Blast from the Past – Revisiting Dragon Ball Z: Legendary Super Warriors

When I was in elementary school in the third grade, my scores in reading and mathematics earned me a privilege among my classmates – instead of taking my third grade classes, I went to the fourth grade room and studied with the older kids. At age 9 this felt like the biggest deal in the entire world. I knew it was very important that I impress the ten year olds and convince them of how cool and smart I was. And you know what the ten year olds liked?…or at least the two boys I happened to sit next to because of the alphabetic seating chart? Dragon Ball Z.

I knew nothing about anime in the third grade but I was certainly about to learn. Getting in good with the older kids meant learning all about Goku, so I found out that the show was on Cartoon Network and started watching it. (Much to my mother’s horror the first time she saw a guy get a hole blown through his stomach.) When I picked up the show the Frieza saga was nearing its conclusion, so I watched in awe as Goku discovered the power of the Super Saiyan. After that I was hooked, and I followed the show as best as I could through the Majin Buu saga and got plenty of DBZ merch: art tutorial books, one or two manga, and of course a big ole pile of video games.

One of those games was a Game Boy Color title by the name of Dragon Ball Z: Legendary Super Warriors. This was probably my favorite DBZ game as a kid, and last week while listening to a podcast the producer mentioned that they had started replaying the game. It had been a long time since I thought about Legendary Super Warriors and that one off-hand comment was enough for me to say “ooh, I should play that again for old time’s sake!” So I booted up my “Game Boy Color” and loaded my “game cartridge” and fell into a nostalgia pit as the opening theme washed over me.

Because the first full saga I watched live was the Cell saga, Gohan became my favorite character in the show.

Now if you’re reading this and understandably asking “hey Ian, what the HECK is DBZ: Legendary Super Warriors?” I’ll take a moment to cover the basics. Legendary Super Warriors was released on the Game Boy Color in 2002. It’s a turn-based card-battle RPG that covers the majority of the story content from Dragon Ball Z. The game begins just after Goku is killed by Raditz and concludes after the defeat of Majin Buu. Structurally, it is broken up into three books consisting of ten chapters each, with each book constituting one saga from the show: Frieza, then Cell, then Buu. Each chapter features a small bit of story content and then a battle, with the story bits occasionally involving wandering around a small map to talk to characters or search for objects.

Presentation-wise, this is a Gameboy Color game, so there’s not really much to write home about. There are only a few songs but they’re catchy, although my least favorite is probably the one that plays the most: the battle theme. It has some high-pitched segments that I think sound a little too screechy on the Gameboy sound chip. The overworld sprites are essentially a sprite of your character’s head dropped on top of a little ghost body, but the combat sprites are much more detailed and have a surprising amount of personality. Characters have different attack animations from one another and based on what kind of move they are using, which helps to keep the fights visually distinct from one another. The weakest part of the game in my mind is the text. Not only have their been lots of typos in the chapters I have played, but some of the card descriptions don’t use the limited space well and they struggle to convey what exactly the card does.

All of that is secondary to the real star of the show: the combat. This shouldn’t be surprising for a game based on Dragon Ball Z, a show where everything outside of the combat scenes leaves a bit to be desired. The majority of your time in Legendary Super Warriors is spent in battle, so the majority of this reflection on the game will also be focused on the cards mechanics and the experience they create.

Not a lot going on in the overworld, but you spend a very small amount of time looking at screens like this.

Each character wields a deck of 20 cards as well as three “limited” cards. You also have a life bar (which varies in size from character to character) as well as command points that are spent to use cards. Characters also have a couple of other stats: strength for physical attacks, ki for energy attacks, and speed to determine who goes first each round. Some cards can only be used by specific characters, too, so that’s important to keep in mind. These are your essential resources: life to stay in the battle, cards to take action, command points to play cards, and stats to influence the power of your cards and turn order.

