Retro Review: Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku (Game Boy Advance) – NichePlays

Released in 2002 for the Game Boy Advance, Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku is an action RPG that roughly adapts the first third or so of the Dragon Ball Z story. Developed by the US-based Webfoot Technologies and published by Infogrames, the game follows Goku’s adventures on Earth and Namek and tells a highly truncated version of the events leading up to and including Goku’s climactic battle with Freiza.

Despite reviews that were mostly mixed to negative, The Legacy of Goku was followed up with two sequels, titled Dragon Ball Z:  Legacy of Goku II and Buu’s Fury, respectively, which built on the gameplay established in this first entry and took massive steps to fix the issues found in this game. 

I actually remember playing the Legacy of Goku a lot as a kid, as well as its sequels, and actually have pretty fond memories of playing Dragon Ball Z games in general when I was growing up. DBZ was arguably my favorite show back in the day. And while this mostly had to do with how straight-up fun the show itself was, as well as how shoved down our throats anime in general was back in the early 2000’s, a huge part of this had to do with the number of decent-to-good DBZ games that were finally hitting the market here in America. I mean, you really had your picking of alright Dragon Ball games to work through, such as the fantastic Budokai games on home consoles, the two Supersonic Warrior games for handhelds, and even stuff like Dragon Ball Advanced Adventure on the GBA, which I’m seriously overdue to do a full playthrough of.

I know, I know, I’m fascinating and unlike every other guy in their mid-20s because I grew up liking Dragon Ball Z. Believe me, I’m a hit at parties and other human social events. I’m so popular it drives people crazy.

Anyway, I’ve always found it kinda interesting how most of these good DBZ games have always been one on one fighters. While I get why that format works so well for the show, I suppose I’ve just always thought that the series would’ve been ripe for a decent RPG. That’s not to say that I expect something of the caliber a Chrono Trigger or a Dragon Quest game though, I’ve just always found it kinda odd that we didn’t get that many attempts at games that would allow us to actually explore the playful and wildly diverse world of Dragon Ball, which is where the Legacy of Goku games come in.

The Legacy of Goku didn’t exactly get the best reviews back in the day, but it was the first Dragon Ball Z game that myself and many other longtime fans of the anime ever played, so it’s always held a special place in my heart. I remember watching the commercial for the game one summer day when I was between the second and third game and thinking to myself; “Man, I think I can beat Freiza.” And wouldn’t you know it, I did. Repeatedly. I actually have some fond memories of beating this game in a single afternoon while watching the show or sitting in the car on family vacations as a kid.

But, does it hold up? Because while The Legacy of Goku means something to me and did well enough to warrant two fairly well remembered sequels, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good game. On top of that, there have been a literal boatload of Dragon Ball Z games released after it that have retold the same story, as well as covered more of the series at the same time. So not only will The Legacy of Goku need to hold up in terms of its gameplay, it’ll also need to hold up in terms of how it compares to its competition.

Gameplay

The Legacy of Goku features design elements that vaguely remind me of games like Secret of Mana. The title also seriously gives me The Legend of Zelda vibes, but it honestly doesn’t really play like a Zelda game so that comparison is mostly squandered. Anyway, the game throws you into areas that operate vaguely like hub worlds and feature several side quests or, for lack of a better term, puzzles that need to be completed before you can face a boss. The vast majority of these tasks tend to be little more than fetch quests that range from finding and laying down stones for a man trapped on an island, finding and laying down gems in a Namekian temple, or finding and collecting several lost ghosts in the depths of Hell. To complete them, you’ll need to explore every nook and cranny of the game’s several overworlds while fighting anything from snakes to dinosaurs, Freiza’s henchmen, or common criminals. Against freaking Goku. 

Completing these tasks nets Goku some experience to help him level up and, once you’ve completed an area’s provincial busy-work and squared up against that level’s respective boss, you’ll automatically be taken to the next area to rinse and repeat that cycle. It’s a fairly simple and watered down RPG formula through and through, but while I commend the game on keeping things relatively straightforward and easy to pick up, I feel that this simple structure actually does more to hurt the game than anything. 

Because the game is ostensibly broken down into levels and lacks any sort of way to manually traverse from one location to another, the experience feels extremely silo’d and linear. The inability to, for example, take Goku back to Master Roshi’s house once you’ve completed the opening of the game creates a weird sort of tunnel vision where you’re constantly encouraged to progress through the story, as opposed to getting to stop and enjoy the world of Dragon Ball. And this is a huge missed opportunity as a huge part of why a non-fighting Dragon Ball Z game would be fun in the first place probably should have been getting the freedom to explore all of your favorite locations from the show. It kinda feels like getting to play with a set of action figures but only being allowed to kinda closely follow a script.

