Ah, just what the internet needs, another list. Cynicism aside, having read the Dragon Ball manga, and being someone who keeps up with its successor, Dragon Ball Super, I’ve decided to throw my hat into the online list ranking niche market. Whereas some websites, blogs, and fans rank each arc of the overall franchise by the anime or consider both the anime and manga, I will go the path of strictly following the manga in this list. However, in a decision that may upset some, I’ve also decided to include Dragon Ball GT as well.
This does give GT either an unfair advantage or disadvantage, depending on your viewpoint, but I’ve decided to include it for a couple of reasons. It was the original follow-up to the wildly successful Dragon Ball Z anime, and despite it not having any source material to draw from, it at least deserves that much respect. Not content with just being the original follow-up, GT actually showed real change and progression in The Dragon Team; continuing Son Gokū’s adventures after the five-year training of Oob. That may not sound like a big deal, but many fans are thankful for that approach, as opposed to the interquel that is currently Dragon Ball Super. There is some goodwill amongst the fandom for GT, and it would be incredibly unfair of me to exclude it from this list.
I have recently rewatched the anime to each iteration of the franchise but determined that factoring in the anime for everything other than GT would fluctuate the rankings too greatly. Filler is inevitable in anime, but despite the negative connotation, is not always unenjoyable. Certain arcs would suffer, or in some cases improve, due to filler episodes and padded scenes. Even though GT is the odd-one-out in this scenario, I believe it’s only fair to judge each arc by the merits of its source material; it just so happens that in this case, GT is its own source material. Unfortunately, that means the Resurrection ‘F’ and Broly Arcs will not be included in this expanded list of arcs, as their events are only briefly depicted in the Dragon Ball Super manga. Unlike GT, which was a television show that has the advantage of longer-form storytelling, the Resurrection ‘F’ and Broly films are contained to a single film’s running time. I’m aware it is a bit unfair to exclude these arcs, as GT gets a spot on the list despite having no source material at all, while the Resurrection ‘F’ and Broly events are “canon” and are briefly depicted in the Dragon Ball Super manga, but quite honestly, GT simply had more time to establish their arcs in ways that a single film can’t.
My final elucidation before we begin is the use of the term “saga.” The definition of a saga is “a long, involved story, account, or series of incidents,” and it’s quite ridiculous that this term is applied to even small sections of the story. For example, the Ginyū-taichō Arc is labeled as a saga, despite being only 10 chapters long, or seven episodes if you’re going by the anime. How is that a saga? I’ve instead taken to calling them arcs, as a saga should be viewed as multiple arcs that unfold into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. “The Radittsu Arc” and “Bejīta Arc,” at least to me, are what form the Saiya-jin Saga, much like how I view the Muscle Tower Arc, General Blue Arc, Commander Red Arc, and Uranai Baba Arc as the composition of the Red Ribbon Army Saga.
However, with all that being said, I will refrain from fully using the expanded western arc structure and terminology that Funimation used for home video marketing purposes. There are certain arcs that I will continue to use in this expanded list of arcs, and I will briefly explain why I have or haven’t decided to include certain arcs when they become the topic of discussion on the list, but I simply refuse to use every arc that Funimation arbitrarily segmented from the original story. I have simply entertained the idea of using this elongated arc structure so as to showcase and debate the wild fluctuations and scattershot high moments of the lengthy back half of the series. There will be a final ranking of each arc based on the original manga arc layout, but enough with this prologue; let’s get into the list already.
32. The Gokū Black Arc
I never really disliked a Dragon Ball arc of any kind until I read this one. Granted, I’ve never wasted my time with anything other than the original manga, GT, or Super, but even considering that, I don’t think I can ever again feel as empty inside as I did after reading this one. I don’t want to spend a paragraph tearing apart this arc, so I will praise it for taking the clichéd concept of an “evil Gokū” and making it rather interesting to start. However, the rest of the arc seemingly does everything it can to diminish that initial spark of intrigue. This arc has been beaten to death by the Dragon Ball fandom on YouTube, so doing so here would not only be redundant, but I’d be wasting this self-imposed paragraph limit by listing all my grievances. The one thing I will question is why this is referred to as “The Future Trunks Arc” by some fans when, in the manga, he’s hardly an active or effective presence against Zamasu, Gokū Black, or Merged Zamasu. It was interesting to see him become an apprentice of the Kaiōshin, and I will give credit to Toyotarō for better power scaling in the manga with his use of Super Saiya-jin God, but Zeno completely erasing Future Trunks’ timeline is emblematic of Dragon Ball Super‘s current inability to move past the status quo.
31. The Super No. 17 Arc
I just always thought this arc was kind of dumb. It’s the same issue I had with No. 17 returning in Super, but at least in the Super manga he wasn’t going against Gokū as a Super Saiya-jin God or Super Saiya-jin Blue. In GT, although his energy absorption is a better explanation for him gaining enough power to go toe-to-toe with Super Saiya-jin 4 Gokū, I still don’t see why it was necessary. There have been long-time rumors that GT was supposed to end after The Baby Arc, and while I’m not sure if that’s actually true, I can see why this arc would cause speculation, as it just feels incredibly rushed and thrown together to set up the next arc. The problem is, the next arc did end up being the final arc of the series, and while normally that’d be fine, there’s also been further speculation that the show had further story concepts they were interested in producing; all this makes Super No. 17 feel creatively bankrupt in hindsight. Considering GT was never near as popular in Japan as Dragon Ball or Dragon Ball Z, perhaps the show just wanted to quickly spark fan intrigue with some fan service after the ratings dipped slightly during The Baby Arc. Regardless, speculating on the show’s production is only slightly less intriguing than the self-referential, cameo-filled, fan service-heavy events of this arc.
