[Top 15] Dragon Ball Best Episodes

Best Dragon Ball Episodes
Goku takes his fighting stance at the World Martial Arts Tournament. Copyright 1987, Toei Animation.

Want to know why this franchise has such adoring fans? See for yourself!

Things have been heating up in the Dragon Ball saga — its ongoing manga Dragon Ball Super currently has the heroic Goku and friends fighting Moro, an energy-stealing wizard who threatens their universe. It’s such a development, in fact, that I feel the need to mark the occasion (and to show the fence sitters among you what this series has to offer). In that spirit, I present the top fifteen most iconic episodes of the Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z animes, in order of their first broadcast appearance.

(As for any of you who hate the franchise, well…sorry, I got nothin’ for ya. Why’d you even click the link?)

15. “The Secret of the Dragon Balls” – Dragon Ball, Ep. #1 (series premiere)

Goku: Orphan, Survivalist, Monkey-Child

Episode Summary:

What better a place to start than at the very beginning? It’s here that we first meet our excitable protagonist Son Goku, who begins his story as a mountain-dwelling orphan with extraordinary strength. His fate would be forever changed, though, after a chance encounter with teenager Bulma sends the two on a quest for wish-granting orbs called Dragon Balls.

What Makes “The Secret of the Dragon Balls” Awesome: 

•    We in the audience meet Goku for the first time, learn a bit about his origins, and see that he was a gung-ho kind of guy from the very beginning.
•    It shows how Goku and Bulma first meet in what is the start of a long, hilarious, and ultimately amazing friendship.
•    It establishes the playful-yet-action-packed tone that all future Dragon Ball properties would ultimately share.

14. “The Nimbus Cloud of Roshi” – Dragon Ball, Ep. #3

Roshi, Master of Martial Arts (and Perversion)

Episode Summary:

After rescuing a talking turtle, Goku and Bulma are rewarded by its mysterious owner. Who is it, you ask? Why, the one-and-only ‘Turtle Hermit’, Master Roshi! For their troubles, Roshi grants Goku the Flying Nimbus, a magic cloud that only the pure-hearted can ride, and Bulma the Three-Star Dragon Ball. (Some weird emperor and his flunkies also show up at one point, but there’s no way they’ll matter later.)

What Makes “The Nimbus Cloud of Roshi” Awesome:

•    The audience is introduced to the eccentric dirty old man Master Roshi. More than meets the eye, he’ll eventually train Goku in martial arts and become a trusted ally.
•    Goku receives the Flying Nimbus, who’ll soon become one of his constant companions. (*whispers under breath* Until the Saiyans arrive…)
•    It shows further insight into how Goku truly is a good person, at least when he’s not being a fool.

13. “The Kamehameha Wave” – Dragon Ball, Ep. #8

"Roshi Smash!"

Episode Summary:

(A little aside here — remember how kids in the 90’s sometimes made weird poses while yelling “Kamehameha!” really slowly? Yeah, that started with this episode.)

When Goku can’t use the Bansho fan to put out Fire Mountain’s flames, Master Roshi decides to put them out himself by using the  Kamehameha Wave technique. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned (see the clip above), but the Ox King lets Bulma have the Seven-Star Dragon Ball anyway. Also, Goku masters the Kamehameha Wave, despite Roshi having taken fifty years to do so himself. (Tough break.)

What makes “The Kamehameha Wave” Awesome:

•    The episode shows Roshi’s hidden depths when he Hulks Out and performs the Kamehameha Wave. Also, how much of a klutz he is when he beefs it.
•    It reveals how Goku learned what would become his signature fighting move. 
•    It gave countless children of late 90’s America a constructive pastime: trying to make stuff explode with energy blasts. Oh, uh, but not me. (*looks away*)

12. “A Wish to the Eternal Dragon” – Dragon Ball, Ep. # 12-13 (1st season finale)

You actually pointed at the thing you didn't want Goku to see? 

