Version tested: PSP
It's hard not to love The Apprentice. Some things, though, simply do not lend themselves to the medium of video games. We can fully imagine a virtual Sir Alan Sugar telling us we're fired after we fail some half-assed coin-collecting mini-game and just thinking about this potential buggery of car crash television's finest hour makes us very sad. The worst part is that it'll probably happen, too. At the other end of the spectrum, though, there are shows that may as well have been created with licensed games in mind. Time, it seems, for this review to attain some degree of relevance then, as the long-running Dragon Ball series is just such a specimen. Over the years, games tied into the popular anime have ranged from borderline unplayable to pretty damn good and more recently, the Budokai series has evolved from tepid beginnings to become a genuinely entertaining fighting game by its third instalment. And so with the expected array of tweaks and refinements, the series now moves into a smaller and more portable new home with rather pleasing results.
The downscaling process hasn't harmed the look of the game one bit and Shin Budokai is as good an example of cel-shading as the PSP is likely to see for some time. Buttons map perfectly to the handheld and even though newcomers might be initially overwhelmed by the way battles zip around the skies and all over the place, the whole combat system is nowhere near as complex as it seems. In fact, it's hard to see how the game could be any easier to pick up and play. The Ki gauge plays a major part, allowing all manner of attacks and evasive manoeuvres - simple Ki Blasts (small fireballs, if you will), teleport dodges and attacks, transformations into more powerful forms and massive special attacks consume gauge proportionate to their usefulness. By holding the left shoulder button, it's possible to focus and charge the meter while the opposite trigger drains it in exchange for Aura Blasts that enable quicker movement, stronger attacks and guard breaks.
While the sumptuous cel-shaded visuals might imply that Shin Budokai is a somewhat basic fighter, this couldn't be further from the truth. It's fair to say that the combo system itself - a traditional set of strings and chains - can be filed under S for 'simple' but even though the game can be enjoyed and played to a fair standard with just a strong grasp of the basics, you'll find as many advanced techniques here as you would in any traditional 2D beat-'em-up. Kara-cancelling (quickly cancelling a basic attack into a throw or special for increased range), buffering moves and all manner of cancels are present and correct and it really is a joy to see such detail in what could easily have been left as a simplistic fighting game. Using the guard button (defaults to X) to cancel charged moves can be tough, since the main basic attacks that can be cancelled are activated by holding the triangle button, so unless you have the world's thinnest fingers or a third hand, that combo is pretty tricky. Through practice or reconfiguration, it is possible but unless you're playing a human opponent, there's not much demand for such trickery anyway - it's unlikely to fool AI opponents as it would a real player.
It's not all good news, though. With the capsule system that added longevity to the PS2 games (admittedly at the cost of balance) gone, just a couple of characters to unlock to complete the roster (not including the various transformation levels that can be opened up) and your bog-standard array of fighting game modes, there really isn't that much here to keep you coming back for more. The emphasis on unlockables is all wrong too - the only things to spend your hard-earned on are bits of art and such to make your profile card (which is only used in multiplayer) look pretty, which is basically pointless. But it seems wrong to dwell on the negatives when the game has so much going for it. This is a flashy and technically sound beat-'em-up and its drawbacks are largely overshadowed by what is the strongest interpretation of the Dragon Ball Z anime in years. Until Tekken and Def Jam roll into town (assuming that they translate well to the PSP), Shin Budokai can stand alongside Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX as one of the strongest fighting games the Sony handheld has in its catalogue. No need for anyone to get fired this week, then.
7 / 10