30. The Dark Dragon Balls Arc
Oob’s training is glossed over in favor of a plot that shouldn’t even be possible based on the loosely followed and ever-changing rules in the original manga; especially since Kami had already assimilated with Piccolo at least 22 years before this point in the GT timeline, the fact that these Dark Dragon Balls exist at all is pretty egregious. I will give Toei credit for taking Toriyama’s designs in mind and attempting to take Dragon Ball back to its roots, but it just doesn’t work as well. The group dynamic between Gokū, Trunks, and Pan is surprisingly fun, but Gokū’s arbitrary nerfs are annoying, and I must agree with the consensus that Pan can be insufferable at times. She’s a spirited character, but it simply grates my nerves how quickly she can switch from confident, independent fighter to whiny child/damsel in distress, especially when she was already noted to be a prodigy at just four-years-old at the end of the original manga. Gokū turning back into a kid never bothered me since it fits in with the long-running theme of The Pilaf Gang constantly failing, but I can see why fans disliked the decision; it’s just unnecessary. Although I’ve been rather down on the arc, that’s only because I wish they would’ve done more with the concept of traveling the universe and encountering strange threats. They did exactly that, but the designs and situations feel like things we’ve seen before; Toei just took concepts from The Red Ribbon Army Arc and The Hunt for the Dragon Balls Arc and inserted them into the latter half of Dragon Ball. I appreciate the changing worlds, set pieces, antagonists, and the plot that slowly builds in intricacy; the best episodes of this arc are on par with the filler from the Dragon Ball anime, but the worst episodes feel like a watered-down rehash of things we’ve already seen.
29. Universe 6 Arc
I wasn’t really invested in this arc. That’s a bit harsh for an arc that really doesn’t try to do anything to raise the stakes, which is a nice subversion to the ever-increasing escalation of danger the Dragon Ball series is known for, but as a result, the arc has no tension. This was the first example of Toyotarō getting fans excited to see Majin Boo fight alongside The Dragon Team, only to fake everyone out and have him sidelined, and I’m not even sure why he bothered having Piccolo participate only to have him contribute nothing. Hit was a pretty cool character with an interesting ability, but since he and Gokū didn’t even truly go all out or finish their fight, it immediately stood out as a token of the issues I had with the arc as a whole. The other Universe 6 characters were somewhat engaging, but not terribly impressive. Cabba is the only other character to stand out, but in the end, all they’re really used for is to pay off the admittedly comical joke of Beerus having Monaka fight as the anchor of the Universe 7 team; reinforcing Roshi’s adage that there are always stronger people out there, but with a comical twist of Monaka actually being insanely weak and Gokū being oblivious to Beerus’ attempt to make Gokū push himself. Ultimately, this arc just felt like a set up for the later Tournament of Power, as well as to show off the Super Dragon Balls; the formula just didn’t allow for anything extraordinary. I’m just thankful Toyotarō didn’t include Super Saiya-jin Blue Kaiōken in the manga; a braindead decision in the anime that ultimately made Super Saiya-jin God look useless and the downside of Super Saiyan-jin Blue redundant.
28. The Evil Dragons Arc
What should’ve been the slam dunk finale to GT ended up being just an incredibly creative idea and a fantastic ending. Although Toei largely was unsuccessful in the arc’s execution, it was a great idea to further explore the idea of evil lurking within the Dragon Balls due to their frequent usage over the years; tying into the idea behind Piccolo’s sacrifice earlier in GT. This does give the series a better sense of overall cohesion as it brings Toriyama’s initial concepts full circle, but it is spoiled by a majority of the Evil Dragons being defeated rather easily, as well as them being pretty lame characters in general, despite their fearsome reputation. The tension does ramp up near the end with Yi Xing Long and his transformation into his Super form, but even that fight is somewhat spoiled by the oneupmanship that the franchise is infamous for. Vegeta gaining Super Saiya-jin 4 and his fusion with Gokū to bring out Super Saiya-jin 4 Gogeta was an amazing highlight, naturally, but if not for the emotional ending in the final episode, it would be the only saving grace of this arc. Disbanding the Dragon Balls so that the people of Earth could learn to work through their issues on their own was a genius idea that really sells the idea of character progression, as they no longer can rely on magical objects to reset the status quo; it’s just a shame that GT couldn’t further explore this idea due to it ending with this arc.
27. The Battle of Gods Arc
The film was great, but the manga adaptation was just too brisk to get excited over. Not only that, but the manga was adapting the film, not the other way around, as had been the case previously with the original Dragon Ball manga. The anime would premiere 15 days later and work with Toyotarō throughout its run, muddling with the idea of the manga being the “official source material,” and making fans question who was coming up with what and why, but questionable production choices aren’t something I can hold against this arc. Toyotarō could’ve just skipped straight into the Universe 6 Arc as he did to Resurrection ‘F’, but what kind of introduction to The God of Destruction would that be? Beerus’ introduction was the starting point of what certain fans have dubbed “The Dragon Ball Renaissance,” Beerus and Whis needed to appear in the manga. The manga even managed to expand upon the film’s plot a little by sneaking in Champa and Vados to set up the Universe 6 Arc. It’s an incredibly brief, paint-by-numbers adaptation, but still a fun little read.
26. The Tournament of Power Arc
What’s usually considered Dragon Ball Super‘s crowning achievement is still not enough to dethrone anything from the original manga. I won’t waste time trashing this arc, as there were still enjoyable moments throughout. The manga-only exhibition match between The Gods of Destruction was fun to read, most of the characters from Universe 7 get a chance to shine during the tournament, Kale’s reveal as her universe’s “Legendary Super Saiya-jin” set up Broly and was a cool moment in its own right, Kefla was a great out-of-nowhere addition to the tournament, her and Gohan share some cool dialogue as they fight, and Freeza stole the show fighting alongside Universe 7. There are tons of differences between the manga and the anime, with the anime stretching the arc to a mind-boggling 55 episodes, while the manga is only 16 chapters. It does go along much quicker, which may not be the preferred way for some to enjoy the arc, but I enjoyed Toyotarō’s streamlined version more than the overindulgent anime. As usual, he took better care into the power scaling that Toei butchered throughout the Super anime, even mocking it a little by having Gokū quickly abandon the strategy of pushing out more power as a Super Saiya-jin Blue at the cost of damaging his own body, which even Jiren pointed out he was unable to utilize properly. Another positive I can give Toyotarō is that even if Jiren’s personality is still primarily that of a block of wood, he was much more active in the manga. It’s paced too quickly for audiences to remember every single character in an arc with such a large cast, but Dragon Ball is usually at its best when in a tournament setting, and the highlights of this arc showcase that brilliantly.
