Even with its many time jumps, Dragon Ball always transitioned in and out of story arcs very well. Perhaps too well in some cases. The Freeza arc notably ends with Mecha Freeza’s return in the manga, leaving no room to breathe inbetween the Freeza and Cell arcs. If nothing else, it proves that Dragon Ball was never going to end with Freeza.
Introducing Artificial Humans into the picture alongside time travel, the Cell arc is another big change for Dragon Ball, this one arguably even darker than what the Saiyan and Freeza arcs offered. The Cell arc is Dragon Ball at its most dire, but a cast of strong characters keeps things engaging.
10 No. 18
Android 18 is technically the weakest of the three main Artificial Humans, but she ends up having the best display of power out of all the non-Cell Artificial Humans. In the main timeline, she’s responsible for giving Vegeta one of his most humiliating defeats. In the future timeline, she toys with Trunks constantly.
She’s always been the most important of the Artificial Humans despite her being the weakest as well. In the Cell arc, her present day version notably never fights anyone after Vegeta (until the Boo arc.) 18 spends the rest of the arc on the road, in hiding, or absorbed.
9 No. 17
Bizarrely, Android 17 doesn’t even appear in the Cell arc after he’s absorbed. He spends most of the arc a major character and doesn’t even get an exit unlike No. 18. While Trunks suggests that 17 and 18 are close in power, the former holds firm that he’s the stronger of the two Artificial Humans.
His fight against Piccolo seems to suggest that this is indeed the case, as he’s able to go toe to toe with a Piccolo who’s merged with God. On the flip-side, 18 was only about equal with the early Cell arc Vegeta. This alone is enough to suggest that 17’s claims of superiority were indeed true.
8 No. 16
Unfortunately, Android 17 isn’t enough to take on Imperfect Cell, prompting No. 16 to participate in his only major fight in the series. 16 lives up to his appearance, offering Cell one of the most underrated fights in the franchise. 16 manages to manhandle him quite well even if he does fail to ultimately stop Cell.
Of note, it seems that 16 would have been strong enough to take on a freshly awakened Cell. Even 17 likely could have handled him considering Imperfect Cell was seemingly weaker than Piccolo. It’s a bit sad Android 16 only gets one fight in the main series. At least it’s a good one.
Merging with God ends up being the last major thing Piccolo does in Dragon Ball. He finally becomes the Namekian he once was, embraces every facet of his identity, and goes to face Cell a new man. This strength allows Piccolo to keep the spotlight on him for quite a while, only losing it once Cell intervenes in his fight against 17.
A fight that Piccolo likely would have won if 17 didn’t have infinite stamina. Piccolo actually goes into the Room of Spirit and Time before the Cell Games, implying that he does get stronger by the end of the arc. Tragically, Goku doesn’t even register Piccolo’s new strength as a meaningful blip on his radar.
6 Cell Junior
Cell Juniors are strong enough to beat down a weakened Goku, but too weak to take out a healthy Vegeta or Trunks. At the same time, guidebooks place them at around the same strength as Cell which seems to contradict their manga feats. The best course of action is to go with the latter, but to assume the Cell Juniors are reasonably strong.
They must be to some degree considering how badly they beat up Goku. Goku used up a lot of energy in his fight against Cell, but he never got seriously injured. Even then, that’s enough for a Cell Junior to do serious damage. It is still strange that Trunks and Vegeta hold their own so well, but they did both go into the RoSaT again separately.
Although Trunks might have Super Saiyan Grade 3 to his name, making him technically physically stronger than Cell, it’s not actually that useful of a form. It’s so bad, in fact, Vegeta likely realized its drawbacks and chose to focus only on Grade 2. Trunks goes into his fight against Cell too overconfident as a result.
He’s able to pull it back together by the arc’s end, though, and Trunks manages to save his timeline single handedly. In terms of power, he likely left the main timeline incredibly close to Vegeta’s own Battle Power. The two trained so closely, after all, and there don’t seem to be many power discrepancies between them.
At the same time, it’s made quite clear that Vegeta ultimately is the stronger of the two. He’s more skilled, more experienced, and he doesn’t need Grade 3 to compete with Cell. Of course, his Grade 2 isn’t enough either and the gap between Goku & Vegeta by the end of the arc is… overwhelming, to say the least.
Which is funny since Vegeta actually enters the arc a stronger Super Saiyan than Goku. Goku spends quite literally almost all of the arc weaker than Vegeta. It isn’t until Goku exits the Room of Spirit and Time that the tide turns. From there, Vegeta doesn’t catch up again until Resurrection F.
3 Son Goku
Goku spends most of the arc out of commission, but it’s for good reason. After becoming the legendary Super Saiyan, any fight with him would naturally come down to the transformation. Goku getting the Heart Virus also adds a layer of morbidity to an already dark story arc. In the end, he isn’t strong enough to defeat Cell, but he puts up an amazing fight.
Goku’s fight against Cell plays out like a swan song for Dragon Ball’s main character, Toriyama’s way of saying goodbye before briefly passing the torch onto Gohan. While Goku may not end the arc the strongest character, he manages to hold onto a spot in the top three— his last one for the original series.
Pretty much any and every arc villain will be near the top of any arc ranking. That’s ultimately just the nature of Dragon Ball villains and Cell is no different. At least in that regard. As far as villains go, he’s rather unique. He starts out weaker than the entire main cast and has to actively work to make himself stronger.
By the end of the arc, not even Goku can compete with Perfect Cell. Considering he’s made up of Goku’s, Vegeta’s, Piccolo’s, Freeza’s, and King Cold’s DNA, it only makes sense that Cell is so strong. He’s made up of basically the five strongest people in the entire unique. How can he not be freakishly strong?
1 Son Gohan
When all is said and done, though, no one in the Cell arc can even compete with Gohan. By the end of the arc, his Super Saiyan 1 form is presumably strong enough to handle Perfect Cell. Super Saiyan 2 is just Gohan’s version of overkill, he didn’t even need the power up most likely. With one arm, Gohan is still strong enough to take out Perfect Cell.
This is really the culmination of Gohan’s character arc in the Saiyan and Freeza arcs. He’s finally become the main character. It won’t last, of course, but it’s a nice moment for Gohan and even though he’s not very present within the arc, Toriyama does a good job at passing the torch from Goku to Gohan.