Dragon Ball Super has plenty to offer fans of Goku and Vegeta, but believe it or not, there was a time when Dragon Ball had an ensemble cast. Even in Dragon Ball Z, once skill and technique were replaced with transformations and absurd power levels, just about everyone gets their moment in the spotlight... Except maybe Yamcha.
But we’re not ranking the most powerful Dragon Ball Z characters. We’re ranking the best Dragon Ball Z characters; the well-rounded characters whose backstories and development lead to some of the most exciting moments in the series. Unfortunately, there’s still no place for Yamcha, but among the honorable mentions are Goten, Videl, Android 17, and Tien Shinhan (who was particularly difficult to leave out).
For this list, we are counting the Battle of Gods and Resurrection F movies as Dragon Ball Z canon, while characters specific to Dragon Ball Super, as well as existing character moments that follow the two movies, are excluded. For example, anything that happens in the Battle of Gods and Resurrection F arcs of Dragon Ball Super that doesn’t happen in either of the films is non-canon for the purposes of this countdown.
With these rules in place, let’s count down the 15 Greatest Dragon Ball Z Characters.
15 The Ginyu Force
We know we’re cheating a little bit with this one, but how do you include one of the Ginyu Force without the other members of the team? Captain Ginyu, Burter, Jeice, Recoome, and Guldo make up this quintuplet, who provide some much needed light relief in a saga jam-packed with high tension and genuine drama. Their flamboyant dance moves render the great Lord Frieza temporarily stunned, while their inter-team banter makes for plenty of laughs when directly compared to Vegeta and the others.
However, it’s not all fun and games where the Ginyus are concerned. They are known throughout the galaxy as Frieza’s most powerful soldiers, and they employ a deadly set of powers during their time on Namek. Recoome alone makes light work of Gohan, Krillin, and Vegeta (the latter in a thoroughly enjoyable battle of wits), while Ginyu’s ability to swap bodies and Guldo’s time-stop technique were entirely unique at the time.
14 Majin Buu
While the Buu saga is generally considered the weakest of the three main Dragon Ball Z arcs, the evolution of Buu himself feels very natural, while his first form (which we’ll refer to as Fat Buu for the purposes of this entry) is up there as one of the best supervillain introductions in Dragon Ball. Buu ultimately falls below some of the other villains on this list due to his turn as Super Buu-- which quickly gets out of hand as he is beaten by a candy, Gohan’s character arc is thrown out the window, and he becomes just another bland and overconfident foe.
Fat Buu, however, is so unlike any other villain before him. His childish behavior and high-pitched squeal are unexpected to the point of complete unease. Combine his attitude and raw power, and you’re left glued to the screen in anticipation of his next move. His redemption at the hands of Hercule Satan is equally surprising, though his pure form continues on. The epitome of evil, Kid Buu’s backstory is genuinely interesting enough to pique our attention even after the Super Buu fiasco, which is saying something.
13 Android 18
It’s fair to say Akira Toriyama loves a redemption arc. The second character in a row to have been converted from villainy (and certainly not the last), Android 18 just makes the list above her brother due to the fact that she survives long enough to be redeemed in the first place. 17 returns in Dragon Ball GT, and will make a comeback in canon for the latest Dragon Ball Super arc, but both are out of bounds where this list is concerned.
18 announces herself by taking out the recently-transformed Super Saiyan Vegeta, breaking both of the Saiyan Prince’s arms like it ain't no thing. Unlike her multiverse counterpart, she begins to see the error of her ways through Android 16’s reasoning, and eventually falls for Krillin. We watch her grow into a loving wife and mother, but she remains someone you wouldn’t want to cross, which comes in handy when dealing with Goten, Trunks, and Satan during the World Tournament saga.
12 Mr. Satan
Granted, Mr. Satan’s introduction at the Cell Games heavily weighs down the main plot. What is supposed to come across as light comic relief actually turns out to be an incredibly frustrating distraction from some of the best action in the franchise, for which he ultimately takes all the credit. Still, Mr. Satan gets a little redemption story of his own (not that he was ever really a villain), becoming one of the few characters to thrive in the Buu saga.
His pairing with Fat Buu is a relationship that comes completely out of nowhere, but it benefits both characters immensely. Satan teaches Buu about right and wrong, and he learns a little something about humility himself; had Buu not been provoked into releasing his inner evil, Mr. Satan might have saved the world without ever lifting a finger. He gets a chance to make up for it during Goku’s battle with Kid Buu, when he uses his position as World Martial Arts Champion to convince the people of Earth to lend their energy. For a character who had been so unlikable, Hercule’s arc comes full circle, rounding off some of the best development in the series.
Krillin gets a hard time, but the fact that he somehow manages to stay relevant as a human in Dragon Ball Z is frankly remarkable. Constantly overshadowed by his friends (both in power and literally in height), Krillin is still able to deal a few significant blows to some major adversaries. He destroys most of the Saibamen, stands up to Nappa against all odds, and even chops off Frieza’s tail with probably the most effective use of his legendary Destructo Disc, before he eventually settles down to parenthood.