25. The Galactic Patrol Prisoner Arc
Ranking Super‘s newly finished arc was quite an ordeal, as certain portions of the story were quite aggravating to read monthly, while others were enjoyably triumphant. Moro started with a unique design and abilities, but gradually became blander as he grew more powerful, a fitting metaphor for the arc’s progression on the whole. Ultra Instinct Perfected was immensely satisfying to watch in action, Merus and his sacrifice were strong additions to the story, Vegeta’s training on Yardrat gave him more interesting abilities, and every fight in this arc is genuinely entertaining, but once you look past Toyotarō’s fantastic art style, you quickly notice there’s little substance to the writing. Gokū learns lessons in this arc that he should’ve already learned in prior events from the original manga, Moro slowly becomes as generic in design as he does in personality, and while the side characters are given moments to do cool stuff, they’re still mostly cast aside once Gokū and Vegeta join the final battle on Earth. It was like a rollercoaster you’re intimately familiar with, plenty of highs to get you excited, but something you’ve already seen before. Despite being a rehash of nearly everything Dragon Ball has to offer, I did note it had plenty of enjoyable moments throughout, as I can also speak highly of Moro’s flashback battle with the Dai Kaiōshin and Minami no Kaiōshin, Majin Boo/Dai Kaiōshin finally fighting alongside The Dragon Team, Oob being wonderfully tied into the story at the end, and even Jaco’s comedy was downright hilarious at times. Toyotarō likely had more creative control over this arc than he did in prior arcs due to Moro being of his own design, and I hope he continues to hold more creative control in the future, as the arc following this one has the potential to further expand the lore and finally get to a point in the series where fans no longer have to complain about Super being stuck in the ten-year time skip at the end of the original manga.
24. The Baby Arc
This arc suffers from having no clear distinction of when it begins, as the English version of this arc began with an English-only recap episode of The Dark Dragon Balls Arc before officially starting the series off with this arc at episode 17. Meanwhile, the original Japanese version of this arc begins with episode 23 after Baby has already awakened and killed Dr. Myū. Whichever way you look at it, there’s no clear distinction of where this arc begins, as it appears Toriyama’s original concept art and premise of the show blended the two arcs in a way to set up the next arc during the first one. The problem with that is, Baby was introduced before Gokū, Pan, Trunks, and Giru even collected a majority of the Dark Dragon Balls, which gives the series a sense of tonal whiplash early on as it swiftly transitioned from an adventure series in the same vein as Dragon Ball to a fighting-centric drama more akin to Dragon Ball Z. Baby’s initial concept and abilities seemed derivative of the prior two main villains, Cell and Majin Boo, which is unfortunate since Dr. Myū already felt derivative of Dr. Gero, but hasn’t Super felt incredibly derivative of the original manga as well? This arc still had so much more going for it than everything else on the list so far, as Baby’s backstory is slowly revealed to be that of a parasite imbued with the DNA of the final Tsufuru-jin King, an advanced technological race that was wiped out by the Saiya-jins. He was created to exact revenge on the Saiya-jin race and constructed Dr. Myū to create Machine Mutants to gather energy and create Baby a body to begin his revenge. The fact he took over the bodies of several Saiya-jins and eventually took control of Vegeta, the son of the Saiya-jin King who united the Saiya-jins together and destroyed the Tsufuru-jins; it’s practically poetry for Dragon Ball. Dramatic irony aside, this arc is also buoyed by the debut of Super Saiya-jin 4 and the Golden Ōzaru. Although it’s unfortunately offset by the wasted potential of Oob and his transformation/assimilation with Majin Boo, the arc ends powerfully with Piccolo sacrificing himself to purge the Dark Dragon Balls from existence.
23. The 28th Tenkaichi Budōkai Arc
It wasn’t the best ending in the history of storytelling, let alone shōnen manga, but by the time chapter 519 had been published in Weekly Shōnen Jump on May 23rd, 1995, Dragon Ball had been going on for 10 years, 6 months, and 3 days. It was inevitable that Toriyama would end the series, especially since there had been rumors of the series ending since its inception, but nearly everyone at the time was surprised to see it end so abruptly. In just three chapters he quickly wrapped up the end of the fight with Junsui Boo (Kid Boo), the return of peace to Earth, and then fast-forwarded 10 years to the 28th Tenkaichi Budōkai to set Gokū up with an apprentice. There were fun moments in this small section of story, like Vegeta effortlessly knocking out Nok, his trash-talking first round opponent, before the tournament actually starts, Pan’s debut and quick elimination of Mō Kekko, Oob’s debut, and Gokū’s hilarious attempts at trash-talk in an effort to draw out more of Oob’s hidden strength. It may have been a letdown to fans at the time that Gokū “selfishly abandoned” his friends and family to go train a child he just met only because he was the good reincarnation of Boo, but I was ultimately fine with Gokū’s actions, as the story concluded on a fitting note of a master training his new disciple. Although I have this arc ranked pretty far down on this list, that doesn’t mean I dislike the arc, it just doesn’t have much content to latch onto and propel it above a majority of the others on this list. It was the final arc of the original manga, and is fittingly the first arc of the original manga to appear on this list; the highlights should slowly start getting more flashy from here.
22. The Imperfect Cell Arc
What started off with a mystery quickly delved into exposition and the loss of intrigue. Cell’s debut was effectively chilling, and an interesting way to add a competing antagonist to the story, but Cell’s mysterious origins and plot are quickly revealed to Piccolo, who then informs the rest of The Dragon Team of this new threat to not only them, but the Artificial Humans as well. The next few days are quickly breezed through with a montage and some narration, and it really underplays the severity of the situation. The Artificial Humans are casually driving to where they think Gokū is while Cell is simultaneously biding his time by absorbing humans to increase his strength, but the tension just feels hollow. We’re introduced to The Room of Spirit and Time, and while Gokū and Gohan’s training inside the room is a genuinely interesting read, that doesn’t begin until the “next arc,” and Piccolo’s power-up and cool fight with No. 17 was wasted by the non-stop oneupmanship of the succeeding fights. This arc ends rather abruptly with No. 17’s absorption shortly after Cell interferes and has a fight with Android 16 (the only actual Android of the trio), which is why I generally consider Dragon Ball as really only having 10 arcs, but I thought it would be amusing to rank the two against each other.
