When it comes to pop culture, Dragon Ball is undeniably one of the most seminal works in modern media. While its pacing and storytelling merits may be up for debate, its reach and influence is not, as evidenced by the hundreds of artists, directors and creators inspired by Akira Toriyama’s work. Over the decades since Dragon Ball-mania first hit Japan in the 1980’s, dozens of video games have tried and failed to truly replicate the magic of the series. But after all of the mediocre titles published with the Dragon Ball name, the latest entry, Dragon Ball FighterZ, seems closer than ever to reaching that zenith.
As fans have pointed out, Dragon Ball FighterZ contains plenty of direct homages to the Dragon Ball Z anime. Tongue-in-cheek dialogue exchanges stem from many of the show’s inside jokes, and the game’s “Dramatic Finishes” recreate classic scenes when the player ends their opponent in a canonical way. But when it comes to visuals, this kinetic, high-impact fighting game might have more in common with the print manga than the iconic anime.
In order to replicate the look of Dragon Ball, FighterZ utilizes some of the manga’s subversive fight scene composition techniques to ensure battles between players feel just as effortless and fluid as the books. So before examining how the game looks, it’s necessary to look at what made the original manga so great.
Series Creator Akira Toriyama is a master of fight scene layout, and his works contain some of the most seamless battles of the graphic novel medium. To this day, Dragon Ball’s layout is still awe-inspiring, and epitomizes every advantage that Japanese comic books hold over their American counterparts.
In Western comics, fighting is typically only used as a vehicle to advance the story. When Spider-Man fights a group of thugs, it’s usually abbreviated and accompanied by playful quips or an expositional thought bubble offering insight into the greater plot. The actual combat tells less of a story, and the movements that Spider-Man makes don’t usually carry thematic weight.
However in the East, every blow is meaningful. Fights in manga are spectacles that when converted into anime create these climactic confrontations that can carry multiple episodes. When Naruto and Sasuke are desperately pummeling one another at the Final Valley, it’s a representation of their wills and the storied history of their ancestors colliding. If you’re just passively watching them beat on each another, you’re missing the underlying message. This emphasis on meaning and significance is a value that all anime shares, which is what makes their battles so notoriously dramatic and engaging.
Yet even among the best action manga, Dragon Ball is still the king of flow. Your eye subconsciously follows the action, as every stage of the battle is effortlessly communicated. To explore Toriyama’s genius, let’s break down one of my favorite fights from the manga, Goku. Vs. Cell.
There are a few techniques Toriyama uses in order to illustrate that scene. First, he uses motion accents to communicate Goku and Cell’s movements. On page 3 panel 1, the accents of Goku’s somersaults better maintain the momentum of the action than compared to if Goku was retreating with a slow, clunky jump backward. Then, after Cell gets launched into the air on page 5 panel 2, Toriyama uses the motion accents to convey that Cell has stopped himself and is preparing for Goku’s follow-up attack. He then deflects his Kamehameha, which then sets himself up for Goku’s blow from behind. These are easy to overlook, but the motion accents are essential for communicating Goku and Cell’s battle blow-for-blow.
The next technique we’ll highlight is how Toriyama manages the 180 Degree Rule. In cinema, the 180 Degree rules says that in order to maintain logical positioning in a scene, characters should never cross an imaginary 180 degree plane. If characters have to change sides, there must be an establishing shot to reorient the audience and let them understand where the actors have relocated.
For example, imagine a scene with two characters sitting at a table across from one another. Having the character that’s sitting on the left side of a table suddenly be shot sitting to the right is disorienting. Therefore that character moved, a wider shot should show that the left character stood up, walked to the other side of the table and sat down before they begin to be shot from right side of the plane. Graphic novels follow that rule to a certain extent, although it’s often broken for the sake of a page’s visual composition. Sometimes characters must swap sides, but smart artists will only break this rule if it serves an artistic purpose.
On page 2 panel 1, we see Cell block Goku’s punch. Here it’s necessary to break the 180 degree rule here because Goku dodging the attack is the focus of the panel. From the reverse angle, it’d be more difficult to convey the punch’s left-to-right motion, plus it could be mistaken that Cell whiffed his punch.