Episode Summary: 

Pilaf, pissed that his wish was thwarted by an underpants gag that hasn’t aged well, sentences our heroes to death. But, just when hope seems lost, Goku turns into a giant ape creature when he looks at the full moon! He then promptly goes ape shit (couldn’t resist), as ape monsters typically do. 

What Makes “A Wish to the Eternal Dragon” Awesome:

•    It marks the first appearance of the Eternal Dragon Shenron, the wish-granter of the Dragon Balls. He’ll go on to bring the thunder numerous times in the series…and the clouds, and the lightning, etc.
•    It gives the audience a hint besides his tail that Goku might not be human. 
•    It gives said hint through a fun homage to King Kong!

11. “The Grand Finals” – Dragon Ball, Ep. # 26 – 28 (2nd Season Finale)

Goku at his fightin'est finest. 

Episode Summary: 

Thanks to Master Roshi’s tutelage, Goku has made his way to the final round of the 21st World Martial Arts Tournament! However, his opponent is the mysterious Jackie Chun, who looks suspiciously like a certain hermit we all know.  As their fight goes on, no one knows what’ll happen — will Goku win the match, or will Chun turn the tables on him?

What Makes “The Grand Finals” Awesome:

•    Goku has his first serious fight against Master Roshi, though he himself doesn’t know it since the latter is in disguise. 
•    Roshi shows that he truly wants to bring out the best in his pupil, and is willing to risk injury and copyright laws to do it. Plus, his wig is cool.
•    Roshi blows up the friggin’ moon, and *still* has enough energy to beat Goku! Say what you will about the perverted geezer, but that’s…wow.

10. “Goku Hangs On” – Dragon Ball, Ep. # 147-148

They always said Goku was headstrong...

Episode Summary:

In the final round of the 23rd World Martial Arts tournament, Goku faces off against Piccolo Jr., the reincarnation of an evil slug-man (it’s a long story). Their fight is a tough one, and just when it seems Piccolo has won, Goku finally manages to knock him out of the (destroyed) ring with a headbutt!  And thus, Goku officially earns the title of ‘World’s Strongest Earthling’ for the very first time!

What Makes “Goku Hangs On” Awesome:

•    This fight between Goku & Piccolo is some of the first foreshadowing of the destructive fights that’ll happen in later Dragon Ball installments.
•    Goku reveals he can now fly (and prompts Flying Nimbus to count the days till his retirement).
•    It effectively ends the run of the original Dragon Ball anime on a high note (though post-script episodes also have Goku marrying Chi-Chi.)

9. “The Arrival of Raditz” – Dragon Ball Z, Ep. # 1-3 (Series Premiere)

Dragon Ball Z began with a twist right out of daytime soap operas, and yet it works!

Episode Summary:

It’s been five years since the 23rd World Martial Arts Tournament. On a whim, Goku decides to bring his son Gohan with him to Kame House to meet old friends. These good times end, unfortunately, when a strange man named Raditz arrives, shocking everyone with news that puts planet Earth in jeopardy! (He, uh, also kidnaps Gohan.)

What Makes “The Arrival of Raditz” Awesome:

•    This three-part premiere of Dragon Ball Z marks the franchise’s strong turn away from fantasy and towards science fiction.
•    It confirms that Goku really isn’t human, but rather a member of a nearly-extinct alien race known as the Saiyans.
•    Goku actually dies! Ok, wait, hear me out on this – it’s not his actual death that’s awesome, but that his death introduces us to the Dragon Ball universe’s afterlife (with folks like King Yemma and King Kai).

8. “The Return of Goku” – Dragon Ball Z, Ep. # 28-29

Piccolo, We Hardly Knew Ye

Episode Summary: 

Pushed to the brink by the Saiyan Nappa, Piccolo dies while sacrificing himself to save Gohan. Furthermore, as if to add insult to injury, this terrible event also results in the destruction of both Kami and the Dragon Balls.  It’s only after this tragic incident that Goku, freshly resurrected by said orbs just moments before, arrives to save the day. (Great timing there, buddy.)