21. The Perfect Cell Arc
Segmented from The Imperfect Cell Arc, this arc simply serves as set-up to the final arc, but together, well, they still really just function as set up to the ending of the overall Cell Arc. Perhaps I didn’t need to separate the two arcs after all? The grades of Super Saiya-jin are introduced in spectacular fashion, with Super Vegeta demolishing Semiperfect Cell while a surprised No. 18 watches on, but Gokū essentially tells the audience these forms are useless within seconds of acquiring their power while training with Gohan in The Room of Spirit and Time. While some in the fandom are still upset decades later that Vegeta allowed Cell to achieve his Perfect Form, this always sat fine with me. Vegeta was incredibly arrogant of his power once he turned Super Saiya-jin, and after being defeated and going back to the drawing board, he surpassed even that; why wouldn’t he go back to being overly confident in his abilities now that he’s “reclaimed” that status? The Final Flash was an amazing display of power, but much like Trunks’ Super Saiya-jin Third Grade, it’s mostly thrown in for style, with the substance coming from Gokū’s assertion that they must master the original Super Saiya-jin form. The soft reboot Toriyama was aiming for was inevitably going to conclude with Cell reaching a new level of power, and as messy as it was to get here, at least he managed to give Tenshinhan his last cool moment of the series by stalling Semiperfect Cell with repeated blasts from his Shin Kikōhō.
20. The General Blue Arc
As the lowest-rated arc of “early Dragon Ball,” I will come right out and say a large reason I have it this low is simply due to my dislike for General Blue. He’s cunning, brutal, confident, and gay; his being gay is not the problem, and the humor derived from him being gay isn’t the problem either. The real problem is he’s just not an enjoyable villain amid the entertaining ever-changing set pieces of The Red Ribbon Army Arc. Colonel Silver and General White weren’t engaging villains either, but they were never really supposed to be. General Blue is the first major high-ranking officer in The Red Ribbon Army we’ve come across that can at least give Gokū some trouble in a fight, and even though he gets the upper hand at moments due to his dirty tactics, he never really feels like a credible threat to Gokū. Due to this, I feel like the arc kind of drags along, especially during the legendary Dr. Slump crossover chapters. Toriyama is lucky he chose to do this lighthearted crossover this early in the series, as it only manages to work because he blended the early adventure feel of The Hunt for the Dragon Balls Arc with the action-based tone of The 21st Tenkaichi Budōkai Arc incredibly well. This resulted in an enjoyable arc that remains the fourth-longest arc of the manga, but I happen to find this portion of the overall Red Ribbon Army Arc to be the least enjoyable of the four.
19. The Great Saiyaman Arc
Most fans tend to dislike this arc, and many Gohan fans hold it against Toriyama that he made Gohan look “lame” during his brief run as the main character. I happen to disagree with that assertion, as Gohan comes off incredibly genuine in this comical arc. Throughout the course of the 11 chapters in this arc, Gohan struggles to adapt to life in high school, and honestly, the only downside is that we never get much of a payoff to this, other than his friends thinking he’s cool when they later see through his disguise at the 25th Tenkaichi Budōkai. There’s really only a few gags of him at school since most of the arc consists of him fighting crime in a disguise so Toriyama can briefly riff on superheroes, but even that’s quickly seen through by Videl so that Toriyama can keep the plot moving towards the upcoming Tenkaichi Budōkai. Gohan training Videl was neat, the new designs for (almost) everyone after seven years was interesting, and comical in Kuririn’s case, but “Gokū ruined everything going forward by hogging the spotlight again.” Forget that; Toriyama made the right call by reinserting Gokū into the mix. Gohan was never meant to be the main character; I applaud Toriyama for trying something different, and I wish it had worked out to better give the sense of a passage of time, but in the end, I was not upset by Gokū being brought back into the fold to eventually find a new apprentice. Gohan always was a scholar, and these chapters with him as the main character not only reinforce that, but they also don’t damage the series in hindsight; I choose to view them as another quirk that added to the lighthearted sensibilities that made Dragon Ball unique, to begin with.
18. The Fusion Arc
There was a lot of derision towards the Majin Boo Arc in the time before Dragon Ball Super was conceived, and quite honestly, some of that derision still lingers today. It’s certainly not the most well-written arc in the series, it’s incredibly long, a very small percentage of the cast are actually relevant or do anything substantial, and yet, the charm of “early Dragon Ball” shines so much more brightly during the course of the overall Majin Boo Arc that I can’t help but enjoy it slightly more than the grim and serious Cell Arc. Gotenks’ fight against Super Boo is one of the, if not the most, disliked fights in the original manga, but I personally enjoyed the lighthearted flashy fight between the two. However, I generally agree with the consensus that Gohan allowing Gotenks to fight and get absorbed before being absorbed himself was one of the weakest points of the entire series. Gohan’s return and quick defeat after dozens of chapters training and unlocking his potential is an incredibly displeasing subversion, but there was still Vegetto. His beatdown of Super Boo was not only hilarious, but much more obvious that he planned to get absorbed in the manga. It was one of the messiest arcs in the series, but it provided plenty of comedic one-upmanship through fusions, absorptions, and comical attacks. Some won’t enjoy the silliness of the fights, especially when they’re offset by Super Boo’s horrific rampages, but that tone is always what made Dragon Ball so enjoyable for me in the first place.
