SPOILER WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for "Dragon Ball Z."
Created by Akira Toriyama, "Dragon Ball Z" is a sequel to the original "Dragon Ball" series, following the escapades of a stranded alien warrior, Goku, as he fights various threats alongside his friends, with many battles often waged for the fate of Earth itself. Seeking to become the strongest fighter in the universe, Goku continually trains to surpass any challengers who come his way.
The show, which recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its U.S. television debut, quickly became a global phenomenon, spanning an astounding 291 episodes, 15 films, 57 video games, and counting. Like Pokemon, it became one of the most popular mainstream anime series outside of Japan, spawning various memes and GIFs in reference to iconic moments in the show. With its fast pace, high-flying action and comedic moments, "Dragon Ball Z" is everything you could want in an animated action series.
To commemorate the occasion, CBR counts down some of the most unforgettable moments in "Dragon Ball Z" history that wowed fans and allowed this long-running series to make such a global impact. Because the main focus is "DBZ" itself, the list will not include moments from the original "Dragon Ball" series or its current iteration, "Dragon Ball Super."
And so, without further ado, here’s a look at some of the most unforgettable moments in this action-packed spectacle.
10 Death of Goku
After having his son abducted by his evil Saiyan brother Raditz, Goku is forced to team up with his former archenemy, Piccolo, to save his son. After a hard struggle, Goku sacrifices himself, allowing Piccolo to land the final blow at the cost of his own life. Luckily, the gang had a plan to revive Goku using the wish provided by Shenron, the all-powerful creature who gives the Dragon Balls their name.
This was one of the biggest moments in the series, and the first time we truly witness an older Goku against an opponent that was simply too much for him to handle. Adding even more drama is the fact that his opponent is his long-lost brother, who reveals the truth behind Goku’s origins: that he is a Saiyan, a race of battle-thirsty warriors seeking to conquer everything in their path.
It is also a charged family moment, given that Goku has to leave his son Gohan behind in the care of his former adversary Piccolo. It is this turn of events that kicks off the Saiyan saga, as warriors more powerful than Raditz start to journey toward Earth seeking the power of the wish-granting Dragon Balls.
9 The Ginyu Farce
With the destruction of Earth’s Dragon Balls as a result of Piccolo’s death, Goku and his friends who survived the Saiyan threat decide to head to Planet Namek to use its Dragon Balls to restore Earth’s. But they’re not the only party interested in gathering them, as the evil Emperor Frieza seeks to use them for his own gain. With conquest on his mind, the purple, horned space devil sends his much-vaunted Ginyu Force to stop them. But they didn’t account for one factor: Goku.
En route to Planet Namek, a journey which takes roughly a month to complete, Goku undergoes intense training in preparation for the inevitable fight against Frieza and his forces. The result? He single-handedly defeats the Ginyu Force with ease, including its leader, the titular Captain Ginyu. It's readily apparent that Goku is stronger than when he fought Nappa and Vegeta back on Earth, signifying the amazing amount of growth he is capable of as a Saiyan warrior.
Goku’s arrival on Namek fully signals that the fight has been brought to Namek, just as his defeat of the Ginyu Force heralds the official beginning of the Frieza saga, where the evil emperor decides to enter the fray to defeat the Saiyans and his friends personally.
8 Goku & Piccolo vs. Driving School
While known for its high-flying, intense action and unprecedented screaming during power-ups, "Dragon Ball Z" is also well-regarded for its comedy, at least during the moments when Goku and his friends aren’t fighting for their lives. In one infamous example of this downtime, Goku and his former nemesis Piccolo take on a challenge that is much more difficult than either expect: driving school!
Chi-Chi, Goku’s wife, is sick of hauling groceries and tending to their countryside home without help from her husband, who feels the need to constantly train all day long. She commands him (and Piccolo, who happens to be with Goku at the time) to go to the DMV and get their licenses. Swapping their training gear for street clothes (featuring Piccolo's much-cosplayed "Postboy" sweater and backwards-cap combo), the two head to the Department of Motor Vehicles, with comedically disastrous results.
