a lot of choices. To begin with you might want to play as Dragon Ball's main character Goku, or perhaps as his son Gohan. But then you get to choose to play as either character as a child, a teen, an adult or even in an enhanced or mutated form, all depending on which version of Dragon Ball is your favourite. In fact the main difference between Budokai Tenkaichi 3 and the earlier versions is the continual addition of playable characters.
Then you have to decide what mode to play. Probably your best bet is to start out fighting a Duel. Here you choose between one player or two player modes in either one-on-one or team battles. The basic controls are pretty simple. The four PlayStation buttons control punch, ranged attacks, blocks and the dash. The dash button allows you to either evade an attack or move in close for the kill. The right triggers let you fly up or down while the left triggers let you charge up your power attacks. All simple stuff and enough to get you dashing around the numerous and diverse maps, made even more numerous by allowing you to choose either to fight at night, in the day or at twilight.
The basic controls are simple but, like many of the fighting sims designed for the Asian markets, they only scratch the surface of a complex combat system. After losing a few duels you may be inclined to have a look at the training mode. It is here the subtleties of the game begin to become apparent. For example, you press 'O' to block an attack. Then you press up or down on the directional pad to guard against attacks aimed at a specific area. Then there are the blast attacks that require a double tap on the left trigger to guard against. So, relying on the basic block will not work for long and will eventually leave you on the end of a quick and decisive beating.
The same can be said for controlling your attacks. You can treat the game as a button masher, using your basic attack buttons to fire off as many blast and smash attacks as possible. This may win you a few early fights but will quickly be found wanting. To succeed you will need to master not only Blast 1, but also Blast 2 and the Ultimate Blast functions - and while these are all taught in the basic training mode, there's still the intermediate and advanced trainers to get through.
Training will also add to your Z ratings, essentially raising your attack and defence stats. You will need these when you enter the Dragon World Tour - the game's tournament mode. Or you can select Dragon History - a different take on the typical fight sim story option. While the tournament mode is self explanatory, and pretty difficult, the story mode is a pretty neat variant on the standard theme. Dragon History will take you through many key match-ups from the television series, beginning with Goku teaming up with his old enemy Piccolo to fight Goku's brother Raditz in the Saiyan Saga.
For Dragon Ball fans this game is a treasure trove. Me, I was more a Sailor Moon guy (they had much better... ah... stories). But Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 has so much depth that it is hard to dismiss it as a typical cash-in on a popular franchise. The original Dragon Ball was based on the ancient Chinese Monkey King legend, with Goku the monkey king, Piggy and Sandy protecting a priestess on a mythical quest. Dragon Ball quickly evolved from this familiar premise to become something unique, and quickly turned into a phenomenon in world popular culture. Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 may not be that unique, or that good, but it certainly takes a familiar theme and then moves off at strange angles, pushing ideas far more then you might initially expect, taking something familiar and, for good or bad, making it true to its own rules.