The battlefield is 8 squares wide and 2 squares tall, with each character having 4 squares that make up their territory on the field: upper left, upper right, lower left, and lower right. Squares further from enemy territory raise defense while squares closer to it raise offense. Squares on the ground are more resistant to beam attacks while squares in the air are more resistant to physical attacks. So positioning your character makes a difference – ideally you want to be away from the enemy and on the ground when they release a huge beam attack, for example, but then you want both you and your foe to be in your front rows when you make an attack against them. There are some challenges to position management that I’ll get to shortly; for now let’s talk about turn structure.

Each turn has an attack phase and a defense phase. The character with higher speed gets their attack phase first. There are five types of cards in the game: command cards for dealing light damage and building command points, damage cards for physical attacks, beam cards for special attacks, guard cards for blocking, and support cards for unique effects. On the attack phase you can play command cards, damage cards, beam cards, or support cards. You can also gather power to gain access to your limited cards for two turns. On the defense phase you can play guard cards or support cards, or move to a different position on the battlefield. Once you’ve had both an attack and defense phase, the turn ends and a new turn begins. Turn count matters for effects like “gather power” that only last for a limited time.

Here Goku is in an offensive position while Vegeta is on defense. To spend all that built up CC on his limited abilities, Goku will need to gather power first.

Since every card type other than command cards cost command points, the most common move you’ll make during the attack phase is using a command card. If you didn’t draw one in your hand, you can always use the “3-stage attack” for free. When you play a command card, you’ll have a quick microgame in which you have to enter a number of inputs equal to the number of stages in the attack. These inputs are a mix of A or B button presses as well as directional inputs. When a command attack has multiple directional inputs, that can actually relocate the target on the battlefield, which is why being intentional about your positioning choices is a bit complicated – one unlucky command attack string can put you exactly where you don’t want to be. As long as you execute your commands well, each hit gives you command points to use to play your other cards.

Offensive cards are split between damage (physical) attacks and beam (special) attacks. These vary in power from as low as 10 to as high as 35 even just by chapter four, with even more powerful attacks available as time goes on. Most of the more powerful abilities are locked to specific characters, such as Goku being the only person able to use the Spirit Bomb while Piccolo has exclusive access to the Special Beam Cannon. This means that most of the time, your shared deck will have weaker abilities that everyone can wield while your truly devastating attacks will be attached to characters as limited cards. Defensive cards are split between cards that reduce the damage from any attack or cards that completely avoid damage, but you have to correctly predict the attack type. Avoiding, for example, is a guaranteed dodge against a beam attack but won’t accomplish anything if the opponent uses a physical attack against you.

The combat sprites are pretty solid! When you successfully land a hit that the opponent didn’t predict, it feels weighty and satisfying.

A typical fight goes like this. The two fighters exchange a few command attacks to build up points. When someone is ready to go for a big move, they gather power to unlock their limited cards. At this point characters might start repositioning to prepare for the big move. What kind of attack is the opponent going to use? Do I have any defense cards in play? Do I risk them possibly using the opposite card type of what I have protection against? When should I buff my character and take the offensive? Does the opponent have a defense card for my attack? Learning to read your opponent and predict when to expect big moves is key to forming a solid strategy. It’s really satisfying when you anticipate an opponent’s attack and dodge it and then retaliate with a huge blow of your own – but by the same token, it can feel devastating to have all of your prep go to waste and then watch the enemy smash you with their biggest move. It’s all about resource management, anticipating what type of attacks will come out from your opponent, and making effective use of the cards you have in your hand and assigned as limited abilities.

I’m surprised by how well this system holds up. While there’s been plenty of growth in the space of card RPGs thanks to the popularity of the roguelike deck builder, the core mechanics that drive the combat of Legendary Super Warriors have just enough depth to get you thinking and create exciting moments. I’m not sure I’ll be committing to finishing more of the game as I’m kinda bouncing all over the place right now, but it has been fun to revisit this title from my past and see how it feels to play after all these years.

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