17. The Artificial Humans Arc
I’ve taken the liberty of including the events of Future Trunks coming back in time to warn Gokū of the Artificial Humans and killing Freeza and King Cold. It doesn’t make sense to label those seven chapters as being a separate arc when it serves as a perfect bridge from The Freeza Arc to The Cell Arc by being an effective debut for Future Trunks, as well as a set up for the arrival of the Artificial Humans. However, I never really quite understood the wide appeal of this arc. Our heroes’ actions upon learning about the danger of the future make them look incredibly indolent, and although I understand these characters put their pride on the line in combat, and the manga would likely have no conflict if they just went and obliterated Dr. Gero before he completed the Artificial Humans, but Bulma is the only one who makes any sense in this situation. It’s great that it works out for them, and I can’t exactly fault them for the logic that everyone on The Dragon Team was at one time an enemy of Gokū, but it still doesn’t excuse the fact they let the situation progress as far as it did by not stopping it before it began. It’s also slightly obvious Toriyama was attempting a soft reboot of the arc when he decided No. 20 and No. 19 would be the fake-out villains after his previous editor said they weren’t threatening enough; evidenced by the fact Future Trunks explicitly stated No. 20 and No. 19 were the ones who destroyed his future, only to then have him come back to the past and discover that No. 20 and No. 19 weren’t the Artificial Humans they’re supposed to be fighting. This is explained away by Future Trunks being chastised for “not explaining what the Artificial Humans looked like,” and that the events of their timeline have been altered in different ways from Trunks’ due to his time travel, but what makes this arc memorable is Vegeta destroying No. 19 after showing he too can go Super Saiya-jin and The Dragon Team’s beatdown by No. 18 and No. 17. Our heroes’ ability to sense and manipulate their ki is used against them due to the Artificial Humans lacking ki, and Toriyama uses this to great effect by having Dr. Gero attempt to run and hide to draw more energy from The Dragon Team; eventually being forced to retreat and activate No. 18 and No. 17 upon realizing he couldn’t defeat Piccolo, who hadn’t even assimilated Kami yet. It’s a fun arc with plenty of twists and turns, but it’s not one of my favorites.
16. The Majin Boo Arc
As stated before, the overall Majin Boo Arc was incredibly lengthy and all over the place, but Boo himself was always a highlight. Dragon Ball always had a lighthearted charm to it that I always felt Majin Boo best captured of all the villains from the “Z” portion of the story. That doesn’t fully excuse Toriyama’s sloppy writing, of course, but watching Majin Boo turn Dabra into candy and smack Majin Vegeta around is so much more satisfying than Cell’s absorption of the Artificial Humans. Vegeta’s sacrifice, Trunks and Goten learning the Fusion Dance, and Gokū turning Super Saiya-jin 3 were all major highlights of this arc as well, but really, this arc is Boo’s show. Watching him go about his daily activities as he destroys nearly all life on Earth is pretty hilarious in a way only Toriyama could pull off, and it’s immensely satisfying to watch Boo punch Babidi’s head off. Toriyama continues subverting audience expectations by having Mr. Satan pull off the impossible and appeal to the kindness in Boo’s heart to convince him to stop killing, but this doesn’t last long. Boo eventually splits the evil from himself and gets eaten by Aku Boo (Evil Boo), but I can’t complain too much, as Boo’s physiology and transformations were the most fun of any villain in the series. Some fans will say the arc suffered from the numerous absorptions and transformations Boo undergoes throughout the overall Majin Boo Arc, which is true to an extent, but I wonder how people would react if the story had ended here with Mr. Satan befriending Majin Boo.
15. The Muscle Tower Arc
This introduction to The Red Ribbon Army lies primarily in Gokū’s strength in recruiting friends no matter where he goes. Much like in the first arc, Gokū largely plows through his enemies without much effort, and a large part of the appeal of this arc is watching a 12-year-old Son Gokū beat the shit out of hundreds of grown men with just his Nyoibō on him. However, he still needs supporting characters around him to progress the plot, so Toriyama introduced the girl and her mom in Jingle Village, and later, No. 8. Gokū is the only character from the first two arcs to appear in this arc, and given the change in scenery it was only natural really, but it is a little odd seeing characters other than his usual friends interacting with and bouncing off of Gokū. However, it’s the first time the whole world is open to Gokū, and Toriyama takes full advantage of this by drawing all sorts of different locations throughout the overall Red Ribbon Army Arc. Having Gokū take a plane to the north to continue his search for his Grandpa’s Dragon Ball after defeating Colonel Silver and his men for blowing up Kintōun is a genius way to put Gokū in some danger and change the setting, culminating in Muscle Tower, which contains some of the funniest moments of the series with Murasaki on Level 4. General Blue is the generic bad guy “boss” at the top, and Sergeant Metallic is also a generic parody of The Terminator, but Buyon is interesting, and the climax with No. 8 punching General Blue out of the tower and over the mountains is hilarious to read every time.
14. The 25th Tenkaichi Budōkai Arc
This is another arc I’ve combined with another to limit the number of arbitrary arcs retroactively created by fans, but unlike with the Imperfect and Perfect Cell Arcs, this one was easier to combine with the “Babadi Arc” due to the 25th Tenkaichi Budōkai still being shown playing out to its improvised conclusion during Gokū, Vegeta, and Gohan’s battle with Babidi’s forces. Dabra was an interesting character with a cool design, but didn’t have many opportunities to impress the audience; that honor went to Vegeta, who succumbed to Babidi’s influence to gather more strength and brutality to best Gokū in battle. When these darker moments are lopped off from the lighthearted beginning of this arc, it makes the overall 25th Tenkaichi Budōkai appear to be a weaker arc than it is. There’s a little commentary from Toriyama about corporatization in the form of the revamped and flashy Tenkaichi Budōkai, which is in stark contrast to the feel-good return of Son Gokū to life for one day, and I quite enjoy the small breather of comedy this arc provides before Spopovich and Yamu show up to provide some mystery to the plot. This feeling of anxiousness only intensifies upon the arrival of Kibito and the Kaiōshin, but the days of the Tenkaichi Budōkai being the grand stage of the series are long over by this point in the series, and Toriyama makes that abundantly clear when Piccolo forfeits his match against the Kaiōshin to further the plot along and get all the good guys on the same page. Videl is pretty much left aside after getting beaten to a pulp by Spopovich and realizing the truth about Dragon Ball power scaling, but honestly, this arc gets higher praise from me than it does from others due to Toriyama keeping (almost) everyone involved in some way. Piccolo and Kuririn are incapacitated by Dabra’s stone spit, but Gokū, Gohan, Vegeta, and the participants of the 25th Tenkaichi Budōkai all get a chance to fight, with the two different situations cutting in-between each other, while the locations the Saiya-jin trio fight in once they enter Babidi’s ship switch around due to Babidi’s magic. All this madness culminates with the emotional fan-favorite rematch between Gokū and Majin Vegeta; summoning Majin Boo as a consequence.
