I played a giant ape and tore down a city in Dragon Ball: Sparking Zero and I haven't had this much dumb fun in a fighting game since the 2000s

Dragon Ball: Sparking Zero
(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

I didn't become a Dragon Ball fan until I was an adult. That's maybe an odd way to get into a franchise that speaks to the 11-year-old boy in us all, but it meant I never got into the Dragon Ball Z video games that I would have in the mid-2000s, and the legacy of the Budokai Tenkaichi series entirely passed me by. But going hands-on with the latest entry in that series at Summer Game Fest, I feel like I could maybe capture what I've missed. Dragon Ball: Sparking Zero is a delightful toybox of destruction that gets right at the heart of what's made the franchise so popular across so many generations.

This game, notably, is not titled Budokai Tenkaichi 4, instead going back to the original Japanese series title of Dragon Ball: Sparking. "Now it's a time where we see that the games are released worldwide, at the same time, under the same name," producer Jun Furutani tells me via translator, "and we also see the community and the players interacting with each other about the same game and the same experience. So we thought it was important to have the same name worldwide for these games."

Either way, the concept remains the same. Line up an almost impossibly massive roster of Dragon Ball characters, then pick them up and smash them together like so many action figures. It's a simple concept, but one that's beloved by franchise fans. With the release of Budokai Tenkaichi 3 17 years ago, Furutani says that the devs felt the series had been "completed." But modern tech has inspired the studio to return to the concept. "Time has passed, new technology appeared, right? New consoles. Now we thought that this was really the time where we can make a new evolution to the Dragon Ball: Budokai Tenkaichi series."


Summer Games Preview
We're diving into the hottest upcoming games out of Summer Game Fest. To find all of our hands-on reports, visit GamesRadar's What's Hot 2024 hub.

Mondo cool destruction

Dragon Ball: Sparking Zero

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

That new technology is most apparent in the game's environmental destruction, where you can tear down buildings and blast foes through mountain sides with attacks that feel spectacular and so very Dragon Ball. During my hands-on time, a Bandai Namco rep was quick to suggest I have a battle between the most powerful Broly transformation and the giant ape form of Vegeta. The resulting fight was the kind of dumb fun I haven't had since Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee back in the GameCube days.

The action felt fast and snappy, and pulling off moves was extremely intuitive thanks to a modernized control scheme. (You can also go back to classic Budokai Tenkaichi controls if you prefer.) I was also impressed with the game's difficulty options, which felt less like a traditional fighting game AI modifier and more like the options you get in a modern driving game, with numerous granular assists that you can toggle on or off. If you just want to fully disengage your brain, you can enable full auto-combos, or you can disable all the assists for the most hardcore experience.

During our interview, Furutani asked what my favorite character in the demo was, and seemed a bit surprised when I said Mr. Satan. In a traditional fighting game, he'd be a joke character - one of his special moves even sees him trying to beat up his opponent to no effect, only to get smashed himself at the end. But that's what's so fun about this series. It's not about a balanced roster of fighters, it's a playground for dream match-ups between characters from throughout that series, regardless of whether those fights are fair.

Under 9,000 modes

Dragon Ball: Sparking Zero

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

Sparking Zero is a modern game with modern online modes, including a ranked option. "This game is definitely not an esports game like FighterZ for example, we still want to bring a balance into the fights," Furutani explains. Instead, each online ranked battle will give you a cost limit, with each fighter you bring in having a certain value associated. "That's the way we balance the game, meaning that in one team you cannot choose just three or five of the most powerful characters."

Custom battles are another big new addition, letting you create your own story scenarios with custom intro dialog and fight parameters. I didn't get to play with the mode myself, but based on a brief presentation it looks like you set dialog sort of Mad Libs style, choosing combinations of preset phrases to tell your story, presumably a concession to avoid moderation hassles, since players will be free to share these creations online. Beyond that, options are quite robust, letting you trigger battle events not just when a fight is completed but when, say, a character reaches a certain HP threshold.

The primary single-player content is battle mode, which lets you select one of eight characters and play through the major battles that character participated in throughout the various Dragon Ball sagas. The big gimmick here is that fights can have alternate outcomes based on choices during cutscenes or objectives you complete in battle. We saw a quick demo of Goku's battle against Raditz from the beginning of DBZ, where you can choose to reject Piccolo's help and fight on your own. You could get another alternative outcome if, instead of simply outlasting Raditz in the normal objective, you manage to actually beat him. I asked Furutani if the story as a whole might branch based on these decisions, and he said that the mode is more "made for players to relive the iconic moments of the original story." So you might see alternate takes on those moments, but you won't see the overall plot take a radically different direction.

If there's one concern I have about Sparking Zero, it's that the game might not have the robust array of modes that its predecessors did. I asked Furutani if there were plans for additional single-player modes beyond what's been announced, and he emphasized that post-launch plans are largely focused on new characters. The recent announcement of a split-screen mode - much-demanded by fans - has its own limitations, too, as Furutani confirmed that local multiplayer "will only be playable on the Hyperbolic Time Chamber" map.

I wasn't sure what I'd make of Sparking Zero heading into my demo, having so little experience with its predecessors, but I was immediately taken by its fast gameplay, intuitive controls, and toybox vibes. I just hope the final game can offer enough meaty content to justify the price of entry. We'll know for sure when Dragon Ball: Sparking Zero launches on October 11 across PS5, Xbox Series X, and PC platforms.

Check out all the best fighting games if you're looking for something competitive.

Dustin Bailey
Staff Writer

Dustin Bailey joined the GamesRadar team as a Staff Writer in May 2022, and is currently based in Missouri. He's been covering games (with occasional dalliances in the worlds of anime and pro wrestling) since 2015, first as a freelancer, then as a news writer at PCGamesN for nearly five years. His love for games was sparked somewhere between Metal Gear Solid 2 and Knights of the Old Republic, and these days you can usually find him splitting his entertainment time between retro gaming, the latest big action-adventure title, or a long haul in American Truck Simulator.