Whether Dragon Ball is a franchise you got into through the original Dragon Ball series or through Dragon Ball Z, eventually, you no doubt tried watching the other series. Many fans are able to enjoy both series just fine, but others have found themselves more divided between which they like better. That's because regardless of how much you enjoy watching Goku's adventures throughout the years, the two classic Dragon Ball shows are also drastically different from each other.
The original Dragon Ball started out heavily inspired by the story of Journey to the West, and had a strong focus on martial arts. Dragon Ball Z introduced a new style filled with rock music, energy attacks, and a fixation on epic battles over characterization. Which show was better? That's up to personal preference. Decide which series is for you as we discuss the 15 Biggest Differences Between Dragon Ball And Dragon Ball Z.
15 DRAGON BALL Z TARGETED A MORE EDGY AUDIENCE
Just as Goku had grown up by the end of Dragon Ball, so too had its original viewers. The first series had strayed from its lighthearted humor by the time King Piccolo showed up, and had had started diving into darker plotlines like the death of Krillin. With Goku now an adult in Dragon Ball Z, it only made sense his playful days would be behind him in many ways, and he'd have to face even more of the serious situations that Piccolo was the harbinger of.
DBZ definitely demonstrated that change of tone, even early on. Characters were beaten bloody with a lot more frequency and were suddenly prone to cursing. Characters like Tien sustained gruesome injuries, like when he lost his arm in a fight against Nappa. And the death toll was amped up significantly, with Goku, Yamcha, Chiaotzu, Tien, and Piccolo all dying very early on into the new series. The message was made loud and clear early on: this was a series that would explore some darker territory.
14 FIGHTS WEREN’T ABOUT POWER LEVELS IN DRAGON BALL
In Dragon Ball Z, everyone knows that losing a fight is but a temporary setback. Thanks to things like the Hyperbolic Time Chamber, the ability to fuse, senzu beans, and the Dragon Balls, a major boost in power is something that's easily attainable. And anyone who got into the franchise through DBZ knows that power levels are everything. It doesn't matter how effective an attack looks unless it's coming from a Super Saiyan or a fusion of two gods, or some similarly overpowered person.
It wasn't always that way, though. In Dragon Ball, fights were about pitting techniques against each other, and one character having to get innovative to find a counter to a seemingly unstoppable attack. It made battles more of a learning process than an exercise in brute strength, and it was honestly a more interesting way for fights to happen. Sure, DBZ's power ups are cool, but it effectively eliminated the potential for a new challenge to come forward at any time. Now, unless you can destroy a planet, you're nothing.
13 HUMANS BECAME WEAK IN DRAGON BALL Z
As everyone knows, by the time DBZ hit its stride, it was a show focused on Saiyans. If you were almost any other species, you were becoming increasingly irrelevant. This was obvious even early on, when formerly stronger characters like Tien and Yamcha were easily killed off by the Saibamen and Nappa. And people are well aware of what a running joke Krillin has become.
You'd never guess that Tien was once one of the most powerful characters in the franchise. And yet, not long before DBZ, Tien beat Goku. It's unfortunate that the humans of the show had to be outclassed so quickly, when they had the potential to do so much more. But as mentioned earlier, the show became about power levels, which is an area that humans had a pretty low ceiling for. So while we were granted the opportunity to witness the rise of Vegeta, anyone actually born on Earth was quickly pushed to the background.
12 BULMA WAS A MAIN CHARACTER IN DRAGON BALL
It might come as a shock, but Goku wasn't always hogging the spotlight the way he is today. Back in the first series, Bulma was equally as important to the show as young Goku was. She not only taught him about the purpose of the Dragon Balls, but was right there with him in his journey to retrieve them. Goku was extremely naive as a kid, so it fell upon Bulma to serve as a surrogate big sister and teach him about how the world worked. She was his teacher, a fellow adventurer, and one of his closest friends.
Unfortunately for Goku's friends, once he reached adulthood, he didn't really make a habit of sharing screen time. Almost all of the original characters from Dragon Ball were quickly shoved aside in favor of Saiyans in DBZ. It didn't stop there either. Uub and Pan and the characters poised to be the next generation's heroes at the end of DBZ? were later reduced to occasional sidekicks in GT. Goku even pushed his own son aside (both of them, actually) in the Buu saga to once again become the main hero of the franchise. So good for Bulma for making the most of her chance to be someone significant in the series while there was still a chance.
11 THERE WAS A LOT MORE COMEDY BEFORE DRAGON BALL Z
Even with all the death and destruction that takes place in Dragon Ball Z, you can't say the series didn't have its funny moments. Watching Piccolo and Goku try to get their driver's licenses is an episode that's always good for a laugh. But humor really wasn't a major element of the series, either. The most prevalent jokes were usually throwaway scenes featuring Master Roshi being a perv or Bulma having to fend for herself against some giant monster. There weren't too many big laughs to be had across the long-running series.