13. The Ginyu-taichō Arc
I had trouble ranking the next two arcs, as they’re both tiny sections of an overall large arc, but I decided to place the fight between Ginyū and Gokū a step below the next due to the latter having a better emotional pay-off. Ginyū’s body-swapping ability is something that feels like “early Dragon Ball,” worthy of becoming the spectacle that slightly sidetracks the main characters before being forced to deal with Freeza himself in the final act of The Freeza Arc. This arc’s downside is that it’s only roughly 11% of the overall Freeza Arc, contributing to the power creep and pacing issues of the next arc, especially since Vegeta, who has already killed Gurdo at this point, quickly kills Recoome and Butta after Gokū had incapacitated them and let Jeice run off to get Ginyū-taichō. The Ginyū Tokusentai are much more enjoyable in the anime, as their voice actors and animation could bring the inherent goofiness of the characters out more than the manga does, especially considering the Ginyū Tokusentai are essentially a satire of the type of sentai tropes that Dragon Ball itself had used and became famous for. However, they’re still a treat to see in action in the manga, and all the reasons they became fan-favorite characters are all still flamboyantly on display in print form.
12. The Junsui Boo Arc
The penultimate arc of the series that, until recently, also included the events of the 10-year time skip and 28th Tenkaichi Budōkai. It’s the finale to the final, messiest, and the most sprawling arc of the original manga, and despite Junsui Boo being a thrill to watch in action, I must admit he arrives so late in the game that it’s oftentimes hard for me to see him as anything other than a final transformation Toriyama came up with to add more tension to the final fight. He says nothing other than grunts and screams, but the little we get to see of his personality actually mesh well against Gokū’s during their fight; he’s having fun showing off his power. Boo releasing Good Boo from his body during the fight has caused some confusion in the Dragon Ball fandom, because if Boo didn’t want Good Boo’s good influence from the Dai Kaiōshin to slow him down any longer, then why did Aku Boo, the tall, skinny grey one representing all the evil inside Fat Boo, even try to absorb Good Boo once he was expelled from his body? Super Boo considers himself a separate entity from Junsui Boo, and Aku Boo is, for all intents and purposes, the same entity as Junsui Boo, just manifested as the evil expelled from Good Boo. Super Boo is the same entity as Good Boo, just with his evil in control, which is why he needed to keep Good Boo inside of him to remain as one being. Does this mean the only way Junsui Boo can be reawakened is through these extremely improbable and convoluted set of circumstances? Oh well, who cares, it was a weekly shōnen manga that was usually written on-the-fly; this was the final major fight of the series, and the Super Spirit Bomb with a montage of prior friends Son Gokū made along the way was the most apropos way to conclude such a dire fight.
11. The Uranai Baba Arc
The conclusion to the long-winding The Red Ribbon Army Arc is a wacky pseudo-tournament that pits Uranai Baba’s zany fighters against Yamcha, Kuririn, and Gokū. The decrepit, fortune-telling older sister of Kame-Sennin is a breath of fresh air after dozens of chapters of military antagonists, and the lowered stakes make the emotional aspect of the story easy to invest in. Of course, lowered stakes still means fighting on the outstretched connecting tongues of two demon statues facing each other as they sit on top of toilets over a large pond of acid, but the fact they have to do any of this to get Roshi’s sister to divine the location of the last Dragon Ball is part of what makes it so hilarious. Gokū’s reunion with his Grandpa is a touching moment, and it’s followed by another touching moment when Bora, Upa’s father, is brought back to life by Shenlong. There’s a lot to like about the arc, as even The Pilaf Gang gets another comedic moment to shine with their mech suits, even if it would end up being their penultimate appearance in the manga. Ultimately, Uranai Baba predicts Gokū will one day save the world, which makes his separation from the rest of his friends as they begin training for the next Tenkaichi Budōkai feel logical, with Yamcha officially beginning his training under Kame-Sennin. The series began melding itself into what it’s known for today from the concepts introduced in The Red Ribbon Army Arc, so it’s only fitting that it ends on an emotional highpoint signaling in the changing times these characters will soon find themselves in.
10. The Cell Games Arc
Gohan turning Super Saiya-jin 2 is not the only reason this arc ranks so highly on this list, it’s also because it’s the apogee of the theme of parenthood that ran throughout the course of The Cell Arc. No matter how many people may joke or outright believe Gokū is a terrible father, no matter how dumb of an idea it was for Gokū to give Cell a senzu bean before fighting Gohan, Gokū did what he thought was the best course of action, and it largely worked. When he realized Gohan, despite having tremendous potential, just didn’t love fighting to the same extent he did, he tried to correct his mistake and fight Cell again, and then later sacrificed himself to save his son and the Earth from Cell’s self-destruction. Vegeta, after spending the entire arc being incredibly harsh and dismissive of Trunks, mourns his death upon Super Perfect Cell’s regeneration, and puts his pride aside to provide Gohan with an assist during his beam struggle with Super Perfect Cell. While the entirety of the arc wasn’t the most well-constructed, with the characters running through both the familiar action-adventure and tournament beats of previous arcs to reach this climax, the ending carries a great emotional pay-off due to the solid thematic foundation of parenthood and maturity. Trunks even gets to go back to his future, demolish the Artificial Humans, and then effortlessly crush Imperfect Cell. It’s too bad it can be argued certain characters regressed from this point onwards, but looking at just this arc by itself, The Cell Games were a fantastic conclusion to the grim Cell Arc
9. The Commander Red Arc
Taopaipai was the first villain in the series who defeated Gokū in battle, but the pillar-riding mercenary isn’t the only badass aspect of this arc. Gokū climbs Karin Tower, trains under Karin for three days, defeats Taopaipai in a rematch, and then demolishes the entire Red Ribbon Army. The events of this arc are incredibly straightforward but are a thrilling read nonetheless. Staff Officer Black’s betrayal of Commander Red is not only hilarious due to it being logical considering the lengths the Red Ribbon Army have gone to secure the Dragon Balls for what would ultimately be Commander Red’s dumb wish, but it’s also a welcome subversion; likely the only time Toriyama had the larger of two characters be the bigger threat to Gokū or The Dragon Team. Part of what makes this arc so enjoyable is that Gokū is taking morality into his decision-making process; he’s not going to the base just to smash them to pieces, he’s also going after them to fulfill his promise to Upa that he would revive his father with the Dragon Balls. Upa and his father are largely absent from the story after this arc, but it ties into what The Muscle Tower Arc established; Gokū makes friends no matter where he goes. Speaking of his friends, they show up at the end of the arc to assist him in taking down The Red Ribbon Army, only to discover he’s already defeated them by himself, a hilarious revelation that is further paid off in the next arc.