What Makes “The Return of Goku” Awesome:

•    Piccolo’s sacrifice marks the major turn by which he would eventually become Goku’s ally and a permanent member of the Dragon Gang.
•    Goku immediately shows off the results of his training with King Kai, as he proceeds to wipe the floor with Nappa.
•    It’s the origin of that glorious meme, “IT’S OVER 9000!”

7. "Goku vs. Vegeta...A Saiyan Duel!" – Dragon Ball Z, Ep. # 30-31

Say hello to the Kaio-Ken!

Episode Summary:

Goku begins his battle with Saiyan elite Vegeta and, with the aid of his new Kaio-Ken technique (thanks King Kai!), manages to hold his own. Vegeta throws a hissy fit over this and tries to blow up Earth with his Galick Gun, which Goku counters with his own Kaio-Ken-powered Kamehameha Wave. Despite his success, Goku then has to contend with Vegeta’s transformation into a Great Ape.

What Makes “Goku vs. Vegeta…A Saiyan Duel!” Awesome:

•    Goku’s fight with Vegeta would start a fascinating years-long rivalry between the two, one that reaches into the franchise’s present day.
•    Vegeta’s Galick Gun verses Goku’s Kamehameha Wave is one of the most tense and action-packed scenes of the series. Many fans got goosebumps watching it for the first time.
•    This battle pushed Goku further than any he’d had before, including his bout with Raditz. He only manages to survive thanks to the intervention of Gohan, Krillin, and Yajirobe a few episodes later.

6. "Transformed at Last" – Dragon Ball Z, Ep. # 95

A dumb blonde, maybe, but a righteous one nonetheless.

Episode Summary:

Frieza’s seemingly down for the count from Goku’s Spirit Bomb! Before anyone can celebrate, though, Frieza returns to troll everyone by blowing up Krillin. Let’s just say that Goku doesn’t take too kindly to this move, as he then unlocks a power that most considered a myth – the ‘Super Saiyan’ form.

What Makes “Transformed at Last” Awesome:

•    It debuts the Dragon Ball canon’s most famous transformation, the Super Saiyan. Future power-ups exceed it in strength as the series progresses, but still draw inspiration from this golden, shining figure.
•    Goku makes peace with his Saiyan heritage and fights Frieza on behalf of his people.
•    There’s apparently no way to undo Krillin’s death, since Earth’s Dragon Balls can only resurrect someone once and Namek’s Dragon Balls are gone. That he died in agony just twists the knife further.

5. "The Mysterious Youth" – Dragon Ball Z, Ep. # 119-120

A mysterious stranger takes down Frieza.  

Episode Summary:

Goku’s friends eagerly await his return from space, as the lucky son-of-a-gun survived Namek’s explosion. Unfortunately, the same can be said for Frieza, who arrives on Earth as a misshapen cyborg hell-bent on revenge. Before he can take it, however, a mysterious teenager confronts him, turns into a Super Saiyan, and quickly slices and dices him.

What Makes “The Mysterious Youth” Awesome:

•    The introduction of the stranger was a real out-of-left-field development when this episode first aired, a real ‘wham’ moment.
•    Cyborg/Mecha Frieza’s design is downright comical. It really emphasizes how desperate the Frieza army was to save him from death.
•    The stranger beating Frieza so easily is equally comical. (If his strength really is similar to Goku’s, the latter must’ve really gone easy on Frieza.)

4. "His Name is Cell" – Dragon Ball Z, Ep. # 143

"Don't mind me, just finishing my drink."

Episode Summary:

So, time-traveler Trunks didn’t anticipate Androids 19 and 20; that this timeline’s Androids 17 and 18 are stronger than those of his own; or that Gero made an experimental Android 16. What else can go wrong? The answer is an unseen creature killing the inhabitants of Ginger Town, leaving behind only their discarded clothes. Newly-christened “Super Namekian” Piccolo is on the case, but what he discovers is far more disturbing than he anticipated.

