Listen Hear: Dragon Ball Z♭
Video games have tons of working parts that go into making them all so amazing. The story, the characters, the world, the graphics, the controls. But there is often an element that a lot of people overlook. An element that truly does bring to life a lot of the aforementioned list.
Music is an integral part of my life. Just as in films, the soundtrack can lift whatever game it’s in to an entirely new level. In this series, Listen Hear, I’m going to highlight some of video games’ finest musical pieces and explain why they mean so much to me. Hopefully you’ll find something here you enjoy and perhaps themes you never even noticed. Strap yourself in, we have a few decades to get through.
I’m breaking my own rules and doing a television show because who cares, it’s Dragon Ball Week and, let’s be honest, the Dragon Ball games are mostly garbage. The TV series Dragon Ball Z has had a few scores in it throughout the history of its numerous dubs. Just look at this list. It’s insane. I want to start, however, with the original Japanese title theme for the show, “Cha-La Head-Cha-La“, sung by Hironobu Kageyama.
Everything about this is cool, nothing about this is lame. It fills your heart with a childlike wonder as you watch the main characters run on dragons and shit. It’s got everything a Saturday morning cartoon needs with wacky characters, a weird and catchy theme song that you can only say about seven words of, mountains of breaking ice, people who appear to be on fire walking in a hell-like landscape, and Goku with a pole. This opening is the not the one I grew up with though. This is what graced American audiences:
Composed by Shuki Levy, who did the first 53 episodes of the show before a studio shift occurred, the theme is literally the exact opposite. Badass guitar riffs, about ten lyrics that consistently use the word Dragon, all fight scenes all the time, and a Super Saiyan at the end. It might be Americanized as hell, but damn did I love it.
There are clear and major differences between the U.S. and Japanese soundtracks. In a complete change from the opening credits, Levy tried to emulate that of Shunsuke Kikuchi, the original composer for the show, for the episode score. Kikuchi’s soundtrack often uses heavy orchestra sounds, brass and violins in particular. Once Levy was replaced however, the American score shifted gears to a more guitar/rock based sound, composed by Bruce Faulconer.
A prime example of a big difference comes from a scene when Goku mounts an attack on Freeza. The first is the original Japanese soundtrack:
It’s powerful, brimming with energy, and evokes heroic feelings. Everything Goku is and strives to be. Not only that, but it disappears at the crucial moment when Goku flies forward and powers up his signature attack, understanding that sometimes no score is the score. It gets me pumped. I want to use Kaio-Ken right now just watching this! Next, take a look at Faulconer’s version:
Not only does the crux of the music start when Goku flies forward to attack, it’s slower, less powerful, and far less moving. There’s no heroic tone here, it’s more of a desperation, his final playing card. The build up to the attack is almost nothing, a low background noise. For me, Kikuchi’s version trumps it any day of the week.
There are two sides to this though, as the original isn’t always the best option. When Vegeta transforms into a Super Saiyan, the music is again extremely different. The Japanese version:
And the American:
Uhhh, dat piano. Here, Kikuchi’s original score starts strong with silence and constipation noises from Vegeta. Then, in a turn more akin to Faulconer, the score becomes futuristic sounding, slowly fading back into the orchestral hits after the transformation is complete. It works, but doesn’t exactly get you that excited.
Faulconer’s version hits hard, right away, with a piano riff we’ve never heard before, indicating that things are about to get real as fuck up in here. And they do. It builds the entire time while he powers up (is constipated), switches for a brief moment before the transformation, and then comes back full force again. Plus, we get to hear Vegeta scream three times, adding to the power. Only when Gohan speaks is everything ruined. Super Saiyan Club? Jesus.
It’s one of the few times the American soundtrack has equaled the Japanese in my opinion, along with the intro theme from above. That’s not even to say the American soundtracks were ever bad, they just never quite sounded right, or rested, ever. Faulconer pretty much made his score wall-to-wall and it felt like there was no room to breathe. He also replaced the “Rock the Dragon” intro theme with this garbage:
Just…insulting. Boring shots with horrible animation, a lame guitar with zero power, and absolutely no fun being had. It kills any enthusiasm for watching the show and you want to skip it every time. And you do.
When Dragon Ball Super does air in America, I think I want the original score. It feels more authentic, like it doesn’t have to try to be cool or work with what’s happening on screen. And whenever I take that nostalgic trek back though Dragon Ball Z, I want Kikuchi’s version playing over Goku’s epic moments. I’ll leave you with an ode to Piccolo from Gohan himself. It’s the most Japanese thing ever and there is no American version because…because it can’t get any better than this honestly.
I’m also high as fuck.