8. The Piccolo Daimaō Arc
It’s the final arc to clock in under 30 chapters, and it’s the one commonly regarded as where Dragon Ball “grew up.” It’s a little hard to fully agree when this arc features demons being sucked into electronic rice cookers, and the fact we already dealt with the importance of death in a previous arc, but since Kuririn is the victim this time around, it does hold more emotional weight with both the audience and Gokū, so it is a fair claim. However, it’s still a bit unfair to say this is where Dragon Ball became the series it’s now known for, as this arc utilizes the same shōnen power-up trope it did when Gokū fought Taopaipai. Unlike the previous subversion, Toriyama just straight up uses the Chōshinsui as a basic power-up, which is more in-line with what the series became known for, but it’s a little disingenuous to point to this arc as were all these tropes began, rather than what it actually is; the melding of all the previous ideas Toriyama had into one arc. Piccolo is introduced in his original incarnation, and although his second fight with Gokū and subsequent death are spectacular, he and his “children” aren’t much in the way of personality. Where this arc gets high praise from me is how it utilizes Kame-Sennin in what’s effectively his swan song, attempting to shelter his students from the horrors he’s battled in the past while trying to give them hope for the future. Karin is given his last relevant role in the series during this arc before passing Gokū on to Kami and becoming the senzu supplier, but Yajirobe was introduced to keep him company, I suppose. This arc is where the tropes of Dragon Ball were firmly established, and while the tone gradually shifted from lighthearted fun to serious action, this arc took the opportunity to establish how bleak things can truly get while still balancing the comedy in appropriate bursts.
7. The Freeza Arc
I noted that due to the brief length of The Ginyū-taichō Arc, this arc suffers from pacing issues, as well as massive power creep. However, it’s just too legendary for me to place any further down the list. The debut of Super Saiya-jin elevates this past other arcs with less glaring issues, and while that may be controversial to some who value plot and consistency above all else, it makes total sense to anyone who’s been a long-time fan of the series. Freeza’s transformations are tedious since he can transform to his Final Form and end the battle at any time, Piccolo’s assimilation of Nail was quickly tossed aside, the characters generally make questionable decisions that tend to go against the rules established during the series with their wishes during the end of this arc, and the last few chapters are way too quick in summing up the end of the arc in order to set up the next one, but the frantic pace this arc flies at effectively gets across the dire situation our heroes are in. It was when Dragon Ball was at its most popular, so it’s safe to assume everyone reading this recognizes why it ranks so highly on the list.
6. The Hunt for the Dragon Balls Arc
When you look back and see Dragon Ball started as an adventure series packed to the brim with fourth wall breaks, sexual humor, and poop jokes, it can provide a bit of a shock to fans familiar with only Super Saiya-jins and beam struggles. Starting as a loose parody of the characters from Journey to the West, Dragon Ball became its own thing largely through its action set pieces and plot that became tropes in future shōnen mangas, but you won’t find a lot of that here. Although the series was serialized, the first 23 chapters largely feel episodic, even if there is a storyline running through them. It’s undoubtedly Dragon Ball, but there are a charm and tone to this first arc that the rest of the series doesn’t possess. Goku, Bulma, Yamcha, Pu’ar, Oolong, Kame-Sennin, Umigame, ChiChi, and Gyūmaō are all introduced in their own memorable fashion, but the plot meanders around a bit until The Pilaf Gang are introduced; easily the most comedic villains in the entire series. This arc is the one most reliant on comedy, which makes sense when you consider Dragon Ball started as a weekly comedic series that poked fun at the great Chinese literature most people in the East were familiar with. Gokū turning into an Ōzaru and smashing Pilaf’s castle to pieces was a high note to end the arc on, but the ending is slightly bittersweet when you know the series lost some of its whimsical traits going forward. It was only natural to expand the world and make the setting more grounded as it continued serialization, but these first 23 chapters have a hypnotic playfulness that makes every page a joy to read.
5. The 21st Tenkaichi Budōkai Arc
The second arc of the series is an admitted effort by Toriyama to make the series more popular, but that doesn’t mean it should be looked on as a corporate mandate that was mathematically designed to appeal to as many demographics as possible. Instead, Toriyama scaled back the cast, introduced Kuririn and Lunch, and played up to the martial arts aspect of the series with Kame-Sennin’s training and a tournament to determine the number one martial artist under the the heavens. In recent years, certain fans have tried to separate the training the two receive under Mūten Roshi and the 21st Tenkaichi Budōkai itself as two separate arcs, but doing so just arbitrarily shortens the length of an amusing arc that clocks in at only 30 chapters. The training is the build-up, and it’s exactly what makes the wacky fights and gags that only Toriyama could come up with so entertaining. Mūten Roshi poorly disguising himself as Jackie Chun to enter the tournament and win just to teach his pupils a lesson to never grow complacent, as there are always more powerful people out there, is somehow simultaneously hilarious, inspirational, and full of character for the “old turtle pervert.” I haven’t even mentioned the other fights in this tournament, but doing so would take too much time, as Toriyama makes every fight an entertaining read. Whether through action or comedy, the matches are memorable, most of the combatants are people we as an audience aren’t familiar with, which adds a layer of intrigue over the participants and matchups, and Roshi even blew up the moon! This arc may not have the insane power levels of later arcs, but it possesses a charm that is impossible to ignore; securing itself a high ranking on this list, as well as a financially successful future for Dragon Ball to build off of.