On the next page, we get another side switch on the panel with Goku’s summersault. This is to set-up the bottom two panels; since Goku’s reacting to Cell’s charge, his panel must be second, meaning that the above side switch was necessary to maintain continuity within the page. Without the side switch on the panel above, the positioning of Goku and Cell wouldn’t make sense, and the two-page exchange would look like this:
Finally, the last technique we’ll pull from the Dragon Ball manga is what I’ll call the economy of space. Toriyama is exceptional at packing in as much meaning as he can into every panel; however, he will also draw establishing panels for the sake of visual clarity. He knows precisely where to cut and where to add to his compositions.
Whenever an illustration is conveying a fighter’s movement, Toriyama draws their opponent’s reactions in a way that mentally prepares the reader for the other fighter’s response. This also assists with conveying a fight’s thematic meaning; are the two fighters evenly matched? Does one of them have the advantage over the other? Is our hero simply reacting to the enemy’s movements or do they have a greater battle plan?
After blocking Cell’s charge on page 4, Goku sends Cell flying with a kick into the air. But before the actual blow, the page’s second panel serves as a transition. The background isn’t illustrated, and there’s no movement coming from Cell, with Goku leaning backward being the sole focus. This tells us a couple of things: 1.) It says that Goku is faster than Cell (at least in this instance). 2.) It demonstrates Goku’s cunning, in that he was ready for Cell’s charge and prepared a follow-up attack 3.) Both fighters’ calm demeanor shows that neither of them have begun to show their full power. The inclusion of this second panel may seem innocuous, but without it, each blow appears random and the fight runs away at a breakneck pace:
Following Goku launching Cell, all three of our hypothesizes from that second panel are confirmed. Goku throws a dummy Kamehameha to leave Cell open. He quickly teleports behind him and uses his speed to land a clean blow. However, his plan doesn’t prove fruitful as after his punch hits, Cell sends him flying back down to Earth. We then learn that what we saw was simply a casual exchange of blows, and that both elite fighters were simply warming up.
It’s easy to gloss over these artistic decisions when you’re reading, which is what makes Toriyama such a genius. He has such an eye for flow and composition that makes the typically clunky fight scenes in the comic book medium buttery smooth.
Beauty In Motion
When applied to the video game realm, these techniques are the reason why Dragon Ball FighterZ is so easy on the eyes. Instead of fluid, seamless 60 FPS action, the blows in FighterZ are accentuated and practically segmented. Let’s look at those three manga techniques as they appear in Dragon Ball FighterZ.
For a baseline, here are a couple of combos in full speed.
It’s hard to tell at 60 FPS, but those same three composition techniques are hard at work delivering FighterZ’s breathtaking visuals.
First, let’s look at a still from that Cell combo.
Cell’s combination is a little difficult to follow in the video. He has a special that pinballs the opponent back and forth, quite literally switching sides and breaking the 180 degree rule. That confusion is why this half second break following Cell’s vanishing attack is so necessary; it lets the Cell player know which direction to orientate their next inputs, and lets the Goku player know which direction to start blocking from. Additionally, the motion accents add visual clarity for where Cell is hitting the opponent.
There’s also some great economy of space in how the camera is utilized here. For many special moves in Dragon Ball FighterZ, the camera briefly zooms in for a few frames to give battles that cinematic, anime-esque quality. For something as fast as FighterZ, it’s shocking that it works and doesn’t slow the pace. Like the second panel on page 4, these moments add some order and meaning to the chaotic exchanges inside of a match.
The way characters are animated is another huge component to FighterZ’s presentation. It makes the hits harder, the fights prettier, and the combos flashier. For a better understanding of FighterZ’s segmented animations, let’s examine a combo in FighterZ frame-by-frame.
Pay attention to Cell’s character model. There are almost no transitions between the phases of his attacks. He goes straight from a dash, to a standing elbow drop, to a shoulder charge, etc. Instead of being animated as a smooth motion, each normal has a clear transition between the startup and active frames; at the end of this clip, Cell’s leg is behind him for several frames, until all of a sudden his leg is upright and Goku is launched into the air, with no transition. Just like in the manga, the least amount of space is used to tell the most amount of meaning.
All of these subtle visual cues, as well as dozens more that likely won’t get recognized for months and years, meld together to create FighterZ’s phenominal visual spectacle.
Just like the Toriyama’s original manga, the genius in Dragon Ball FighterZ is difficult to identify at full-speed. Something about it just works, and you’re too caught up in the action to worry about why. It’s only when you sit back and closely examine Arc System Works’ craft that you begin to understand where the magic is coming from. And while the development team should be commended on FighterZ’s impeccable visual style, so too should the seminal manga series it was adapted from.