Dragon Ball Z. To a kid who came of age in the 90’s and early 2000’s, this show might as well have been a surrogate parent. Had a bad day at school? DBZ was all ears. Miss that game winning shot in recess basketball? Goku was there to let you know its okay to fail, as long as you picked yourself back up and tried even harder the next time.
Disclaimer: I’m far from an anime geek. Dragon Ball Z, however, offered the widest possible net to boys growing up in the decade of Bill Clinton and The Spice Girls. You didn’t have to be a nerd to like the show. Hell, I know juiced up frat guys who will unabashedly exclaim DBZ is still, to this day their favorite TV show. Dragon Ball Z was for EVERYONE.
It almost seems like sacrilege trying to rank the 4 major sagas from the original show, but I’m gonna give it the old college try (and after the Star Wars ranker, this one feels like a cake walk).
You’re used to the scoring system by now: 5 categories ranked 1 to 10 with an aggregate score added up at the end. Those categories are as follows:
Plot: Is the plot unique and engaging? Does it introduce us to new and exciting twists?
Fight Scenes: How fun are the fight scenes? Do they overstay their welcome or does each fight feel fresh and innovative?
Entertainment: Is the saga as a whole entertaining? Not just the fight scenes, but all scenes?
Characters: Are there any new characters introduced and if so, are they interesting (both heroes and villains)? Are the established characters expanded upon at all?
Miscellaneous: This refers heavily to the soundtrack but also other details like art style and atmosphere of the saga (for the purposes of this list we will be using the Funimation Dub and the Bruce Faulconer scored soundtrack).
Take it from me, this wasn’t easy. And just because I ranked a saga at the bottom doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I am a huge Dragon Ball Z fan, and there can only be one “best saga.” With that in mind, take off your weighted training gear, power up your scouters, and power up as we pick apart an all time classic. Starting with…
4. The Saiyan Saga: 37/50 (74%)
Plot: 8/10 – As with most TV shows, the plot to the first season is relatively the worst. Dragon Ball Z is no exception. The Saiyan saga does well in that it introduces the (then) bombshell of Goku belonging to an outer space warrior race called the Saiyans. The subsequent invasion of Earth by Saiyans Radditz (Goku’s evil brother), Nappa, and Vegeta for the Dragon Balls is played nicely, with suspense and intrigue building as each episode passes before the latter two land on Earth. Back story is given to most of the major characters (chiefly Goku and son Gohan) and we are even given glimpses into how much of a tyrant Vegeta can be. It is a fun intro to the series, but the plots get better as the show goes on.
Fight Scenes: 8/10 – The Saiyan Saga is the weak link when it comes to fight sequences in the series but there are a few high points. Goku and ex-rival Piccolo teaming up against Radditz is an excellent battle that sets the tone for the entire series within the first few episodes and the entire Z-squad sans Goku trying to take on Vegeta’s lackey Nappa creates a sense of bewilderment at just how much stronger these aliens are than our heroes at the time. But the battle that really boosts this section’s score is Goku vs Vegeta, and specifically their beam struggle early in the fight. The Saiyan Saga was the prototype to just how wild these fight scenes could get and does a good job of getting us hooked early in the show.
Entertainment: 7.5/10 – “Filler” is a word you will often find attached to Dragon Ball Z, much like an unwanted parasite. While the quantity of filler may not match, say, the Cell Saga, it feels much more unnecessary here than it does there. There is an entire episode devoted to Gohan getting lost in the woods during his training with Piccolo and the infamous Snake Way sees Goku literally running to his training destination in the after life for what seems like an eternity. The Z-fighters getting trained by Kami (Earth’s guardian) added some depth to the saga, but this season seems to falter a ever so slightly in this category. All that said, this is still a fun saga on the whole.
Characters: 7/10 – The characters in this saga (unless you watched Dragon Ball) are brand new. The show does a good job of fleshing them out for the most part but unless read or saw Dragon Ball prior to Dragon Ball Z, you were left with some questions about these characters. Piccolo is often referred to as Goku’s rival, but here he is training Goku’s son, Gohan, after he dies. Aside from slight confusion at times, these characters are fun and each has their own personalities we learn to love as the show progresses: Goku is protective and kind, Piccolo is cunning and hard nosed but has a kind soul deep down, Krillin is loyal and brave, and Gohan is young but ultimately houses a hidden power that is yet untapped.
Misc: 6.5/10 – This category falls a bit flat for a number of reasons. For starters and perhaps most superficially on my part, composer Bruce Faulconer had not been introduced to the series yet so the songs take a significant hit. The atmosphere of this saga tries to project doom and gloom mixed with suspense but when stacked up against those that follow, the Saiyan Saga doesn’t have as much bite to it. The art style is adequate but not quite as rich as the following sagas, which can be attributed to how early in the show this saga appears.
