Few anime series have had a bigger impact on the anime industry and anime culture than the Dragon Ball franchise.
What started out as a simple gag manga to follow up on Akira Toriyama’s successful Dr. Slump series grew into a worldwide phenomenon that has captured generations of fans—going beyond just manga and anime, but also into toys, movies, and video games.
Dragon Ball is the most well-known shonen anime/manga property of all time, with almost 500 chapters in the original manga run and nearly 300 original anime episodes before it was later revived as Dragon Ball Super in 2015 (nearly two decades after the original went off the air).
Most Dragon Ball fans group the different storylines into “Sagas,” which are long-running narratives made up of smaller story arcs. For example, the Frieza Saga—which runs from manga chapter 242 to 329—consists of the smaller Namek, Ginyu, and Frieza Arcs.
Looking deeper than just the sagas, which Dragon Ball story arcs remain the best? Which ones encapsulate the essence of Dragon Ball and embody all the best bits that keep the anime community hooked?
Here’s our take on the best Dragon Ball story arcs of all time, from every series we’ve been graced with to this point.
4. The Cell Arc
Throughout the Dragon Ball story, Akira Toriyama constantly tried to change up the design of the enemies facing Goku and his friends. With Cell, he was able to create a villain that constantly changed and grew more dangerous as time went on.
From his first appearance as an unknown specter absorbing entire cities to the moment he assumes Perfect Cell form, Cell combines the power of Earth’s strongest fighters with the maliciousness of Frieza and the pride of Vegeta, making him a formidable yet overconfident enemy.
While it’s Cell who proves to be the greatest threat faced up to that point, it’s Gohan who gives this storyline its defining moment. His explosive anger—always a minor plot point until then—takes center stage.
The young fighter is thrust to the forefront of the battle against Cell, taking significant damage until he’s pushed over the edge and assumes a new level of Super Saiyan in one of the most dramatic transformations in the history of anime.
The ensuing fight is largely one-sided, culminating with the iconic Father-Son Kamehameha and setting Gohan up as the hero of future adventures.
3. The King Piccolo Arc
Before it became a story about aliens punching faster than people can even see, Dragon Ball was a martial arts manga with some of the most interesting fight choreography of its time.
That’s never clearer than in the fight against King Piccolo. The arc opens up in the aftermath of the World Martial Arts tournament, with Krillin dying at the hands of a mysterious assailant. Soon the world is under threat from an ancient evil that has become unsealed from its prison.
No other arc in Dragon Ball’s run combined the comedy of its early chapters with the action that would come to define the show in later years. Roshi and Tien attempting to seal Piccolo in a rice cooker? That kind of absurdity helped balance an incredibly tense arc.
The world had been under threat before, but always from the nebulous forces of the Red Ribbon Army or the incompetent forces of Emperor Pilaf. King Piccolo not only wanted to take over the world, but he pulled it off—and managed to overwhelm Goku before he returned to finish him off.
2. The Saiyan Arc
Though this arc begins what’s known as Dragon Ball Z in the West, there’s actually no distinction in Japan.
One week, Goku is defeating Piccolo Jr. in the World Martial Arts Tournament. The next week, an alien named Raditz lands on the planet who claims to be the hero’s brother and sets the stage for one of the biggest tonal shifts in any anime series ever.
From here on out, the humor is toned down, the stakes grow bigger, and power levels become a thing for the first time. The Saiyan Arc serves as the big shift into what Dragon Ball would be known for.
This is the last time characters like Tien, Yamcha, and Chiaotzu play a significant part in the story. It also sets up Gohan and Piccolo’s relationship, which would go on to define both characters in later arcs.
The seeds are planted for Gohan’s great potential, which would pay off during his fight against Cell. And the battle against Vegeta? That would be the last time a victory is truly gained due to group effort, with Goku, Gohan, Krillin, and even lazy Yajirobi all playing a part.
It doesn’t have quite the influence of the fight against Frieza later on, but that fight couldn’t have happened without this arc setting it up.
1. The Frieza Arc
The fight against Frieza is one of the most iconic battles in anime history, with multiple moments forever etched into the minds of fans and all the shonen stories that would come after.
Frieza is an unstoppable force who was so powerful that he could boss the fearsome Vegeta around without any concern. Akira Toriyama based the character on what he considered to be the “worst kind of people”: real estate speculators.
The villain goes through several transformations (which turns him into the source of the transformation trope that’s common in shonen anime) before he settles on his final form, which is sleek and small in stature.
Still, Frieza proves too much even for a newly revived and more powerful Goku to handle—at least up until he makes the mistake of killing the Saiyan’s best friend, Krillin. The surge of rage that followed was enough to bring about Goku’s iconic Super Saiyan transformation.
This arc sits atop our list solely for that moment when Goku’s eyes turn blue, his hair goes golden, and anime is changed forever. No other story in anime history has been more influential than Goku vs. Frieza!