4. The 22nd Tenkaichi Budōkai Arc
Would you be surprised if I told you this was the shortest arc of the original manga 10 arc layout? Clocking in at 22 chapters, this arc is just one chapter shorter than the first arc of the series, and yet it manages to show us a lot more characterization than nearly every other arc in the series. Tsuru-Sennin, Tenshinhan, and Chaozu are all introduced, the Sennin’s rivalry with each other is quickly established, and the knowledge that Tao Paipai is Tsuru-Sennin’s brother is revealed during the fight between Kuririn and Chaozu; giving the course of events during this arc an incredibly organic feel as they play out. This arc is the last time winning the Tenkaichi Budōkai was the primary goal of the series, as Gokū ended up being the only one concerned with winning it during the next one, which is a big reason why I have the next one ranked slightly higher. Gokū was evenly matched with Tenshinhan during this arc, and it was the last time they were so close to each other in power; seeing Gokū lose in the fashion he did just made the audience want to see him win even more. Tenshinhan was never this cool again, as his multitude of awesome techniques, taunts, and overall cocky demeanor is at odds with the stoicism he became known for throughout the series, but at least he and Kame-Sennin were both elevated during this arc. Their conversation, along with Tsuru-Sennin’s interference in his match with Gokū, sparked the trigger of Tenshinhan’s change from a ruthless martial artist and hopeful assassin to a stoic, prideful good guy, and while he later became less interesting as a result, that makes his character during this arc even more compelling. The 22nd Tenkaichi Budōkai was the perfect bridge between Gokū’s lighthearted adventures and the fighting-centric drama the rest of the series became.
3. The 23rd Tenkaichi Budōkai Arc
Toriyama was on a different level in 1988, because in the same year he turned 33, he was also cranking out the best artwork during the series’ original run. This arc was the final arc of the Dragon Ball anime, and with the story eventually shifting in a different tonal direction, this arc is somewhat of a send-off to the mythical inspirations of “early Dragon Ball.” Kami comes off incredibly melodramatic near the end of the arc over his and Piccolo’s fate, but that’s really the only negative this arc carries. The three-year time skip to show off how Gokū had grown was effective in making him appear “cool,” ChiChi and Gokū getting married was a hilarious pay-off to those waiting for her to reappear in the story, and the fights are a bunch of fun. The final fight between Gokū and Piccolo is the brutal fan favorite, but Gokū and Tenshinhan have an entertaining fight in their own right, as does Kuririn and Piccolo. Even Kami gets in on the action by temporarily possessing a human to combat Piccolo, which allowed for Toriyama to foreshadow their alien origins. Unlike the 21st Tenkaichi Budōkai, the fights are much more pre-determined, and unlike the 22nd Tenkaichi Budōkai, the character interactions aren’t as strong (except for between Kami and Piccolo), but the action and artwork are absolutely exquisite. All prior existing storylines converge throughout these well-paced 33 chapters for a satisfying conclusion of sorts. The story would continue, with Kame-Sennin himself stating it in the final panel of Chapter 194, but the series would undergo several changes to further boost its popularity, and for better or worse, never be the same again.
2. The Namek Arc
Continuing right where the Saiya-jin Arc left off, this arc comprises nearly the entire first half of the overall Freeza Arc at a well-paced 40 chapters. Gohan, Kuririn, and Bulma take Kami’s spaceship, lended to them by Mr. Popo, and travel to Planet Namek, where they hope to use the Namekian Dragon Balls to revive their friends. Gokū also tags along, but as usual with Toriyama by this point, he wrote Gokū out of the story slightly by having him stay behind to wait for senzu beans to recover from his injuries from his fight with Vegeta. When things inevitably go wrong upon landing on Namek, it creates a very tense atmosphere while Gohan and Kuririn essentially engage in guerrilla warfare against Vegeta and the Freeza Force. This arc was a joy to read through quite honestly, as it blended the earlier Dragon Ball set-ups with the new “sci-fi” shōnen action tropes it became famous for. Gohan, Kuririn, and Bulma being the three leads for this arc gave nostalgic feelings of Gokū, Kuririn, and Bulma during The Red Ribbon Army Arc, but of course, under completely different, and in my opinion, more exciting situations. The arc ends on Gohan and Kuririn reluctantly teaming up with Vegeta upon discovering Freeza has called upon The Ginyū Tokusentai to eradicate them, but just as the situation is at its most dire, Gokū arrives just in time to embarrass them. It’s clichéd, even by this point in the series, but it was effective in getting the audience excited for the remainder of The Freeza Arc.
1. The Saiya-jin Arc
What else was it really going to be? Up until October 1988, Son Gokū was just an insanely strong, monkey-tailed human who trained under Kami and other legendary martial artists, but this arc completely upended the story and took the franchise to new heights by introducing the idea of space travel and otherworldly threats. In just 48 chapters we were introduced to the Saiya-jin’s, Son Gokū was fluently retconned to be one as well, Gokū teamed up with Piccolo to take on his brother, Gokū died, trained in the afterlife while his son was being trained by what was then his mortal enemy, and then we got the best fight of the series; Gokū and Vegeta. Although The Dragon Team ended up being stomped by Nappa even after receiving training from Kami, the side characters are still fairly useful in this point of the story, as Yajirobe contributed by cutting off Vegeta’s tail and reverting him back to normal from his Ōzaru form, and Gohan and Kuririn also both assisted Gokū in the final stages of his fight with Vegeta. This was the start of Dragon Ball becoming more than just a well-selling manga and well-liked anime, as after this arc, Dragon Ball‘s popularity (or Dragon Ball Z if you were/are an exclusive anime watcher) exploded even further and continued to build during the Freeza arc. When someone pictures vintage Dragon Ball in their head, or is asked about the best part of the series, fans usually go with this arc, and for good reason.
Sticking true to the nature of the franchise, now that the theatrics are out of the way, here is my definitive ranking of the original manga story arcs. There is no GT or Super on this list, as everything that followed the original run of the Dragon Ball manga was only possible due to the incredible success of Toriyama’s manga. As noted above, it wouldn’t stack up anyway. The manga was a weekly shōnen series that was usually made up as it went along, and as such, all the arcs created to neatly fit long-running storylines together are all retroactive. This is enough list ranking for this author however; I fare you well!
10. The Cell Arc
9. The Majin Boo Arc
8. The Piccolo Daimaō Arc
7. The Red Ribbon Army Arc
6. The Hunt for the Dragon Balls Arc
5. The Freeza Arc
4. The 21st Tenkaichi Budōkai Arc
3. The 22nd Tenkaichi Budōkai Arc
2. The 23rd Tenkaichi Budōkai Arc
1. The Saiya-jin Arc