3. Buu Saga: 41/50 (82%)
Plot: 7.5/10 – While the Saiyan saga was the first saga in the series and took a minimalist approach to plot points, the Buu Saga (the final chapter in Dragon Ball Z) is often cited as a slight jumping of the shark. There are many twists, turns, and sub-plots to follow throughout, including a grown up Gohan attending high school and fighting crime as the Great Saiyaman (groan). The plot is centered around a dead Goku (yes, again) getting to come back to Earth for 24 hours to fight in the World’s Martial Arts Tournament. This piques an evil wizard named Babidi’s interest as he is trying to resurrect an ancient beast named Majin Buu. This score gets a slight boost thanks to the sub-plot of Goku and Vegeta rekindling their rivalry and ultimately becoming friends as the series comes to a close.
Fight Scenes: 9.5/10 – Oh boy! The Buu Saga’s plot may have been a bit loose, but the fight sequences in this story arc are some of the best the series has to offer. A personal favorite of mine goes to Vegeta and Goku’s grudge match, as both warriors are evenly matched and going blow for blow, all to settle an age old score while the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. Goku and Vegeta teaming up and fusing into Vegito to take on Buu offers another great fight scene as well. Overall, the Buu Saga delivers on all accounts action.
Entertainment: 8.5/10 – This particular arc gives us a lot of fun scenes leading up to the day of the World’s Martial Arts Tournament (and subsequent fight with Majin Buu). We get to see Gohan training for the tournament with rival-turned-love-interest, Videl, as well as with his younger brother, Goten, whom Goku’s wife ChiChi gave birth to shortly after our heroes death in the Cell saga. The setup to the main villain reveal is quite entertaining and there’s a certain level of suspense added throughout the second half of the saga. The interactions between characters are fun, albeit a bit shallow. They are mainly there to remind us these guys are all good friends as they wax nostalgically about past adventures. It hits home and does a good job of keeping us into it while there is no fighting happening.
Characters: 8/10 – The Buu saga does a really good job of not only introducing new characters but also making us care about them. Goku’s kid Goten is fun and lighthearted, reminding us of his father when he was a youngster in Dragon Ball. We also get introduced to this timeline’s Trunks (more on that in the Cell Saga), who is Vegeta’s son. Both of these two make for interesting characters and have major roles in the plot. Even Videl is important and multi-dimensional, as she goes from Gohan’s rival to love interest. Where the character section takes a hit is in the villain category. Majin Buu is nothing more than a beast without a conscious; he destroys for the sake of destruction. Unlike the other villains in the series who posses their own motives and characteristics, Buu is essentially a child who views destroying the universe as a big game.
Misc: 7.5/10 – One thing no one will ever accuse the Buu saga of is a bad art style. The colors in this saga are as rich as ever and everything pops visually. While Bruce Faulconer’s music is good here (and even great in some parts) it fails to capture the magic of the two sagas preceding it. As far as atmosphere is concerned, the stakes are so high that we as viewers feel like we should be more concerned but we aren’t. It goes back to the whole jumping the shark thing the saga has going for it. By the end of the saga, Buu can destroy entire solar systems by raising a finger. This removes that personal feeling and ruins the atmosphere as the saga comes to a close.
2. Frieza Saga: 45/50 (90%)
Plot: 9/10 – Anyone who’s a fan of DBZ knows the series started when Radditz landed on Earth in episode 1. But we all know the series really hit its stride when Krillin and Gohan boarded a spaceship bound for Namek in search of new Dragon Balls at the start of the Frieza saga. As far as I’m concerned, the plot to the Frieza saga is nearly perfect. The Z warriors (at least the ones who survived the battle with Nappa and Vegeta) travel to Namek (Piccolo’s home planet) in search of Dragon Balls to replace Earth’s after Kami died, rendering the balls inert. Vegeta and Frieza follow them to Namek separately and a three way hunt for the balls commences. The Frieza saga does a great job of pacing here and the way everyone’s story starts to become intertwined is brilliant. The teasing of the legendary Super Saiyan kept our intrigue as youngsters and when Goku is finally the one to achieve it, we all felt like we were right there with him. Bringing space travel into the fray seemed to be the next logical step, so the writers took it. And we thank them for it.
Fight Scenes: 8.5/10 – Some of the best fight sequences take place smack dab in the middle of the saga when Frieza calls in his special forces, The Ginyu Squad, to take care of Gohan, Krillin, and a newly (and begrudgingly) added Vegeta. Once Goku arrives to help, we see him easily and entertainingly dispatch of the Ginyus in some of the most unique and fun fight scenes in the saga. The battle between Frieza and Goku is insanely long and holds the distinction of being the longest battle in the series, taking a staggering 18 episodes in total to complete. It starts to drag before Goku turns Super Saiyan, so that knocks the score down slightly here.