Instead, we’re shepherded through a really truncated version of the first hundred or so episodes of the anime and get few opportunities to stop and catch our breath. And while you can technically stray off the beaten path within each of the game’s available areas, the areas themselves never really bother to flesh many of themselves out, unless they’re directly used to progress the game itself.  It all just makes the game feel hollow and less like a labor of love for fans of the series and more like a generic action game, which is a total waste of the license.

Despite the fact that it does follow the plot of the show’s Saiyan and Freiza arcs, it hardly tries to do more than quickly spout off a sparknotes version of the story, with little regard for pacing or tone. It’s bad. Like, really bad. For example, when you complete your fight with Goku’s brother Raditz, Goku dies and is sent to the Other World to begin training until he can be revived with the Dragon Balls. In the show, it’s a pretty well told and dramatic moment. But in the game, you literally just die and the game cuts to the Other World while cheery music plays.

However, I’d be willing to overlook The Legacy of Goku’s funneled experience though if its base gameplay was at least exciting and something I could have fun with. 

The lack of exploration here is actually the least of the game’s problems though, as The Legacy of Goku’s biggest fault lies in how stiff everything feels. For starters, you can’t sprint or move diagonally in the game, which leads to travelling through the world at a snails pace and making maneuvering during fights extremely difficult. On top of that, the combat itself just feels stiff and lacks anything that approaches dimension or depth. Fights essentially boil down to spamming standard punches or one of three special attacks against your opponent, running or flying away to let your ki recharge, and then doing it again. And that’s assuming you can even hit your opponents to begin with because the game’s hit detection is… well, it simply isn’t all that good. In my playthrough of The Legacy of Goku, I literally lost count of the number of times that I clearly made contact with an enemy but didn’t do any damage to them. And maybe I’m just projecting because I’m feeling neglected and invalidated or something, but when I hit somebody I want to know that they felt that. 

But the effects of the unreliable hit detection goes well beyond feeding my unchecked neuroses. It also means that the game is building a sizable chunk of it’s gameplay experience around something that’s fundamentally flawed. Add to that the fact that, even if the hit detection was better, the games combat and AI’s simplicity would still ultimately lead to a relatively shallow, and buggy, game.

For example, you can actually trigger an invincibility state in the game by abusing Goku’s ability to fly. Whenever you’re airborne, enemies refrain from attacking you unless they’re charging up a ki blast. And if that ki blast manages to hit you after it’s been fired, the game will continue to think that you’re flying even though you’ve been knocked to the ground. What this means is that you’ll then be able to walk up to your enemy and literally beat them to death while they stand there and take it. And if you feel bad for exploiting this bug in order to cheese the game, it’s such an obvious and easy to find issue that should have been spotted when this game went through QA, that I’d hardly call it unfair.

It also doesn’t help that boss battles can last a pretty long time, especially if you’re underleveled, and that leveling is a tediously grindy experience. While there’s no short supply of enemies for you to fight, even the weakest of opponents are able to wipe out a chunk of your health with a single attack, which boxes you into either exploiting that flight glitch I mentioned a second ago, or approaching battles in an extremely cautious manner and focussing on weaker enemies to bolster your levels. 

Thankfully, you can heal yourself at any point by pausing the game and using some disposable items such as senzu beans or herbs that can be found while travelling throughout the world. Unfortunately though, while senzu beans can fully heal you in the blink of an eye, they’re also pretty rare, so you’ll mostly be relying on herbs that are scattered throughout each of the levels. And if you plan to play through the game authentically, you’ll probably end up pausing the game every 20 or 30 seconds to use them, especially because you can only hold up to six of them at a time.

Overall, The Legacy of Goku’s gameplay just feels half baked. Due to all the bugs and how grindy the combat is, I honestly struggled to get engaged with the game on any meaningful level. I often just felt like I was completing tasks and fights for the sake of the review, which is seldom a good sign. I’ve been trying really hard not to compare this game to its sequels but there’s really no excuse for how undercooked the game’s base mechanics are, especially since those aforementioned follow ups prove the Devs ability to work well within this gameplay style. It just really wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that this game had been rushed through development and that we were ostensibly playing an incomplete build of it. 

Visuals

Thankfully, things generally fare a bit better for the game visually. While generally lacking in animation, the game’s sprites are mostly quite well drawn and representative of its source material. It’s certainly not perfect and would also be greatly improved on in it’s sequels, but things are generally easy to decipher. It may be nitpicky of me but I do have to admit though that the game’s character portraits for dialogue are pretty lacking due to being tiny and devoid of many details. While this is likely due to trying to fit this game onto a normal GBA cartridge, it just doesn’t sit right with me due to how it’s sequels were vastly longer and more complex games and managed to fit in some absolutely gorgeous pixel art portraits.

