Saturday, February 27, 2016

Worldly Weekend: Dragon Ball Z: Budokai (PS2)

And now, to geek out even more.

While Pokémon was what cultivated my interest in anime and manga, Dragon Ball was what captivated that interest and promptly skyrocketed it into a permanent hobby. Akira Toriyama's tales of monkey-tailed boys, alien combat and musclemen protruding golden hair three times their size captured my heart like every other young male living in early 2000's America, and I celebrated my fandom in every way possible. My friends and I constantly invented new adventures for our DBZ action figures. I dressed up as Vegeta for Halloween (I think the wig my mom made is still lying around somewhere!). I memorized the power levels of every character as I frequented the web for plot summaries and pictures. I downloaded translated ROMs of the Japan-exclusive games. I even discovered that, gasp, the show was being censored for American television!

That all began fifteen years ago, and after all these years, my Dragon Ball dorkiness is still alive...if not a tad more latent. Episodes from the fabled Dragon Box sets frequently serve as nostalgic background noise within my basement. I'm quite behind on the new animated adventures, having only seen the first two episodes of Dragon Ball Super and the Battle of Gods movie (for the record, I loved both). Every now and then, I take one of my old manga volumes and take a whiff of that familiar smell; once upon a time, I was convinced Japanese children reveled in that holy scent twenty years before I did.

While still regarded as an action masterpiece, it's easier to discern the flaws of something I once deemed as perfect. The childhood and adulthood periods of protagonist Goku's life--marketed outside of the original Japanese manga as Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, respectively--are too thematically dissonant (if anything, I prefer the whimsy of Dragon Ball). Non-Saiyan characters are frequently shoved into the sidelines, no matter how much time had been invested into them prior. Yet no matter how much I could go on, none of it matters whether I'm reading or watching it. I could say it's just my childhood speaking, yet every story beat, every character moment have become so ingrained into shonen manga that it's little wonder it remains the cornerstone of Weekly Shonen Jump (to provide an American equivalent, I suspect many feel the same about the original Star Wars trilogy and how it impacted cinema). Needless to say, it's a series I still deeply respect and adore.

With all that said, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai requires some context. See, Japan had been living it up with Dragon Ball video games since the 80's, yet we Americans never got in on that action (not including the infamous Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout). It wasn't until 2002 when animation company Toei, American anime licenser/localizer FUNimation and game publisher Infogrames finally got off their sorry keesters and began distributing DB games across the West. While we were initially gifted with a spectacularly shitty duo of Game Boy Advance games in The Legacy of Goku and Collectible Card Game, everyone's eyes were on what was to be the first 3D DBZ fighter for PS2: Budokai.

That's a pretty big deal, as evidenced from the above intro animation. Mute the rancid (yet catchy) 90's rap song and merely observe the video. Yes, you're watching a replica of the Cha-La Head-Cha-La opening from the Japanese version. For the first time, every scene from this iconic 1989 animation had been rendered in beautiful, luscious 3D. That America was not only treated to a butchered version of the opening for the show but that the original song was axed in favor of Rock the Dragon dilutes the nostalgic impact somewhat. Thankfully, we were too distracted by the shiny PS2 graphics to really notice.

What made Budokai so special is that it framed itself as a genuine celebration of Dragon Ball. It didn't cover every chapter of the saga, but the game sprung to life from the get-go with winks and nods everywhere (just look at all the little character icons up there!). Menus were peppered with animations and stills that perfectly matched the style of Toei Animation (with how the company handled the opening sequences for the sequels, I'm convinced they at least provided the latter for this title). The voices were the same as the show, and the soundtrack--composed by series veteran Kenji Yamamoto in a collaboration with Tower of Power--was so good it had practically defined the game by itself.

And how my heart aches knowing I can no longer appreciate all that.

I say this knowing full well Dragon Ball Z: Budokai never had the deepest battle system; even back then, I was able to discern the more homogenized attacks between most characters in the first two games (the most baffling case being in this title, where one particular combo is literally just a couple kicks. Bear in mind there's a dynamic camera involved). But it was good enough...and cool-looking. Like, really cool. The game's emphasis on arena-destroying supernovas (the best being Mr. Satan-er, Hercule's, where, in a fake plea for mercy, he hands over a remote-controlled bomb to the enemy), emulating the super-fast flurries of punches/kicks through button-mashing sequences, and delivering attacks so hard they send your opponents careening into alternate arenas all authentically matched the show.

Except now it's not. Unlike most games ravaged by time, Budokai's in a...peculiar predicament. For one thing, it's the forerunner in a series that shifted over to cel-shaded graphics just the next year. The awkward graphical look would be bad enough, but there's also the matter of just about everything else. You have the voice acting, which is the same as the show but FUNimation's dubbing for DBZ has always been a mixed bag, to say the least. Then you have the music, which, I don't have the heart to say it yet.

Needless to say, a "just good-enough" battle system can't support all that, no matter how flashy it is. It'd be easy to dismiss it a static relic of its time, yet somehow it's preserved its spot as the fondly-remembered DBZ game by American fans. We could just chalk it up to it being a runaway sales success over here, yet there's other matters to consider, namely that Budokai was the only Dragon Ball Z game for years to host a fully-animated Story Mode that reenacted the original series.