Dragon Ball, on the other hand, took itself much less seriously. Goku was still a child at the time, so there was more leeway for him to treat life as a game. He was serious about defeating truly evil opponents, but even in major fights, he had no qualms about mocking his opponent for a laugh. There were entire sections of Goku's life that were almost nothing but absurd situations, like the ridiculous training he went through with Master Roshi, doing things like delivering milk each day. Or his romance with Chi-Chi, where he accidently agreed to marry her because he thought marriage meant something to eat.
Humor is subjective, so which style was better is debatable. But the approach each show had to humor gave them each a distinct style that was able to appeal to multiple fan groups.
10 THERE WAS A LOT LESS FILLER IN DRAGON BALL
As many good memories as we might have from Dragon Ball Z, the show is just way too freaking long. There are basically three main villains in the series, and DBZ goes on for almost 300 episodes. That's a really long build to each big fight. And of course, we can't forget the infamously long fight between Goku and Frieza on Namek, which went on for around four hours all on its own. Sure, there were a lot of memorable moments in the series, but there was also a ton of padded out staredowns or tangential comedic relief featuring side characters. There's a reason many fans prefer the abbreviated Dragon Ball Z Kai, after all.
By comparison, the original Dragon Ball was nearly half as long as its sequel series, and it covers just as much, if not more, ground. There's no denying the fact that DBZ didn't need to be as long as it was, since even the show runners acknowledge they were just trying to stretch things out to avoid running out of material to adapt from the manga. So if you're looking for taut, fast-paced storytelling, Dragon Ball is probably the way to go. And if you want to watch the original version of DBZ nowadays, maybe keep the remote handy, so you can fast forward through the fifty scenes of Bulma screaming and being chased by monsters to pad out an episode.
9 NOT EVERYONE COULD FLY UNTIL DRAGON BALL Z
If you got into the franchise starting with DBZ, it's really jarring going back to Dragon Ball and finding out that, for the majority of the series, none of the characters knew how to fly. Sure, Goku doesn't even know the Kamehameha at the start of the series either, but he very quickly acquires his trademark technique. But actual flying isn't something that becomes a technique used in fights until Tien and Chiaotzu show up late in the series.
For the majority of Dragon Ball, Goku has to rely on his flying nimbus to take to the skies. It's pretty bizarre to think that if anyone like Frieza had shown up during this point, Goku and his friends would have been totally helpless to fight him in the air. It's an aspect of the franchise that's easy to take for granted, and it makes for a weird experience going back to battles that are limited to being fought on the ground.
8 COLLECTING THE DRAGON BALLS USED TO BE THE FOCAL POINT
For a franchise called Dragon Ball, the shows certainly have veered sharply away from the mystical orbs being the most important part of it. Remember in the first series when every character was amazed by the limitless possibilities of what they could wish for? Once they realized they actually stood a chance of collecting the Dragon Balls, it was all they could talk about, and they were willing to brave any danger just for the chance to use them.
After the Frieza saga, that whole mindset pretty much disappeared. The Dragon Balls didn't even feature in any significant way during the battle involving the androids and Cell. And then, when the Z Fighters were wishing to fix the damage Cell had caused, they seriously ran out of ideas for what their third wish would be. What happened to the wonder and imagination of using the Dragon Balls? They became so trivialized and easy to obtain that eventually, Bulma was even giving them away as prizes in Battle of Gods, and they summoned Shenron just to wish for him to answer a question for them. How did the Dragon Balls get demoted to serving the same function as Google?
7 THERE WERE NO ALIENS IN DRAGON BALL
Going hand in hand with humans being regarded more highly in Dragon Ball was the fact that there were no aliens in the franchise at that point. Goku wasn't some survivor from a race of warriors, he was just a funny little monkey boy who was unusually strong for his age. And Piccolo had it pretty good too. Rather than being a dime a dozen member of some race of plant people, he was a demon king who nearly ruled the Earth.
Dragon Ball Z brought in the aliens right off the bat, changing the game entirely in the span of a single season. Suddenly, Goku had a brother he had never heard of, and he was a Saiyan instead of some random monkey boy. From there, it got to the point where alien threats were almost a weekly problem. It made you wonder what the storyline explanation was for more of them not turning up sooner. If Buu or Beerus had visited Earth a couple decades sooner, they really would have had the run of the place.
6 DRAGON BALL Z’S VILLAINS WERE MORE INTIMIDATING
A byproduct of the sudden boom of alien visitors and power levels randomly being a thing was the escalation of the threats new villains posed. Once you've unleashed the villain who can kill someone with a single attack, you can't exactly scale back from there again and still keep things high stakes. So instead, we got more and more powerful villains who could unleash even more ridiculous levels of destruction.
