Review by Arkrex
Before there was "OVER NINE THOUSAAAAANDD!, there was a young boy with a tail sticking out of his backside
For many of us, Dragonball Z is synonymous with "my first anime". Big muscle-bound men powering up to over nine-thousand and beyond, taking on aliens, androids and a fat pink blob... Like it or loathe it, Akira Toriyama's testosterone-fuelled series, the first mainstream anime dub, made anime cool.
But before there was Dragonball Z, there was Dragon Ball. Before our extra-terrestrial saviour, Goku, turned blonde, he was little tyke with a tail, and an unquenchable curiosity. In contrast to its successor, Dragon Ball was light-hearted and comical (and a tad raunchy, too). There was no pretentious powering up, and instead of pointlessly arguing over who was the strongest in the universe, the truly melting-pot cast of endearing characters got into all sorts of trouble - all in the name of the seven mythical Dragon Balls.
Such an interesting (and severely) overlooked anime surely deserves a brand-new video game, especially after the string of Budokais and Budokai Tenkaichis, right? Well, it looks like Shenron has finally granted fans their wish - in the form of Dragon Ball: Origins for the Nintendo DS.
Now, if, heaven forbid, you somehow have NO IDEA what Dragon Ball is about, rest assured: Origins lives up to its name by chronicling the early childhood adventures of Goku through many beautifully rendered in-game cutscenes. The story is followed through to the 21st World Martial Arts Tournament (just past the Emperor Pilaf arc), which accounts for barely one-fifth of the entire Dragon Ball series. So, don't worry - Bandai Namco Games didn't screw with the anime's narration.
The best thing about Origins is that it is immediately accessible to everyone. Those who are not familiar with the proceedings can sift through the text-based cutscenes at their own leisure, whilst fans can delight in the 3D recreation of their favourite moments. The game also adopts a similar touch-based control scheme to Nintendo's own The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, so most DS gamers (because I'm assuming most have played the innovative Phantom Hourglass) should already be accustomed to the controls.
Now, let me make this clear right now: apart from the control layout and cute graphics, Origins is as far removed from Phantom Hourglass as can be. Link's quest was a typical Zelda-style puzzle-solving affair; Goku's is a dungeon crawler through and through. Instead of having the whole world open to you, to explore at your own discretion, Origins progresses in a typical linear episode-by-episode fashion. There was a lot of replay value with Phantom Hourglass (sidequests, multiplayer etc.), but Origins is a one-trick pony - once you're done... well, you're done. And, unfortunately, well before you're done, the ride starts to get a little shaky.
When I first started playing Origins, the familiarity of Dragon Ball combined with my favoured Phantom Hourglass control set-up made it feel like I was actually playing out the anime, on my DS, in the best way possible. The first two points are correct: I was playing out the anime (and obviously I was playing on my DS). Strict foundations have made it difficult for the level designers to add variety to each episode. For the majority of the thirty-two main episodes, each lasting from a few minutes to as much as thirty minutes, you guide Goku through the jungles, deserts and dungeons... only, they all feel like dungeons. Each "room" consists of a network of "corridors", but you are always on a set path from room to room; it is impossible to truly feel lost in Origins.
It is, perhaps, unfair to compare to Phantom Hourglass when discussing the puzzle-solving aspect of Origins (since, as I pointed out earlier, Origins is more of a dungeon crawler), but it needs to be said: Goku gains several skills over the course of his adventure - upgrades to his (comparitively weak) arsenal: his fists and his power pole. Should he need to activate a switch from afar, he can magically extend the length of his rod; a strong localised draught is easily diminished by waving his pole in front of him like a fan; and a towering rock blocking a vital track is easily blown to bits by his trademark KA-ME-HA-ME-HA! fireball. It is initially very pleasing to perform all of these tasks as they require specific stylus motions to activate. However, there are far too many instances where they are needed, per dunge- I mean, "episode", so much so that you'll come across another fractured wall and lament the need to tap and charge yet another KA-ME-HA-ME-HA! to blast it away; it is HIGHLY repetitive.
It may not come as a surprise that combat doesn't fare too well, in this regard, either. Goku has a limited variety of strikes and although you can time your presses differently to execute slightly different combos, damage-wise, it's all the same. You can purchase upgrades, in between episodes, to increase your fighting prowess - Origins has an extremely basic levelling system - but you'll still be tapping every bad guy as fast as possible to bring them down (or worse, cheese with the KA-ME-HA-ME-HA!). Barely halfway into the game (which, in total, clocks in at around 6-8 hours for basic completion), I found myself running past and ignoring (the limited selection of) enemies, performing repetitive tasks with a half-active brain, just to get the dungeon over and done with. Bosses were a highlight... until I realised that all, but one, are easily beaten by a hit-and-run approach. Very disappointing.
I'll be honest: if I wasn't a fan of the anime, I wouldn't have finished Origins. The story of Goku may be told in a delightful, succinct manner, but it's not quite enough a reward for the mindless trudging you'll need to endure. There are twenty-two bonus missions to unlock - nearly all of which are (exact) repeats of previous levels; there are a few extra boss fights (still, with just as abusable A.I.), and vertical-scrolling Flying Nimbus (Goku's pet cloud) levels, too - but they don't spice the variety up one bit. Oh, and there are 200 (yes, not over 9000) figurines to collect, but what's the point? You don't receive any bonuses whatsoever. Wireless connectivity is used to trade these figurines, too, which is a huge waste of resources. It would have been nice to have a co-op mode with a playable Bulma; for all intents and purposes, this secondary character, who accompanies you throughout the bulk of the adventure, is there to force you to backtrack and open up locked doors. Geez, Goku, your KA-ME-HA-ME-HA! can blow up a mountain, but it can't blow up a damn door? Nitpicking, but you get the point.
I applaud Namco Bandai Games for their exceptional presentation values and efforts to bring Dragon Ball to life on the DS. Origins looks and, at least during the numerous cutscenes, feels like Dragon Ball. However, mediocre level design (since when did Dragon Ball feature SO MANY SWITCHES!?), a weak combat system and a general lack of fun mar the experience. The best Dragon Ball game is still Advance Adventure for the Game Boy Advance. But hey, I can at least guarantee you that the tale told here will be much better than the upcoming live-action Dragon Ball movie - even Shenron couldn't prevent that catastrophe from happening.
Verdict - 6.0/10 A sequel has been confirmed; please pray to Shenron that one of the developers reads this review.
Product Release: Dragon Ball: Origins (US, 11/04/08)
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