Dragon Ball GT may have attracted the ire of fans across the world, but the ending it delivered was arguably superior to the conclusion of Dragon Ball Z. First airing in 1996, Dragon Ball GT continued Goku's story but did so without the involvement of original creator, Akira Toriyama. This led to a seismic shift in tone, visual style and approach, with Goku turned back into a child and sent out to explore space with Trunks and his granddaughter, Pan. While some Dragon Ball GT arcs were stronger than others, the series in general is regarded as a pale imitation of Dragon Ball Z as far as the vast majority are concerned.
Nevertheless, Dragon Ball GT did soften the blow of the main story's ending, with Toriyama's final chapter published in 1995. This official conclusion to Goku's tale sees the protagonist and his friends compete in another World Martial Arts Tournament, but Goku's true motive is to seek out Uub - the virtuous incarnation of Buu that Goku wished into existence. The epic saga ends with Goku whisking Uub away to train, with Chi-Chi angrily yelling after him.
This finale works on several levels. Goku is left raising the next generation of Z fighter, once again reforming a being who used to be evil, and there's a comforting familiarity in the Saiyan's inability to settle down, thereby offering the reader hope for the future and a light-hearted assurance that very little has changed about Goku over the years. However, the end of Dragon Ball does also contain a somewhat sour note. It's impossible to forget that Goku missed the formative years of Goten's life due to being dead, and their eventual meeting is one of the series' most emotional moments. By leaving his family once again for training, there's a twinge of sadness to Dragon Ball's final chapter. Some might argue that Goku's transition from student to teacher represents the perfect ending to Toriyama's story, but Goku had already made this leap during the Cell Games by leaving everything to Gohan, therefore, taking Uub as a student is nothing new.
After 63 episodes of disappointment, Dragon Ball GT ends with "Goodbye Son Goku...Till The Day We Meet Again." In this finale, Shenron decides that the Dragon Balls should no longer be used on Earth and announces his intention to leave for a faraway plane. He invites Goku to come along and, after the Saiyan accepts, they embark on a brief, emotional goodbye tour before Goku, Shenron and the Dragon Balls all merge into one. A century later, the spirit of Goku visits the World Martial Arts tournament to encourage his great-great grandson who is competing at the event.
This episode provides a more ambiguous and spiritual ending, but also a more conclusive one. Goku isn't merely taking on another student, but becoming the literal protector of the Dragon Balls after they are deemed too dangerous to stay on Earth. In a way, Goku is sacrificing his mortal existence to ensure the future safety of his adopted home planet. Not only does this act as a more definitive ending, it also progresses Goku's development as a hero to the final stage - a legend who protected the Earth, rather than a fight-hungry deadbeat dad.
The Dragon Ball GT ending also packs more emotional heft, as the full weight of his departure is written on the faces of his loved ones. The farewell stops to Kami House and Piccolo allow for teary-eyed moments of nostalgia in a way that the original ending simply didn't. Unlike Dragon Ball Z's ending, the final Dragon Ball GT episode also explicitly demonstrates the impact of Goku's legacy which, after watching 500 episodes, is very welcome indeed.
Ultimately, the introduction of Dragon Ball Super and the continuation of Goku's story on the big screen may mean that neither of the previous ending will matter soon. How far the Dragon Ball timeline progresses in future installments remains to be seen, but the recent output certainly gives Toriyama an opportunity to combine the best elements of both endings and a deliver a third, undisputed, conclusion.