Emperor Pilaf was obviously never meant to be intimidating, but even he nearly killed Goku once by trapping him in a glass box that would have cooked him alive once the sun came up. Of course, that looks downright tame compared to Kid Buu literally destroying planets in a matter of seconds. It might make each new villain look cool, but it simultaneously downgrades previous villains, as evidenced by how rapidly Frieza became a total non-threat after his saga wrapped up. So looking back, pretty much everyone before the super powerful space aliens arrive come across rather tame in retrospect.
5 EVERYONE HAD AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN DRAGON BALL
Dragon Ball was a sprawling adventure full of friends and enemies for Goku to meet. Most of his enemies obviously didn't stick after being defeated, but the friends aren’t that easy to ignore. Or at least they shouldn't have been. But when Akira Toriyama was first creating Dragon Ball, he couldn't have had any idea how big the series would become, or that a second series would be in the future. If he had, he might have introduced a few less extraneous characters.
By the time Dragon Ball Z came around, many of the original characters were demoted in importance. If you think Tien or Yamcha have it bad, just think of how seldom Fortuneteller Baba returns, or Korin the cat. And Launch? Toriyama literally forgot she even existed. It makes it even more awkward when one of these characters suddenly shows up again and you're just left wondering where the hell they've been all these years.
4 IT MATTERED WHEN PEOPLE DIED IN DRAGON BALL
While the Dragon Balls were initially something the characters sought for selfish reasons, like to become wealthy or gain more power, eventually, the primary reason characters went after them was to revive their friends. But even Shenron had limits initially, and couldn't revive more than one person at a time, or revive the same person more than once. So when a character died, it was a big moment, because there was always the potential that they would never be able to come back.
Nowadays, Shenron and Porunga have both become so powerful (and the Dragon Balls are so easy to find) that death has basically lost its meaning. Even when Kid Buu literally destroyed the Earth, it was no biggy, because the fans and the characters knew they could just wish the planet and every single one of its residents back into existence. Chalk this aspect up in favor of the original Dragon Ball, because after the first series, death became nothing more than a minor inconvenience akin to catching a cold.
3 GOKU WAS BEATABLE IN DRAGON BALL
A compelling aspect of many great fantasy stories is how the hero is oftentimes initially defeated by an enemy, only to come back stronger and wiser later on and eventually triumph over their foe. Their imperfect nature makes the hero more relatable, and their ability to weather the storm helps audiences better connect with these characters. It was also a big part of Goku's development early on, as he was defeated by many of his opponents the first time they met. Yamcha, Mercenary Tao, Tien, and King Piccolo all snagged victories over the Saiyan at various times. It's hard to believe it, looking at where Goku is now.
Goku has become so ridiculously powerful that at this point, he is the anime equivalent of Superman. He is literally as strong as a god now, and his only competition at the moment is other god-like beings. Goku has lost a couple fights in the post-Dragon Ball years, but it's often due to extenuating circumstances beyond his control. Regardless of how he lost, most of his round two victories these days come via a radical new transformation or power-up, rather than him learning a fun new way to outsmart his enemy.
2 THE MARTIAL ARTS TOURNAMENTS WERE IMPORTANT IN DRAGON BALL
Any fan of the original Dragon Ball looked forward to the World Martial Arts Tournaments. It meant a lot of fighting featuring some of the strongest characters in the franchise. Dragon Ball Z would later make an entire series out of that idea, but in Dragon Ball, it was something unique and different compared to the pace of the rest of the story. Each tournament was the climax to a saga, and showcased how far Goku had come in his training.
With the rapid increases in power levels that were introduced in Dragon Ball Z, the tournaments were quickly devalued. By the time the Z Fighters decided to fight in one again in the Great Saiyaman saga, they were all so overpowered that they had to deliberately hold back their ability to avoid attracting too much attention from other participants. No one cared who won the tournaments any more, because the true test was in who was beating the evil alien at the end of each main saga. It's a shame the tournaments lost their importance, but now it's something that helps set Dragon Ball apart.
1 DRAGON BALL Z WAS MORE POPULAR
Regardless of which series you like better, there's not much argument about which one had more widespread appeal. For many fans, DBZ was their introduction into the entire world of anime. DBZ had huge confrontations, angsty antiheroes, explosions, and tons and tons of fighting. It tapped into something that the more light-hearted Dragon Ball didn't quite manage to do to the same extent in Western countries, despite the original's immense popularity in Japan.
Obviously, there would be no DBZ without Dragon Ball, so you can't dismiss the importance of either show. But let's face it, how many memes do you see based on Dragon Ball? How many people do you see sporting t-shirts with Tien or Yamcha or Oolong emblazoned on them? DBZ wasn't just popular, it was cool. People still quote the show to this day, and proudly go out rocking clothes with Goku and Vegeta on them. If popularity is your measuring stick for which show is better, time has shown which series stands out among fans.
What was the biggest adjustment for you going from Dragon Ball to Dragon Ball Z? Tell us about which changes you noticed the most between the two series in the comments!