Entertainment: 9/10 – The entire Frieza saga offers genuine intrigue and is engaging throughout its entirety. The best part about this particular arc is how the stakes progressively raise as the saga inches forward: our heroes start out trying to outfox Vegeta, then team up with him after Frieza and the Ginyu Force emerges until finally Goku is the only one left to try and stop the tyrant from ruling the galaxy. The fun rarely stops in this saga and its just as suspenseful the 10th time watching as it was the 1st.
Characters: 9/10 – Two characters absolutely make this saga what it is: Frieza and Vegeta. Frieza is by far the best villain the series has to offer (tied with a certain lab experiment we will get to shortly) and has all the depth and character to play a tyrannical galactic overlord you could want. We hate Frieza from the minute he steals his first dragon ball to his last dying breath on Namek. Vegeta’s character takes a different approach. After the Saiyan saga, Vegeta has been defeated by Goku and seeks revenge. But as the Frieza saga continues on, we see Vegeta forced to put his differences with the Z fighters aside, first out of necessity and then out of sheer ambivalence. Vegeta slowly goes from antagonist to anti-hero and a favorite anti-hero at that. These two alone absolutely carry the saga.
Misc: 9.5/10 – Because of contract disputes and such with Ocean, Funimation took over the dubbing of Dragon Ball Z halfway through this saga. And thank GOD they did because it meant two things: Sean Schemmel voiced Goku and inadvertently became the voice of an entire generation’s childhood and perhaps even more importantly, Bruce Faulconer started doing the scores for the soundtrack. Faulconer’s tracks add such a layer to the atmosphere of the saga that I couldn’t imagine this arc with any other music. Seriously, stop reading this right now, go to YouTube and type in “Bruce Faulconer Ginyu Force Theme.” Even if you’ve never seen the show before, does that track not make you feel like you could run through a brick wall? That’s the first song we ever hear of Faulconer’s in this saga, and he tops it repeatedly throughout the series. Hats off to you, Bruce. My childhood wouldn’t have been the same without you.
1. Cell Saga: 47/50 (94%)
Plot: 10/10 – Bait and switch where we think Frieza is the main villain of this saga only to be destroyed within the first 4 episodes? Check. Mysterious warrior from the future aiding the Z warriors and warning of larger threats looming? Check. Villain arriving in a stolen time machine created for revenge on Goku? Big check. Yep, the Cell saga has it all. This story arc introduced time travel and the split timeline principle almost seamlessly, even to me as a nine year old at the time. Having Trunks (Vegeta’s son yet to be born) come from the future where all hope is lost and warn the current timeline’s fighters about their fate was a wonderful plot twist and introducing us to the androids as the big bad of the saga only to have Cell come seemingly out of nowhere made for a perfect maze of plots that got complex but never too bloated.
Fight Scenes: 9/10 – Piccolo’s initial fight with Imperfect Cell is an entertaining one, but his subsequent fight with Android 17 as Cell closes in on them is perfection in terms of action. Goku’s fight with Perfect Cell during the Cell Games to decide the fate of the world is one of the best fights the series has to offer and Gohan’s final beam struggle with Cell after Goku fails is as tense as it gets. The series peaked during the Cell saga in multiple ways, and fighting was certainly one of them.
Entertainment: 9/10 – Because of all the plot twists happening (Trunks being from the future, Cell being the real villain, Vegeta allowing Cell to absorb the androids to become complete) the Cell saga is entertaining in that it keeps us constantly guessing. Even when there isn’t a battle happening, the story is engaging enough that we don’t need the constant visual stimulation of well animated fight scenes. Goku and Gohan bond while training, we discover more about Vegeta and why he doesn’t accept Future Trunks as his son, and we even see Cell evolve from a power hungry villain in pursuit of perfection to the cold and calculating yet arrogant final form we see in the above picture (far right). The writers hit all the spots and keep us wanting more after every episode.
Characters: 9/10 – The villains in this saga are brilliant. Dr. Gero is the creator of the androids and Cell, and he only does so because he holds a grudge against Goku from way back in the original Dragon Ball. The Androids only destroy because they are bored, and Cell only absorbs them because he is programmed to do so in order to achieve his final form. But beyond that, Cell’s motives are that of a Saiyan in that he starts the Cell games not only to destroy but to test his might against worthy opponents. Its a nice twist to the “villain motive motif.” I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Future Trunks here, who adds a nice element of hubris to contrast his father Vegeta’s cocky disposition. They compliment each other nicely and really add to the character development in this saga.
Misc: 10/10 – The art style is fantastic in the Cell saga but what makes this score a 10 is Faulconer. He is at his absolute best in this story arc. Every song he composes guides our feelings accordingly: Cell’s theme is slow and brooding, the training theme used in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber is pensive and thought provoking, and the song that plays as each Z fighter remembers their favorite thing about Goku after he sacrifices himself to save the Earth is moving but not in a somber way. All of Faulconer’s tracks give a huge boost to the atmosphere of the saga and every time I watch this particular arc, I’m moved in all sorts of ways, from nostalgia to excitement. A perfect arc for a “perfect” villain.