The original Dragon Ball manga is composed of ten major story arcs, beginning from when Goku meets Bulma and ending with Goku flying off with Oob in order to train him. For most, the “original series” more often than not refers to the franchise’s first anime adaptation, simply titled Dragon Ball, with the Saiyan arc onward adapted in Dragon Ball Z. But it’s important to recognize that the manga had no such split. Akira Toriyama’s vision for the series was just called Dragon Ball from start to finish.
It’s also important to remember that Funimation’s handling of the series broke several major story arcs down into “sagas” with no rhyme or reason. Dragon Ball, as it was before Super, was composed of ten major story arcs, all of which vary in quality.
While Cell may be a fan-favorite in western circles, his arc struggles to tell a cohesive story from start to finish. The villains juggling between Dr. Gero, the Artificial Humans, and Cell might lend for some interesting drama on a first read-through or watch, but the arc fails to hold up on repeat viewings.
The Cell arc’s major flaw comes from its second act, where Vegeta ends up taking the torch for far longer than he should. Not helping matters is the fact that Cell only regresses as a villain as he transforms, losing the horror elements that made him unique. While the arc ends on a high with the Cell Games, there’s very little in terms of meaningful build-up or character development before the last act.
The Majin Boo arc is easily the strangest segment of Dragon Ball history. There isn’t a clear-cut protagonist, the main villain keeps transforming in increasingly nonsensical ways, and the character with the most development ends up being Mr. Satan, of all people. Not helping matters is the emphasis on fusion that drags down the second act.
The arc isn’t all bad, however, as it does transition into a very fitting finale for the series while also boasting some solid last-minute development for Goku, Vegeta, and Gohan. Unfortunately, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that most of the supporting characters are stuck in the background at best.
A humble start for the series, "The Hunt for the Dragon Balls" arc’s largest problem is that it’s simply too short. While it manages to say far more in its two volumes than either the Cell or Boo arcs could do in half a dozen, there’s still quite a bit left to be desired by the time Goku parts ways with Bulma.
The action itself, the element that would go on to define the series, is also incredibly subdued, with the only memorable fight being Goku’s bout against Yamcha. All that said, the arc does manage to develop the supporting cast rather meaningfully even if Goku is left on the back-burner.
The longest of the pre-Freeza arcs, the Red Ribbon Army arc is an incredibly important turning point for Dragon Ball. Not only does it formally introduce the concept of the divine hierarchy into Dragon Ball, but it also gives the series its first major antagonist through Tao Pai Pai, its first major heartfelt moment through Grandpa Gohan, and its most meaningful training segment through Karin.
Unfortunately, all these events happen in the action-packed second half which ends up following a very lackluster first half. Muscle Tower is conceptually quite interesting, but General Blue takes up too much time while offering too little. Regardless, the arc manages to successfully overcome its weak start.
The fact that the Demon King Piccolo arc lifts so heavily from the Red Ribbon Army arc will naturally be a turn-off for some fans, but it’s impossible to deny the impact the story arc had on the series. Demon King Piccolo served as the series’ first true super-villain, setting a template that all future antagonists would follow.
The action was far more brutal, characters perished left and right, and Goku needed to push himself to his limits just to stand a chance against the Demon King. The arc’s short pace does mean that several of its story beats come and go, but its fast pace makes for an exciting race to the final showdown between Goku and Piccolo.
The series’ first tournament arc might be its worst, but it’s by no means bad. With a first half dedicated entirely to Goku and Kuririn training under Master Roshi, the build-up to the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai might very well be the best build-up Toriyama incorporated in the entire series.
This is to say nothing of the arc introducing the franchise’s core themes of self-betterment and accepting that there will always be someone better. Unfortunately, the tournament itself doesn’t kick into high gear until the semi-finals, relying more on gags until then, but the payoff is immensely satisfying.
The Freeza arc isn’t without its problems, introducing the core concepts that would go on to plague the series: Battle Power, transformations, and overly long arcs that keep Goku on the back-burner. Where these issues may have hurt the Cell and Boo arcs in the long run, these were fresh concepts on Namek, and successful ones at that.
Freeza brings with him a degree of tension that both Cell and Boo lacked. More importantly, his presence allowed Gohan, Vegeta, Piccolo, and Goku to all develop meaningfully by the end of the arc. The final battle might be too long in the anime adaptation, but the manga original boasts an incredible endurance match full of great action and even better character development.
The first arc to feature an adult Goku, the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai is the last formal tournament arc the series sees, and what a high to go out on. Every single major character has a fight that shows off their talents while putting a nice bow on their character development.
Said arc was never meant to end the series, as some fans believe, but it certainly has an incredible sense of finality. Its only major flaw is the overreliance on Ki, an issue that would only become more prominent as the series continued. But Goku’s wonderfully built-up rivalry with Piccolo more than makes up for any flaws.
It may be hard to believe for newer fans, but there was once a point where Tenshinhan was the strongest character in the series. Not just that, his tournament arc was easily the best of the original three (and of the whole franchise including Super, frankly). Tenshinhan’s character development is second to none and surprisingly natural for how quickly it happens.
It certainly helps that the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, in the manga at least, is incredibly well-paced, wasting no time between fights. It’s in this arc where Toriyama finally masters the art of developing his characters through action. More so than any other story arc, the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai embodies the spirit of Dragon Ball. But it isn’t the best arc.
That title belongs to none other than the Saiyan arc, the story arc that fundamentally changed not just Dragon Ball, but the very landscape of manga and anime. In its first major moment, Goku is revealed to have been an alien all along, his son is taken away, and he falls in battle against his brother. What follows is a story of identity centering around Goku, Gohan, and Piccolo.
The battle against Nappa and Vegeta stand out as two of the best fights in the entire series, with the latter serving as arguably the best fight in the entire medium. What makes this arc so meaningful, though, is the fact that Goku’s heritage is put front and center. He doesn’t win because he’s a Saiyan—he wins because he has the power of the weaker Earthlings behind him. It’s a magnificently written arc that proved Dragon Ball could be so much more than a martial arts serial.