Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball has grown into one of the most popular and long-running anime series of all time. The milestones that Dragon Ball continues to set are exciting for fans, but they also add more material to what’s already an unruly series for newcomers. There are hundreds of episodes in the various Dragon Ball series, all of which are divided into dozens of thrilling story arcs and sagas.
There are many highlights spread across these episodes, but it can be difficult and time-consuming to actually revisit every single installment. However, as long-time fans can attest, Dragon Ball’s greatest episodes truly stand apart from the rest.
Updated February 22nd, 2023 by Daniel Kurland: Dragon Ball has been able to entertain its audience for more than three decades and its tremendous amount of content plays a major factor in its longevity. There are nearly 650 episodes between the various Dragon Ball series, which can be both exciting and intimidating to any newcomers. Dragon Ball’s fans may wish to rewatch every episode, but when there’s this much content, a little selective discretion can go a long way. Whether it’s because of their action or purely on a level of enjoyment, certain Dragon Ball episodes hit harder than others..
15 “The Fallen”
Dragon Ball, Episode 101
The original Dragon Ball’s 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament leads to some of the series’ most thrilling installments. “The Fallen” is the culmination of this chaos and the start of something dark and new. “The Fallen” features the epic conclusion to the final match in the tournament between Goku and Tien, where the latter just narrowly manages to win.
Goku and Tien’s fight alone would be enough to make “The Fallen” a classic. However, it concludes with a terrifying cliffhanger where Krillin is unexpectedly executed, a Dragon Ball gets stolen, and the horrors of Demon King Piccolo begin.
14 “Change! An Unexpected Return! His Name Is Ginyu!!”
Dragon Ball Super, Episode 22
Dragon Ball Super has proven itself to be a satisfying extension to Dragon Ball Z, but the sequel series also features some familiar faces from its predecessor and some unexpected payoffs. Captain Ginyu and his body-swapping ability leave him trapped in a frog when he’s last seen in Dragon Ball Z.
Dragon Ball Super inexplicably brings back the Ginyu frog who finally gets another shot at life after he commandeers Tagoma’s body. Dragon Ball Super’s second arc is so focused on Golden Frieza, but this tyrant’s return has become overdone at this point. Ginyu’s comeback in “Change! An Unexpected Return! His Name Is Ginyu!!” is the saga’s highlight.
13 “Final Atonement”
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 237
Majin Buu proves to be a sufficiently taxing villain for Earth’s heroes in Dragon Ball Z. The heightened struggles against Super and Kid Buu result in a staggering body count. “Final Atonement” is often cited as one of the best episodes in the entirety of Dragon Ball, even if it makes for an emotionally devastating ride.
“Final Atonement’s” title refers to Majin Vegeta’s Final Explosion self-destruct maneuver, which he hopes will be enough to take Buu out with him. Unfortunately, Vegeta’s sacrifice falls short, but it’s a bold gesture that solidifies the character’s status as a hero.
12 “True Colors Of The Masked Man”
Dragon Ball, Episode 76
Tournaments become a common occurrence in Dragon Ball and it’s always entertaining when the stakes can be considerably lower and the competition becomes an excuse to show off creative new characters. Fortuneteller Baba’s Tournament puts Goku and friends up against a group of supernatural fighters that include a vampire and a mummy.
Baba’s masked fighter turns out to be the ghost of Grandpa Gohan. “True Colors of the Masked Man” contains this cathartic reveal, and it’s deeply endearing to see Goku and his fallen guardian figure get to enjoy each other’s company.
11 “Upgrade To Super Saiyan”
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 129
Dragon Ball Z’s “Upgrade To Super Saiyan” occurs during the infancy of the anime’s Android invasion and it introduces a startling new status quo. Android 19 comes across as initially intimidating, especially when he gains the upper hand against Goku, which audiences are not used to seeing following his Super Saiyan glow up.
What’s even more effective is Vegeta’s reveal that he too has become a Super Saiyan, as he proceeds to destroy the mechanical menace with ease. Vegeta’s Super Saiyan upgrade is great, but it’s rare to see him display strength superior to Goku’s.
10 “Recoome Unleashed”
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 64
Dragon Ball’s expedition to Planet Namek culminates in a suspenseful battle between Goku and Frieza, but the Ginyu Force also poses a serious threat before Frieza takes center stage. The time that’s spent with the Ginyu Force is enjoyable, but “Recoome Unleashed” is especially satisfying.
Following the aftermath of Vegeta’s quick murder of Guldo, he turns his efforts towards Recoome. Vegeta initially dominates, only to get beaten within an inch of his life. It’s a terrifying turn of events where Gohan is left to pick up the slack until Goku arrives.
9 “Goku Dies! An Assassination That Must Be Executed!”
Dragon Ball Super, Episode 71
One of Dragon Ball Super’s most rewarding decisions is the introduction of multiple universes. Many of the new characters from Universe 6 have quickly grown into fan favorites, with the legendary assassin Hit being chief among them. Hit’s “Time Skip” technique has turned him into a feared assassin.