While this infamous filler episode is a one-off, it still deserves a spot on this list, not just for the sheer inanity of its misadventure, but as an example of how diverse "Dragon Ball Z" could be in terms of tone.
7 Over 9,000!
Against Nappa, viewers finally witness the first true test of Goku’s training under King Kai, who had the newly revived Saiyan training on a surface with gravity 10 times that of Earth’s. Needless to say, the results were astounding. As Goku rushes to aid his friends, he still arrives just too late, as Nappa has virtually eliminated most of the Z Fighters, with the exception of Piccolo, Krillin and Gohan. Using his newfound training, Goku makes quick work of the ill-tempered Nappa, and wastes no time taking out the evil Saiyan on the way to facing off against Vegeta, the vaunted and vile Saiyan Prince.
More than perhaps any other action anime series, "Dragon Ball Z" is known for its characters' well-documented training regimens. This is the first of many extreme instances, as Goku undergoes significant training in preparation for seemingly impossibly-powerful opponents, whom he subsequently defeats. This is also the moment from which the classic “It’s over 9,000!” meme originates. For that alone, the internet should be eternally grateful.
6 Perfect Cell
The Cell Saga was arguably "Dragon Ball Z" at its absolute best. This thrilling story arc pitted the Z-Fighters against a unique android known as Cell, a being from the future, created by the scientist Dr. Gero, who contained the best genetic qualities and abilities of every Z-Fighter. In essence, he was created to be the perfect being on Earth. However, reaching the full state of his maturity and true potential required the absorption of two twin androids by the numerical names of 17 and 18.
Thanks to some untimely arrogance from Vegeta, who was eager to see Cell fight at his true potential, Cell is able to successfully absorb both androids, after which his transformation is complete. What the Z-Fighters get as a result is an opponent none of them can match, easily outpacing the likes of Vegeta and Trunks. Cell's matured state shows us just how perfect he is. Armed with regeneration abilities, super speed and unbelievable combat prowess, Cell makes the endless training from and the other fighters seem worthless. His ascension also marks the beginning of his arrogant and self-sponsored Cell Games, which contains perhaps one of the biggest shining moments for a character not named Goku. More on that in a bit.
5 Vegeta's Sacrifice
If ever Vegeta truly got the spotlight, it was here, as the former Saiyan Prince laid his life on the line to save the planet he once sought to conquer for himself.
With many of the Z-Fighters incapacitated fighting the alien wizard Babadi’s forces, Vegeta, who had partially succumbed to the sorcerer's mind control, prepared to face the newly resurrected Majin Buu alone. Despite his newfound power, the Saiyan was unable to overcome Buu’s regeneration abilities. Finding no other way to win, the former Saiyan Prince decided to sacrifice himself in a massive explosion to eliminate every trace of the evil creature, culminating in one of the most epic acts of selflessness portrayed by Vegeta to date in the DBZ series.
Vegeta’s sacrifice demonstrated more than an act to defeat a strong opponent. It was a representation of how far the once selfish and arrogant man had come since it was his mission to destroy Earth. He was transformed, now an honorable man with a wife, a son and a new life on a planet he never expected to have. The symbolic nature of Vegeta’s ultimate sacrifice remains one of the most iconic moments for his character, not to mention one of the greatest moments in DBZ history.
4 Future Trunks
One year removed from battling him on the planet Namek, the Z-fighters suddenly sense that Frieza is set to return to take his revenge on Earth, this time alongside his father, King Cold. However, as the family of universal despots land, a mysterious young man with a sword strapped to his back appears before them, claiming to be a Saiyan. Laughing him off, the two alien warlords attempt to attack, but are easily evaded by the stranger, who kills them with a thought (and a sword).
Not long after, Goku returns from his self-imposed journey through space, safe and sound, just in time to learn that Trunks is the future son of Goku's enemy-turned-sparring partner, the cantankerous Vegeta. Trunks reveals that he has travelled from the future, bringing word that a new threat -- a group of evil Androids -- will appear on Earth in roughly three years in their current timeline. He has also brought medicine that will cure an as-yet unnoticed illness that would have otherwise killed each crucial member of the team.