However, that isn’t really the biggest deal to me and, like I’ve already said, The Legacy of Goku actually looks pretty good with the biggest exception to that being the game’s use of stills from the anime.

For starters, it just looks cheap and comes across as a little lazy. I mean, using footage from something to cut corners? Who would do something so heinous and trite?

It honestly looks pretty terrible all things considered, due to the amount of compression needed to fit these images on a GBA. The colors look kinda washed out and it doesn’t really do anything to add to the experience. I would’ve much preferred some scripted sequences that take place in the game itself and feature a few unique sprite animations. It looks especially bad once you start seeing stills from the show get used for some of the background elements in the game itself too, like when you’re on namek and enter some of the only enterable buildings in the game only to see that parts of the background are directly ripped from the anime.

This is all a bit of shame and disappointed me quite a bit as I’ve always loved Akira Toriyama’s art style. Plus, what with Akira Toriyama providing designs for the Dragon Quest series and Chrono Trigger which are, ya know, two of the most beloved RPG properties of all time, it’s not like there wasn’t already a precedent for bringing his designs to life.


I will give the game kudos for it’s opening animation though as it features full video from the series that may be extremely pixelated, but is also really impressive given the hardware. I dunno, I recognize how it may be hypocritical for me to like the full video intro even though I was just complaining about stills from the show, but seeing stuff like this on the GBA has always just been cool to me.

Plus, while I don’t like the use of screenshots in the game, it’s not like they ruin the experience or anything. The game has so many other glaring problems in its gameplay and storytelling that the screenshots aren’t that big of a deal.  

Music

Now one of the parts of the Legacy of Goku that I genuinely loved was it’s soundtrack. The music is, as far as I can tell, all original compositions that bare little resemblance to the music found in either the US or Japanese soundtracks to the anime, with the only exception to this being the games theme which very vaguely recalls Bruce Faulconer’s opening theme for the Funimation dub. Despite the lack of influence that the shows very iconic themes had on the game, the soundtrack is pretty great though, even if it also often fails to feel appropriate to what’s going on in the game itself.

One of my favorite songs is the extremely somber song “Devastated Planet,” which plays when Goku lands on Planet Namek. It’s a genuinely moving and heartbreaking composition and the use of it leads to one of the few moments in the game that feels like it’s given the appropriate gravitas. It also sounds eerily like the opening theme to Twin Peaks, which is one of my favorite shows of all time, so it’s got that going for it. Seriously though, you could easily swap this song into a few scenes from that show and it would fit perfectly. Weirdly enough, the song Goku’s Home from The Legacy of Goku II sounds even more like the theme to Twin Peaks which is… well, I honestly don’t know what to make of that.

But the rest of the game’s soundtrack is also solid. Some of it may sound a bit cheesy or way too similar to 80s instructional video music for some players’ liking, but I personally enjoyed just about everything that the soundtrack threw my way. Like I said earlier though, it doesn’t always sync up with the tone of what’s happening on screen all that well though, which is a bit lame.

Closing

So does Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku hold up? Well, no. Not really.

While the Legacy of Goku series would go on to have two pretty great sequels, this first game left me feeling pretty cold. And while I understand that it isn’t necessarily fair to compare a game to it’s sequels, especially due to the hindsight that devs have access to when they’re making those sequels, it’s still kinda hard to justify recommending this game to anybody.

In my opinion, the best thing a Dragon Ball Z fan can do if they’re looking for a decent DBZ game on the Game Boy Advance is to check out the other two Legacy of Goku titles or the fantastically button-mashy fighter Dragon Ball Z: Supersonic Warriors. There’s also Dragon Ball: Advanced Adventure for those of you that are interested in the original series as well. While I’ve only played some of that game before and can’t fully vouch for it, I’ve heard some pretty great things about it and highly recommend it.

It’s honestly a shame that this game didn’t turn out better than it did. While I don’t think it would’ve been enough to recommend it to players, some tighter combat and more fleshed out storytelling would have gone a long way in improving the experience. As it stands though, you can probably just skip out on this game as it has a lot of issues that, while never game breaking, make revisiting it for any reason other than a nostalgic one kinda hard to rationalize.

Unless, of course, you like kinda bad licensed games. In which case, go nuts. I personally enjoy bad games as much as I do good ones so if that’s your thing, more power to you!


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