What Makes “His Name is Cell” Awesome: 

•    The episode really leans into its sci-fi horror influences, especially Alien, making the introduction of the titular ‘Cell’ all the more unsettling.
•    That man Cell is clutching when he first meets Piccolo? Cell, uh, ‘drinks’ the poor guy until the latter is literally skin and bones and then evaporates. (Try not to have nightmares, kids!)
•    Cell would go on to be one of the more legitimately creepy villains of the franchise, even after his subsequent transformations.

3. “The Awakening” – Dragon Ball Z, Ep. # 185

Sorry Gohan, but Android 16 was just too good for this sinful Earth...

Episode Summary: 

Well, you gone and done it now, Cell! Once everyone’s favorite bird-loving android gets his head smashed in, Gohan awakens his hidden power to wipe the smug look off Cell’s face. That the latter gets more than he bargained for is an understatement. (Those poor Cell Jr.’s…)

What Makes “The Awakening” Awesome:

•    This episode shows when Gohan definitively moved from being a sheltered, scared child to being a righteous warrior who fights for justice.
•    Goku’s bat-shit crazy plan to have his 11-year-old son fight a psychopath who could destroy the planet actually worked! 
•    It’s the end for Cell. (Yes, Cell does come back stronger after self-destructing, but Gohan’s Kamehameha Wave is still what kills him.)

2. “Final Atonement” – Dragon Ball Z, Ep. # 237

Vegeta at his most Goku-like.

Episode Summary:

After spending his time in the series thus far being a colossal jerkass (even after becoming a member of the Dragon Gang), Vegeta finally does something heroic. In an effort to destroy Majin Buu, as well as to protect his family, he turns himself into a power bomb that should kill both himself and Buu. Piccolo, himself a reformed evildoer, bears witness and hopes for Vegeta’s victory.

What Makes “Final Atonement” Awesome:

•    This sacrifice marks Vegeta’s true turn into one of the good guys. Up until now he’d been, at best, bumming around Earth because he had nowhere else to go and still wanted to surpass Goku, but this is true heroism.
•    That the following episode shows Majin Buu surviving the blast while Vegeta’s body crumbles makes the sacrifice a truly heart wrenching scene.
•    The Majin Buu storyline would ultimately vindicate Vegeta’s decision, as it gives him a chance to come back and help Goku kill the pink menace.

1. "Spirit Bomb Triumphant" – Dragon Ball Z, Ep. # 286

Bibidi, Babidi, Buu, sayonara to the three of you!

Episode Summary:

It’s time to say bye-bye, (Kid) Buu! Goku — with help from his friends, planet Earth, and Purunga the Namekian Dragon — uses his Spirit Bomb to obliterate the evil Buu once and for all. With all threats now vanquished, the Dragon Gang can finally relax and begin to heal their planet. (And maybe the Kais’ planet too, ‘cause yeesh, that’ll be a hell of a clean-up job.)

What Makes “Spirit Bomb Triumphant” Awesome: 

•    It marks the end of the last major conflict in the Dragon Ball Z anime, essentially bringing it to an end. Sure, there’re a few episodes afterward, but those are more of an epilogue to the show than anything.
•    Even as Goku destroys his foe, his good-hearted nature shows through as he wishes for Buu to reincarnate as a good person with whom he can spar. 
•    The series finally stops teasing us, as audiences finally get to see the Spirit Bomb technique actually beat someone rather than just injure them a bit.

I truly hope you’ve enjoyed the list I put together! However, I’ll acknowledge that these are my own top fifteen episodes, rather than anything official; your own might look different! If you want to let us know what your top episodes of Dragon Ball are, feel free to comment and discuss below!

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Delighted at sharing his name with Middle-Earth's most faithful companion, Sam takes his own journeys into stories and games with the hope of sharing them with the world.
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