Trunks’ reveal is not only surprising because he could go Super Saiyan with relative ease, but also for the fact that he is the son of Vegeta and Bulma, who were not even together at the point he arrives. His appearance also sets the wheels turning for two major story arcs: the Android Saga and the Cell Saga, both of which Trunks plays a major role in as he becomes part of a fight that transcends time itself.
3 Goku vs. Vegeta: Round One
While the freshly-trained Goku dispatched Nappa without any problems, facing his partner Vegeta would not be such an easy task. In fact, it would be this fight that forever set the rivalry between the two proud Saiyans.
Vaunted as the prince of the Saiyan race, Vegeta pushes Goku to his utmost limits, such that he is forced to unveil a new technique taught to him by King Kai. When employed, the Kaio-ken power surrounds Goku in a red aura that signifies a boost in his strength, speed and ki techniques multiple times over. Having been the first person to master the technique, Goku gains the advantage over Vegeta, but its power comes with a hefty price tag. Prolonged use of Kaio-ken puts a strain on his body, even after all of King Kai’s training. Still, the reveal of Kaio-ken is significant, as it is the first technique Goku learns in the series and arguably the most vaunted and iconic of Goku’s techniques outside of the Kamehameha wave.
This fight is also one of the first instances where viewers bear witness to some of the fast-paced, scream-heavy, energy blast-filled combat so iconic and integral to the "Dragon Ball Z" brand. It also introduces Vegeta, who, from this point on, begins his slow transition from villain to anti-hero to one of the main protagonists of the series. It also serves to remind long-time fans just how far his character development goes, as his rivalry with Goku drives Vegeta not just to be a better warrior, but a better man.
2 Gohan: Super Saiyan II
Up to this point in DBZ, Gohan’s potential as a fighter was constantly teased, but never fully realized. From his training with Piccolo, there was always an idea of some greater power sleeping within the young half-Saiyan that could surpass even that of Goku.
That potential is brought to bear when Gohan takes on Cell during the Cell Games. At first, despite his immense training with Goku prior and his new Super Saiyan abilities, Gohan’s passive nature holds him back from gaining the upper hand against the super-powered android. However, thanks to encouragement from the benevolent Android 16, Gohan is able to fully release his restraints and take on Perfect Cell, easily outpacing the android despite his superior genetic material and techniques. Gohan’s power is such that a single punch to the stomach makes Cell regurgitate Android 18, making him revert to his previous form.
This fight remains one of Gohan’s biggest moment in the series. Up to this point, the half-Saiyan (mostly thanks to his age) is often passive in fights. Seeing his potential finally realized was a shining moment for DBZ fans, especially when his power was said to have exceeded that of his own full-blooded Saiyan father.
1 Goku: Super Saiyan
This is it: the moment that set "Dragon Ball Z" apart, not just from its predecessor, but from any other animated series that found its way to American shores. It is, by far, the most important moment in the entire series.
Having survived a Spirit Bomb attack from Goku, the malicious Frieza proceeds to savagely kill Goku's lifelong best friend, Krillin. It was this emotionally-charged moment that acted as a catalyst for Goku, who was able to overcome life-threatening injuries and finally unlock a form more powerful than any other in the known universe: Super Saiyan. Radiating an intense yellow and some rockin' blonde hair, Goku prepares to settle matters with Frieza once and for all, with planet Namek and the entire universe at stake. In terms of epic "Dragon Ball Z" moments, it simply has no equal.
Easily the most iconic moment in the series that blew the notion of power levels right off its hinges, the Super Saiyan reveal introduced an entirely new structure of fighting that laid the foundation for the future of the series. It was the first level of many more to come, a narrative fulcrum around which the series continued to swing, and it made fans wonder just how much power this universe had to offer. To date, that is a question that remains happily unanswered.
What are your favorite DBZ moments? Charge up your ki and let us know in the Kaio-comments!