Not that the subsequent games up to 2008's Burst Limit didn't have a Story Mode, but they were all propped up through board games (Budokai 2), 2D "still" images (Budokai 3, although Dragon Universe was mighty cool for what it was), or the models just standing there talking (the entire Sparking!/Budokai Tenkaichi trilogy). Subsequently, Budokai's first stab at retelling the story we all know and love in 3D won by default for most folks.

And it's not like it did so through laziness. For one thing, the cinematics are well-animated for their time. Yes, we can nitpick the grainy textures (look no further than the bleached green of King Kai's planet) or that fart sound that comes out of Yamcha's clenched fist in that one cutscene, but god damn did they look cool. Take how it adapts Goku's iconic transformation into Super Saiyan, where the screen quakes with such intensity every time he screams. It was electrifying to watch as a kid, and even now it's one of the legitimate pieces of direction that holds up.

But wait, I thought I just said the game didn't age well graphically? Yes, well, note how I said it's well-animated, and even then that only applies to the cinematics. While the cutscenes may be of adequate quality, it's shocking how that all falls apart when the fighting comes down. The characters lack breathing animations, and everyone's beefcake designs renders it even more awkward, particularly when a good chunk of victory animations consist of character crossing their arms and grinning smugly into the camera (the winner goes to Piccolo, who hangs his mouth open in stupefied wonder at his endlessly-wiggling antennas).

Needless to say, it's really easy to see why they moved into cel-shading. For instance, there is nothing natural about the power-up animation: as opposed to lifting the iconic stances from the show, characters statically scrunch up into a position quite akin to that of taking a dump. Despite the beefcake designs, there's a real lifeless look to everything that was never going to hold up. While the GameCube version added in a unique cel-shaded look of its own, the animation problems persist.

Honestly, I think I'm even being generous with the cutscenes in regards to modeling. Just look how ghastly Karin (Korin) the cat looks up there. That's actually a shot from the HD version, and apparently whoever was in charge of that remaster couldn't fix such a monstrosity.

Anyway, there's also the matter of VAs. Look, let's be honest: while FUNimation may be the best anime dubbing company in America now, that'd be a difficult case to make in 2002 (let alone when they first started out). While Dragon Ball Z was what got them on the map, it fell victim to about every bad dubbing trope from the late 90's: stilted VA direction, corny scripts, a never-ending replacement BGM, and embarrassing opening songs. You cannot sit here and tell me that a dub host to a character singing "CAT LOVES FOOOOOOD YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAAAH" (if you pay attention, the dialogue exchange doesn't even match the context of the scene) or a villain randomly making homosexual advances is better than the original Japanese, a thing of beauty host to the best seiyuu in the anime industry.

But hey, don't take it from me. Why, who is that handsome young man grilling voice actors Sean Schemmel and Christopher Sabat? That would be me, at last year's Otakon! And I gotta say, while I don't entirely buy the "old equipment" answer, I'm quite impressed with their opinion on nostalgia. After all, it's not like Dragon Ball is some holy grail many of us superfans treat it as such. To some people, it's just their favorite goofy Japanese cartoon they grew up, and the meaning of "dubs vs. subs" hold little meaning to them, and that's quite alright.

With all that in mind, Budokai is a pivotal moment in researching the history of DBZ dubbing. Not only was the show coming to an end in America, but this was the first time the cast was brought together for an extensively-voiced video game. For starters, there's Chris Sabat and his dozen roles: his stern direction for Piccolo had evolved just fine, yet he still hadn't figured out how to make Vegeta sound anything other than, as Kanzenshuu once put it, a guy in a booth doing a gruff voice. Meanwhile, Sonny Strait has come a long way in his voicing Kuririn (Krillin): no longer has his direction for the character rendered him an annoying squeaky-voiced punk, but as a genuine sidekick that immediately grows on you.

And then there's voices that continue to, well, flat-out suck. Like Ocean's Pauline Newstone before her, Linda Young's Freeza remains the most notorious miscast in anime dubbing history. Don't let the lipstick fool you; the character has absolutely zero business sounding like an old woman who's had far too many smokes. Despite being the series' most infamous villain, it's hard to believe that in context when you cannot take anything he says seriously. It goes to show FUNimation's worst casting weakness lied in body type: the less said about Philip Wilburn's squeaky Android #19 and Sean Schemmel's "marble-mouth" Kaio (King Kai), the happier I'll be.

In context of the game, it's interesting to witness the juxtaposition of direction. Rumor has it that Toei representatives oversaw the localization, and it'd definitely show in the Story Mode. Regardless of any voice mismatches, there's not a single instance of dry delivery, further granting the impact these cutscenes had back in the day. And then, once again, it falls apart a bit in actual battles. Characters announce attack names super quickly to accommodate the quick frame executions (check out Gohan's take on Kamehameha), and there's an obvious glitch regarding the Cell character: no matter how much he transforms in battle, he's always stuck with the nasal "bug" voice of his first form. It's something they never actually fixed for the sequels, and it's especially odd when contrasted with the normally-dignified countenance of his Perfect Form.