One of the few Dragon Ball characters to remain at the heart of the action when Z came around, Krillin has to watch his childhood friend surpass him immeasurably, but he never lets it get him down. He is as reliable in his one-liners as he is his loyalty to Goku, who might never have defeated Frieza had his relationship with Krillin not been so strong.
10 Lord Beerus
Introduced in Battle of Gods, Lord Beerus the Destroyer and his guardian Whis bring a fresh dynamic and a whole new power scale to the franchise. If we were also taking Dragon Ball Super into account, Whis might have made this list above the God of Destruction. As more and more is revealed about the mysterious angel’s family and background, he plots silently behind the scenes, while continuing to train Goku and Vegeta. Just based on the events of the movies, however, Beerus far surpasses his teacher.
From his design to his motivations, Beerus is by far the most unique villain Goku has ever faced, if he is even a villain at all. Beerus is an actual God, unlike the other DBZ villains who are simply playing God, and he destroys worlds because it’s in his job title. He’s ambivalent, rather than evil, to the point of playfulness, which makes it all the more terrifying when he loses his temper and releases his inner God of Destruction.
Before we explain why Frieza ranks below a certain other villain on the list, let’s talk about what he has done for the franchise. He blows up planet Vegeta, essentially setting the story into motion. Goku stepping up to face the one who destroyed his race rounds off the arc perfectly. The battle itself is the single longest in anime history, while Frieza sets up one of the most iconic moments in all of anime: Goku’s Super Saiyan transformation. But there’s a recurring theme here: Frieza is remembered for his impact, rather than his character development.
Frieza is introduced as a planet-destroying, race-enslaving tyrant, and he dies (both times) a planet-destroying, race-enslaving tyrant. His calm and imposing demeanor only manifests when he has the upper hand; otherwise, he’ll blow up a planet rather than fight to the end. Speaking of, his return in Resurrection F makes absolutely zero sense (overpowering a Super Saiyan God after just four months of training). He’s the kind of one-note villain you expect from Marvel, and based on the above criteria, only ranks as high as he does for bringing about some of the series’ greatest moments.
Now, Cell does share in some of Frieza’s negative attributes; he’s smarmy and sarcastic in his final form, and he’s undeniably a sore loser, blowing himself up when he is outmatched by Gohan. The difference is that Cell is smarter and more cunning, and will only resort to self-destruction when he is completely out of options, rather than in the midst of a temper tantrum. Even after taking a severe beating from Vegeta, Semi-Perfect Cell is still able to trick the Saiyan Prince into letting him reach his Perfect form, and therein lies the reason Cell ranks higher than Frieza.
Cell in his Larvae, Imperfect, and Semi-Perfect forms has a goal other than simply ruling over the universe: he strives for perfection, which he believes is his God-given right, and his motivations are clearer because we see his journey from beginning to end. Once he achieves perfection, Cell becomes slightly bland, but his inherited Saiyan pride directly leads to Gohan’s Super Saiyan 2 transformation. Compare this to Goku’s original transformation, which happens simply because Frieza comitted a murder. Finally, his design is superior; he becomes more human as he absorbs the androids, while each of his forms has its part to play in an intricate time-travel arc.
7 Android 16
Over the many Dragon Ball sagas, Android 16 has had less screen time than just about anyone else on this list. The fact that 16 goes through so much development in such a short amount of time is a huge credit to Toriyama, and to Dragon Ball Z as a whole. Modelled after Dr. Gero’s son, 16 is created for the sole purpose of killing Goku. When he is released before his programming is complete, he is given the faintest opportunity to see the world in a different light.
Though he's initially created for the same reason as Cell, 16 instead takes the opposite path, providing a unique array of attacks as he faces off against the evil android in a battle of ideals. On his infinite quest for peace, 16 gains a deep understanding of what it means to be human, eventually sacrificing himself for a planet that was his as much as anyone else’s. 16’s death is permanent, and all the sadder for it, while his parting words to Gohan spark one of the most powerful moments in Dragon Ball Z.
Bulma has been around since the very first episode of Dragon Ball, and even to this day she is reaching new heights, outlasting Krillin in terms of value to the series despite never having been in a single fight. Focusing in on Dragon Ball Z, there just wouldn't be a story at all without Bulma. She flies the gang to Namek, she invents time-travel in the future-- setting up Trunks’ arrival and the entire Android arc-- and at the end of it all, it’s Bulma’s dragon radar that they use to bring everyone back to life.
On this evidence alone, it would be easy to pass her off as a plot device, but Bulma has made it this far because she is one of the most popular personalities within the series. Starting out as an immature source of (often inappropriate) humor, Bulma has maintained her comic edge while maturing into a powerful character in her own right. She is still the only character to out-sass Vegeta, becoming a steady rock in his own character development, and is arguably the bravest of them all, standing up to Frieza and Beerus as recently as Resurrection F.