“Goku Dies! An Assassination That Must Be Executed!” presents Hit at his most terrifying as Goku faces off against the powerful adversary. Dragon Ball Super really teases that Hit has actually taken out Goku, and while that’s obviously not the case, it’s still an incredibly suspenseful installment.
8 “Another Super Saiyan?”
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 120
Goku’s fight against Frieza on Planet Namek is the biggest battle that Dragon Ball has ever seen at that point, which makes it extremely surprising when the period of peace that follows afterward is cut short by the arrival of a rebuilt Frieza and his father, King Cold.
The heroes are especially panicked because Goku isn’t there to save the day either. Inexplicably, a new Super Saiyan, Future Trunks, shows up out of nowhere and defeats both of these figures with minimal effort. “Another Super Saiyan?” is a phenomenal introduction to Future Trunks and establishes the new standard of power
7 “This Is The Ultimate Battle Of All Universes! Son Goku Vs Jiren!!”
Dragon Ball Super, Episodes 109/110
Dragon Ball Super’s Tournament of Power provides an environment where dozens of the strongest warriors from across the universes fight against each other for survival. It’s not long into the competition that Goku recognizes Universe 11’s Jiren as his biggest hurdle.
The climax of the Tournament of Power finally pits Goku against Jiren, while also triggering his Ultra Instinct transformation for the first time. This showdown was treated as a one-hour event in Japan, “This is the Ultimate Battle in all the Universes! Son Goku vs Jiren!!,” which combines episodes 109 and 110 into this giant spectacle.
6 “Goku Strikes Back”
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 29
“Goku Strikes Back” isn’t far into Dragon Ball Z’s run, but it’s more or less the payoff to everything that’s come before it. Dragon Ball’s heroes have all been beaten by Nappa while Vegeta gleefully watches. Finally, Goku returns, and it’s incredibly cathartic to see his new strength and techniques utterly overwhelm the competition.
“Goku Strikes Back” allows Goku to defeat Nappa, but it also hints at Vegeta’s volatile temper and what a significant threat he will be. The episode is an excellent distillation of who both Goku and Vegeta are as characters.
5 “Transformed At Last”
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 95
The spectacle Super Saiyans’ new forms have taken over Dragon Ball, and it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when this power boost didn’t exist. New Super Saiyan reveals can often be abused, but Goku’s initial rage-fueled metamorphosis in “Transformed At Last” is still a highlight of the whole franchise.
Goku’s transformation is powerful, but this episode also includes the graphic death of Krillin and Piccolo’s sacrifice to save Goku. The Namek material is fantastic, but even the filler at King Kai’s Planet where Tien, Yamcha, and Chiaotzu best the Ginyu Force is a fulfilling subplot.
4 “Spirit Bomb Triumphant”
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 286
The heroes often have their work cut out for themselves when it comes to new villains, but the many different forms of Majin Buu leave Earth’s heroes particularly desperate. Super Buu introduces new levels of devastation and everything rides on Goku’s Super Spirit Bomb.
“Spirit Bomb Triumphant” is the extremely satisfying conclusion to Buu’s reign of terror. Goku’s status as a hero is firmly solidified as the Earth trusts him with their energy, including Vegeta, who concedes to Goku. “Spirit Bomb Triumphant” feels like the true conclusion to Dragon Ball Z,which makes the seven episodes that follow very awkward.
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 185
So much of Dragon Ball’s structure revolves around Goku eventually returning to the spotlight and being the one who saves the day. This makes the fallout of the battle against Cell such an exciting change of pace because it’s Gohan who gets to prove his strength and achieve a new transformation at the same time.
“Awakening” features the first glimpse of Super Saiyan 2, and this new version of Gohan is genuinely intimidating. He takes out all the Cell Juniors without even blinking and then turns his sights to the real thing.
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 28
“Goku’s Arrival,” like its title suggests, is significant because it marks Goku’s return to Earth to help out his friends just as they’re about to get completely overwhelmed by the Saiyan invasion. However, the name of the episode undersells its real highlight, Piccolo sacrificing himself to save Gohan from Nappa’s energy blast.
This gesture proves that Piccolo has truly become a hero, as he turns in his own life to keep Goku’s son safe. His death also means the passing of Kami and the loss of the Dragon Balls, which introduces new depths of hopelessness.
1 “The Long Awaited Fight”
Dragon Ball Z, Episode 230
There are a lot of dynamics to appreciate in Dragon Ball, but for many people, the undying friendly rivalry between Goku and Vegeta is one of the series’ most enjoyable relationships. The Buu Saga features a temporary moment of weakness on Vegeta’s part where he stoops to a power boost from Babidi in exchange for becoming Majin.
“The Long-Awaited Fight” isn’t the only installment where Goku and Majin Vegeta come to blows, but it’s the most substantial and brutal of the lot. Years of painful emotions come pouring out of Vegeta while he wails on Goku.