Dragon Ball Z. For some, the name calls to mind an incomprehensible cartoon (or manga comic) in which each character is from a different planet, nobody stays dead, and everyone's hair keeps changing color. For others, it's a brilliant epic chronicling a battle for supremacy between beings with the power of gods, with Earth itself hanging in the balance. Whichever your take is, you have to admit that the first DBZ fighting game on PSP is actually pretty good.
The storyline (based loosely on the DBZ film Fusion Reborn) is absurd at best and hopeless at worst. But that's part of the charm. And since the narrative passes in quickly-skipped dialogue boxes so you can get back to throwing one another into mountains, it's hardly forceful. It's also the only way to unlock the full suite of 18 characters, which is a goal worth achieving.
So just get to the fighting, where developer Dimps has created a simplistic but fun and accessible core combat system. The basics are light on complex combos and heavy on the use of Ki, which builds through fighting or by holding the L button. Build enough Ki and characters can launch special attacks and even change into more powerful forms.
The controls are simple - a couple of punches, a block and special attack - which keeps the action super-accessible. The analog stick is extremely responsive, which is helpful as flying battles require fast dodging in nearly every direction. As with all of the previous Budokai titles, counters and defense play a large part, and proper timing of a block can redirect an opponent's energy beam or simply gut-punch them with a counter attack.
Battles easily launch into the air, where characters dive and circle around one another, blasting away with vicious energy attacks and old-fashioned fisticuffs. Even when a fight degenerates into alternating rounds of special attacks and blocking (which happens pretty often) the simple outrageousness of the action keeps it afloat.
The crucial ingredient are the hitch-free graphics, which borrow animations from the PS2 DBZ Budokai games. The character designs are spot-on and the effects full of line-drawn explosions; as special "Ki" attacks get bigger and bigger the entire screen fills with sizzling energy. It's more smoothly animated than the actual show, which is a pleasant surprise.
Unfortunately, multiplayer fans are stuck with mere two-player versus via Ad Hoc instead of true online play. We'd also like some of the newer modes that grace the console releases, but story, arcade and Z-trial (where fights follow specific rules) are all Shin Budokai packs. And we got excited at first to see items unlocked in the shop, before realizing these unlockables have no effect on gameplay.
Obviously, the full-sized version has more characters, and we do really wish for more play modes - especially full online multiplayer. But like the manga upon which it's based, Dragon Ball Z Shin Budokai delivers enough raw action to overcome those challenges. After all, when you can fly up to an opponent and gut-blast him with a lightning bolt of sheer psychic power ... that makes up for a lot.