If this list were based entirely on power, impact, or amount of food consumed through the franchise, this guy right here is your winner. Goku is a legend, and ranking him as low as five in no way suggests that we think otherwise. He just doesn’t undergo the same level of development as our top four entries. In fact, his job is often to bring out the development in others... but more on that later.
Goku eats as much as he wants, trains the rest of the time, and at the end of the day, shows mercy to his enemies. You know exactly what you’re going to get from him, and while he sets an excellent example for his many, many fans out there, he doesn’t really change at all. The legendary Super Saiyan transformation and his many encounters with Vegeta more than make up for any weak character development, and ultimately, that’s what puts him at fifth place on our list.
4 Future Trunks
Here's an equation: Bulma’s humanity plus Vegeta’s badassery equals Future Trunks, the time-travelling Super Saiyan half-breed who’s lost just about everything. His mysterious introduction to the series made him an instant fan favorite, while his origin story, The History of Trunks, remains by far the most popular of the original Dragon Ball Z movies. With the film recently canonized, we can say with some level of certainty that his is the most tragic, engaging backstory in the entire franchise.
Once the novelty of the sword-wielding Super Saiyan begins to wear off (around the time just about everyone else starts turning Super Saiyan), Trunks shows his inexperience on the battle field, and he works too hard for Vegeta’s blessing. But Trunks is a teenager with the weight of two multiverses on his shoulders. Taking into account his motivation, it’s no wonder Trunks is flawed. In fact, it speaks to the strength of his character that he doesn’t make more mistakes.
As the very first DBZ anti-hero, Piccolo’s redemption (there’s that word again) is handled seamlessly, starting with his respect for Goku, and later his relationship with Gohan. As he watches the young Saiyan from afar, Piccolo visibly changes with every scene that goes by. There’s no need for dialogue or any kind of exposition; his overwhelming goodness is there for all to see, and in the end, his transformation is absolute. Piccolo becomes the embodiment of all that is right, fusing with Kami against his will, sacrificing himself for Gohan, and taking on Android 17 when presented with no other choice.
There’s nothing quite like when Piccolo throws aside his weighted armor and prepares to do battle, but unfortunately, it doesn’t last. That fight with 17 is pretty much his last big action set piece of the series (before he turns babysitter in the Buu saga), but what a way to go out. An evenly matched battle is seldom seen in Dragon Ball, but Piccolo matches the android blow-for-blow in one of the most underrated fights in the franchise. Piccolo is Akira Toriyama’s favorite character, and if only we’d seen more from him beyond the Android arc, he might just have been ours.
Looking at it now, we should have seen Super Saiyan 2 Gohan coming from a mile off, but the story is told so subtly that his brutal awakening at the Cell Games still comes as a huge shock. From the very beginning of Dragon Ball Z, Gohan stands up to everyone who even comes close to threatening his friends and family: Raditz, Vegeta, the Ginyu Force, and even final form Frieza. Trunks’ arrival cleverly opens the door to half-breed Super Saiyans, and we realize too late that Gohan was always going to surpass his father.
The Cell saga ends with Goku dead, the Earth at peace, and Gohan as its protector. The only reason to have continued the story from the character’s point of view was to have Gohan harness his Saiyan side. When he arrives on Earth as Ultimate Gohan, the strongest a single character had ever been in Dragon Ball, he delivers a line even Vegeta would be proud of: “Fight you? No, I wanna kill you.” Gohan wears his father’s gi and a smile, and with that one line sums up over 200 episodes of character development. We all know what happens next, but nothing can take away those moments.
Like Gohan, Vegeta begins to come into his own at the Cell Games, where he attacks Cell for his fallen son, and eventually delivers a distracting blow to the android that ultimately wins Gohan the battle. The difference between Gohan and Vegeta is twofold; first, Vegeta goes through a mental transformation, rather than a physical one, and second, Vegeta is consistently exciting to watch even before the Cell saga. Through the Saiyan and Namek arcs, Vegeta is a straight-up villain, and he’s great at it. There are certainly signs that there’s good in him, but watching him toy with the Namekians and various members of Frieza’s army provides most of the entertainment through the Namek saga.
Buu saga Vegeta is an entirely different person. Fighting Babidi’s control only to be humiliated by Goku once more, Vegeta finally accepts that he’s beaten, in perhaps the defining character moment of the series. Vegeta’s respect as Goku fights Kid Buu is as powerful a moment as any Super Saiyan transformation, while his earlier sacrifice certainly doesn’t hurt his redemption (although it’s made slightly less impactful when Vegeta comes back to life a few episodes later). Thanks in part to Goku’s ability to bring out the best in other characters, Vegeta’s transition from planet destroyer to Earth’s protector is absolutely worth the wait.
Which Dragon Ball Z character is your favorite? Who did we miss? Let us know in the comments!