Demon King Piccolo is one of Dragon Ball’s most iconic villains, and for good reason. With his introduction, the series embraced a much darker style of storytelling. The Red Ribbon Army arc had already pivoted the series away from its lighter roots, but the Demon King Piccolo arc solidifies the direction Dragon Ball will be going in for the majority of its run.
It’s an arc that raises the stakes like nothing before it. It quite literally begins with Krillin’s death, after all. Such an intense moment can only transition into one of the series’ darkest story arcs. Countless characters die, Piccolo makes the world suffer, and even with his power-up Goku struggles to save the day— it’s a story arc unlike any other.
Poor Yamcha’s only here on a technicality. As genuinely strong as the guy is, he’s just outclassed by the Demon King Piccolo arc, plain and simple. Frankly, he’s been outclassed since day 1, but it’s always felt like Toriyama has a soft spot for the character, including him in the series long after he’s lost his relevance in the Z-era.
Here, he doesn’t do much but react to the plot. The anime tries to give him some action, but it doesn’t pan out considering the course the arc’s plot takes. This is actually the first arc Yamcha appears in where he doesn’t do any fighting whatsoever in the manga. The next time that would happen would be the Freeza arc where he was understandably dead.
9 Master Roshi
For as little of this arc Master Roshi is actually in (dying roughly a third of the way through,) he leaves quite the impact. Besides the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, this is Roshi’s most relevant arc. After spending the entire series ready to pass the torch to the next generation, the last generation arrives to withhold its control.
Toriyama is in rare form this arc, with his thematic writing at one of its best points. It all results in a character who really lingers on the audience. Interestingly, Roshi never fights Piccolo, instead dying due to a failed Mafuba. That said, while Roshi was seemingly holding back during the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, there’s nothing to suggest he’s all that much stronger.
For as good a showing Tenshinhan has in the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, it doesn’t take very long for him to find himself unable to do much of anything. Tenshinhan exists to suffer in the Demon King Piccolo arc. He is the hero who simply cannot succeed, the one forced to watch as King Piccolo asserts his dominance.
This doesn’t mean he’s weak by any means, though. Tenshinhan actually manages to learn and more or less master the Mafuba. He unfortunately never gets to use it against Demon King Piccolo, but that’s an impressive feat that even Roshi wasn’t able to pull off without giving his life.
Demon King Piccolo generates a nice set of kids over the course of the arc, but like any middle child, Cymbal is a bit neglected. He’s in more chapters than Drum, but he doesn’t leave much of a presence considering he only fights Yajirobe. Of all of the villains in this arc, Cymbal puts up the least resistance.
At the same time, the weakest demon is still stronger than the average martial artist at this point in the series. Yajirobe is an exception, not the rule. If someone like Tenshinhan fought Cymbal, he would almost certainly die in the process. Cymbal doesn’t seem as strong as Tambourine in feats, but there’s no way anyone weaker than Ten can compete.
Crazy, right? That’s not a joke either, Yajirobe is legitimately this strong. It seems almost ridiculous considering how much Tenshinhan ended up pushing Goku just an arc prior, but Goku very clearly says, in-text, with no ambiguity, that he’s never met anyone as strong as Yajirobe. That includes Tenshinhan. That is utterly insane.
But it also makes sense thematically. Dragon Ball is all about the idea that there will always be someone better. Don’t get comfortable, don’t get confident, don’t get cocky. Be aware and be humble. Yajirobe technically fits that role well in the arc— even if it is, again, honestly kind of insane.
Karin’s a tricky character to discuss here. On one hand, he has to be stronger than Yamcha, Yajirobe, and Tenshinhan because he trains them immediately after this arc ends. On the other hand, he doesn’t fight and Goku should logically have already surpassed Karin by the end of the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai.
But it still makes sense if he didn’t. Goku’s three year training was about bolstering his tail, after all. Besides, the manga makes it clear that Karin is definitely weaker than Demon King Piccolo, making it easy to just slap him in the middle. In general, it’s hard to tell how powerful Karin is.
Far and away the most iconic of Demon King Piccolo’s children and easily one of the more interesting villains in the series before Raditz shows off his pretty tail, Tambourine is most infamously responsible for killing Krillin. This is a death so brutal, the anime only shows it shadowed (the manga doesn’t show it at all.)
Perhaps more shockingly, Tambourine kills Kintoun. A literal cloud. Tambourine kills a cloud, something the series had already established wasn’t possible. This isn’t a mistake, either. Goku explicitly acknowledges this fact, making Tambourine all the more terrifying— and a result, Demon King Piccolo himself.
The last of Demon King Piccolo’s children (who aren’t also reincarnations of him,) Drum is born to die. Literally. He’s born, he has some fun with Tenshinhan, and then Goku shows up to kill him before fighting Demon King Piccolo. Short Drum’s life may be, he does actually leave an impact. Specifically by bodying Tenshinhan to a pulp.
Tenshinhan’s beatdown is so bad that the anime actually changed things up so he’d be able to put up a fight. It’s a frankly pathetic display on Ten’s part, especially since he doesn’t even get to use the Mafuba in the manga, but Drum’s power does put into perspective how outclassed everyone is when it comes to Piccolo.
2 Son Goku
This is an interesting arc for Goku. Of the pre-Z era story arc, this is the one where he has the most character development. He isn’t quite the focus of the plot, but he grows a lot over the course of the arc. Between losing Krillin, struggling to defeat Demon King Piccolo, and having Mr. Popo beat some humility into him, Goku is a very different character come arc’s end.
He’s also much stronger courtesy of the Super Holy Water. While “drink poison to get stronger” is seen as a cop-out by some, Goku drinking the SHW is handled well in the context of the manga. He struggles for it and he drinks it knowing that it could kill him. Yes, he gets the power-up fast, but the plot’s not slowing down for anybody!
1 Demon King Piccolo
All signs seem to indicate that Goku never managed to surpass Demon King Piccolo after drinking the Super Holy Water at Karin’s Tower. He’s certainly stronger and can compete with Piccolo, but the Demon King not only fights back comfortably, but nearly kills both Goku and Tenshinhan in the process. With Goku on the ground and battered, Piccolo’s basically won.
But hubris is cruel, and Piccolo’s downfall is brought down by himself. In his arrogance, he refused to finish Goku off, choosing to toy with him. Not just that, he didn’t fully cripple Goku. That alone is enough for Goku to push through and kill the Demon King. All things considered, it’s a better finale than Goku just getting stronger and beating him.