It all began with a hunt for the Dragon Balls. Meeting Bulma changed Son Goku’s life, and he soon found himself thrust in non-stop adventure. From losing his grandfather’s Dragon Ball to training with Muten Roshi, only to hunt for his grandfather’s memento after the fact, this is a series that always tried to revolve around the titular Dragon Balls.
Even as late as the Majin Boo arc, the Dragon Balls play an incredibly important role in keeping the plot moving. Hunts for the Dragon Balls are scarce these days, and they were really only fleshed out during the early series, but it’s always a treat to see the characters indulge in a little bit of adventure. At the end of the day, Dragon Ball is a martial arts story, but that’s not all it has to be.
7 Hunt For The Four-Star Ball (GT)
Dragon Ball GT: A Hero’s Legacy has the right idea with how to approach a Dragon Ball sequel. It’s low stakes, it calls back to the very beginning of the franchise, and it’s character-driven. Unfortunately, the special is also poorly written, generally uninspired, and just all around not that fun. Still, points for a decent concept.
What’s notable about this hunt is that it shows how legends become twisted with time. Instead of hunting for the Dragon Balls, Goku Jr. hunts for a single Dragon Ball– the Four-Star ball. Given how short the special is, though, it’s hard to form an attachment to either Goku Jr. or his hunt. If nothing else, Goku Jr. meeting a spectral Goku upon finding the Four-Star ball is a very strange, but sweet moment.
6 Hunt For The Black Star Dragon Balls
The Hunt for the Black Star Dragon Balls shines a spotlight on Dragon Ball GT’s exact problem: even when it knows what to do, it suffers under the weight of how derivative it is. After the Cell and Boo arcs, the series needs a Dragon Ball hunt as a palate cleanser was it to continue. That was a smart move on Toei’s part. What was not smart was aggressively referencing the series’ first hunt.
Goku, Trunks, and Pan are basically designed to mirror Goku, Bulma, and Oolong with no consideration for why those three characters worked. Worse yet, the hunt reuses plots that Toriyama had already used (and better) at the start of the series. The fact the hunt comes to an anticlimactic close before transitioning into another story arc all together is just the cherry on top of a mediocre, poorly conceived hunt for the Dragon Balls.
5 Hunt Before The Cell Games
It’s kind of hard to believe this is the last time Goku hunts for the Dragon Balls in the original manga. It all takes place in a few off hand panels and then that’s that. It really puts into perspective just how much the series changes from Goku meeting Bulma to Goku passing the torch to Gohan. Dragon Ball is a fundamentally different story at this point.
But it’s still recognizable, and Goku quickly gathering some Dragon Balls is a nice reminder of the series’ root during a period of transition for Dragon Ball. It’s disappointing to see what was once such a trial be trivialized to a degree of laughability, but Goku and co. deserve at least one stress-free hunt.
4 Race Against The Demon King
Stress-free this hunt is not, however. Of the three hunts that take place in the pre-Z era, this one is both the fastest and the most dangerous. As a result of King Piccolo hunting for the Dragon Balls, countless martial artists end up dying, including Namu, Giran, Kuririn, Master Roshi, and Chaozu. Oh, and once Piccolo gets his wish? He kills Shenlong.
Toriyama does an excellent job at making Piccolo come off as a genuine threat, and it’s all thanks to this hunt. Roshi, Tenshinhan, and Chaozu all desperately try to beat Piccolo to the Dragon Ball, and the anime even turns this section of the story into some great filler, dedicating an episode to confronting Tenshinhan’s arc outright. While the arc itself has bigger ideas, that it opens with such a unique hunt makes for a great introduction to the Demon King.
3 Battlefield Namek
Usually a series heading into outer space after being grounded on Earth is a bad idea, but Dragon Ball makes it work shockingly well (though that likely has to do with introducing alien elements on Earth before setting those sights skyward.) The Freeza arc is basically Dragon Ball indulging in the mother of all Dragon Ball hunts. Not only are the Namekian Dragon Balls more powerful, they’re the OG, and a galactic tyrant has his entire army looking for them.
This hunt sees four different factions at play: Freeza and his army, Vegeta going rogue, the Namekians trying to stay alive; and the Earthlings trying to keep the peace, keep their head down, and gather the Dragon Balls to revive their fallen friends. The focus keeps jumping between Vegeta and the Earthlings, with the former using stealth tactic to slowly wipe out Freeza’s army, and the latter spending their time getting to know Namek, setting the stage for Goku’s revival and a chaotic clash over the Dragon Balls before the fight with Freeza.
2 The First Hunt
The first story arc is home to some of Akira Toriyama’s best storytelling in Dragon Ball. Funny, charming, with well written and digestible character arcs, and plenty of entertaining action (plus some of his most creative and dynamic paneling in the series), Toriyama just fires on all cylinders as he gets a feel for the story he’ll ultimately tell.
The first hunt is more than just Toriyama playing with Journey to the West, like many believe. It’s him telling a constructed story, one that’s not yet beholden to all of Dragon Ball’s baggage. There’s a reason so many fans are endeared by the start of the series – it’s so unlike anything that comes after. So genuinely whimsical, starring a cast of characters with no weak links, all with a clear motivation in their pursuit of the Dragon Balls.
1 Hunt For The 4-Star Ball (DB)
Like the first hunt, the Red Ribbon Army arc is just a good story. Instead of Goku searching for all seven Dragon Balls to grant himself a wish, his motivation is simply to find his grandfather’s keepsake. Goku’s goal is deeply personal and ends up allowing him to grow considerably as a character over the course of the arc. Not just that, he has his motives challenged when Upa’s father, Bora, is killed by the Red Ribbon Army.
Goku, with brief hesitation, decides to search for all seven Balls and revive Bora, even if it means losing his grandfather’s memento. Goku finds a workaround, but it’s a powerful moment for his character development. In general, this is just a fun hunt that takes Goku all around the world. Toriyama goes all out when it comes to world-building, and this is one of the few times where you can get a real sense of how the Dragon World works.
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