Add in how the voice clips' muffledness has grown more distinct over the years, and the delivery of the bad voices are amplified. Of course, Freeza is absolutely terrible, but the most egregious cases lie in the representatives of the Ginyu Force. Chris Sabat's Arnold Schwarzenegger impression for Recoome borders on incomprehensible and obnoxious, as is also the case for Captain Ginyu himself. The elderly Brice Armstrong is a baffling replacement for the adequate Dale Kelly; he's clearly too old for the flamboyant character and it shows in his nasal delivery.

Speaking of baffling, we now arrive at the most heartbreaking case of all: Kenji Yamamoto, the soundtrack's composer. No, not the same Kenji Yamamoto who composed the Metroid Prime trilogy; the Kenji Yamamoto who's not only been involved with composing songs for DBZ since its inception, but for all the video games dating back to the Super Famicom era.

As mentioned before, Budokai's score is so damn good that it's practically impossible to discuss the game without bringing it up. What made it excel was that it struck that perfect balance between Dragon Ball's lighthearted humor and adrenaline-rushing action. The above themes, which respectively accompany the menu and character select themes, represent the former and dress up the overall presentation; they're so fun that you can't wait to dive into the action.

And what action it is! Kenji Yamamoto's collaboration with Tower of Power definitely bore fruit; yes, those are real instruments you're hearing, all accompanied through some kickass synth. Raging guitars rev up the familiar locales that are Budokai's battlefields, and they're all the better for it. Combined with the arena-shifting mechanics, one could even say they heighten the glory of a shallow combat system.

The Story Mode isn't neglected, either. They emphasize more on synth, but Yamamoto ensures they inject blood-pumping adrenaline and appropriate drama when needed. The above example is actually spliced into three different components for varying cinematics: quiet anger (when Goku observes his dead friends slain by Nappa), anticipation and encouragement (Goku convincing Gohan to take on Cell), and awesome kickassery (Goku's Super Saiyan form scaring the shit out of Freeza).

Heck, he even goes out of his way to pay homage to the original DBZ recap theme! You see what I mean when I said this game celebrates Dragon Ball? In fact, rumor has it there's a cameo from Super Famicom fighter Super Butoden 2 somewhere...

So, wait, I just spent the past four paragraphs singing the soundtrack's praises. If the music's so good, what's the problem?

Well, it's plagiarized.

Yeah, how's that for a kick in the balls?

Kenji Yamamoto's plagiarism scandal has been well-documented, and while I was careful enough to cite the tracks that (as far as we know) weren't "inspired" from other sources, therein lies the rub. It's immensely disappointing that someone who clearly had talent fell to thievery, let alone the fact that he strung along his none-the-wiser collaborators for the ride. And even in the case of my cited tracks, I'll always be asking myself if they were truly born from his "talent."

Perhaps my memories of how much I enjoyed the game are what's most important, but that they won't live on to future generations is the most heartbreaking factor of this ordeal. Just like how Dragon Ball Kai's soundtrack was swiftly replaced across the world following the scandal, any games currently on the market that had Yamamoto's involvement had their scores replaced with recycled tracks from the Tenkaichi brand of games (which, in themselves, were actually replacements of the original Japanese score).

The Budokai HD Collection for PS3/X360 was no exception to the rule. Let it be known the dance music of the Tenkaichi series is not at all like the grounded guitars of Budokai, as evident in this collection of cinematics. It's too blatant how the cutscenes were built around the original score, and all these overly-peppy tracks induce emotional cues so differently that you may as well be watching/playing a whole different game altogether.

And therein lies the real problem: I actually prefer the plagiarized score because it functions better within the game's context. Isn't that messed up? It's too ingrained into me, too loved to accept any morally-correct replacement, and that's all because some jackass in Japan decided it was okay to steal. Maybe I'm at fault, too, but to dismiss it as "it is what it is" feels so wrong.

I love everything else Budokai brings to the table. I love that the Tournament is framed within the World Tournament/Tenkaichi Budokai from the original series (complete with the lovable announcer guy!). I love the concept of custom fighters and collecting abilities through Hoi-Poi Capsules. I love the "what-if" scenarios, particularly the scenarios involving Cell's "nightmare" and The Legend of Hercule, where the big faker actually ends not up being a faker and beats up everyone attending the Cell Game.

But I love that all with a broken heart, and I can no longer call Budokai one of the truly great Dragon Ball games. It doesn't fall nearly into the "so bad it's good" rabbit hole I rediscovered last summer with Sonic Adventure DX, but the polish found in everything else can't save how it's a victim of circumstance. The combination of flash over substance, Toei-blessed presentation vs. generic models, and an amazing soundtrack tainted with plagiarism blend together to create a product with big, gaping cracks gradually rising to the surface.

I suppose it'd be a bit mean to label Budokai mediocre; I mean, I love what it tries to do too much to label it as such, but as it stands, it truly is a relic meant for study and getting one's nostalgic kicks, not entertainment.

(I blame Yamamoto; seriously, fuck you, man.)

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