The Dragon Balls are capable of granting wishes and come with a series of stringent rules, but these restrictions have loosened over the years.
How have the wish-making rules in the Dragon Ball franchise altered over time? Dragon Ball tells the story of Goku and his eclectic collection of friends, but Akira Toriyama’s anime and manga franchise take its name from the 7 orange balls that first instigate Goku’s journey. Laying scattered across the Earth, anyone who brings all 7 Dragon Balls together will be granted a wish by the great dragon Shenron. Dragon Ball later reveals that the balls were crafted by Earth’s God, Kami when he arrived from his native home of Namek. Throughout every era, Goku and his pals make full use of the Dragon Balls, bringing entire planets back to life, wishing for secret knowledge, and conjuring luxury items of underwear.
With decades of lore to consider, the Dragon Ball series is notorious for altering and rewriting its own canon. From Goku’s backstory to the limits of the Hyperbolic Time Chamber, rules are made to be broken in the world of Dragon Ball, and Toriyama’s mythology has proven flexible when the plot requires. This also applies to the rules and restrictions of the Dragon Balls themselves, which have been constantly amended and expanded over the years.
When Dragon Ball begins, Goku and Bulma set out to collect the 7 balls, competing with Emperor Pilaf along the way. However, there’s no mention of Shenron’s power being limited at this point. Shenron would simply appear, grant a wish, and then vanish, rendering the balls inert for a year. As the Dragon Ball saga continued into Goku’s adulthood, restrictions to the Dragon Balls’ power were needed to ensure the heroes didn’t have an easy ride. The Saiyan saga establishes that Shenron’s power is tied to that of his creator, and anything beyond that cannot be granted. In practice, this means Shenron can’t kill villains who are more powerful than Kami. The Saiyan saga adds a second major rule when Goku reveals that the Dragon Balls can’t revive the same person twice, raising the stakes as his battle against Vegeta looms.
Another limit is added to the Dragon Balls in the Namek saga when the Grand Elder dies. King Kai discovers that a person cannot be wished back to life if they died of natural causes, but the Grand Elder can be revived because he died prematurely from the trauma of Frieza’s invasion. In a conversation with King Kai in the Frieza saga, Kami claims that the Dragon Balls can only perform mass resurrections when the subjects have been deceased for under a year, drawing another red line under Shenron’s abilities.
After drip-feeding new rules into the Dragon Ball series, Toriyama hit the reset button when Dende replaced Kami as Earth’s guardian and made his own set of balls. Those who gathered the Dragon Balls could now ask for 3 wishes, although this would be reduced to 2 if a request was particularly demanding. Users could also save any remaining wishes for a later date. Dende’s arrival looked to re-establish the rules of the Dragon Balls after years of constant change, but yet another new restriction was unearthed when Krillin tried to turn Androids 17 and 18 back into humans – Shenron states this is beyond his power.
Earth’s Dragon Balls aren’t the only set to change their rules around. Originally, the Namekian Dragon Balls granted 3 wishes and could resurrect people multiple times, but couldn’t perform mass restorations like Earth’s Dragon Balls. This is changed in the Buu saga, when the Grand Elder’s successor is revealed to have improved Porunga’s abilities so that large groups of people can be resurrected at once. This proves especially convenient when Buu wipes out the population of Earth.
It’s fairly transparent that Shenron’s abilities were changed in response to Dragon Ball’s storylines. Akira Toriyama has previously stated that Goku’s story was never mapped out from the start, with new sagas added as the Saiyan’s popularity grew. Unfortunately, this made the gradual restriction of Shenron’s power necessary to avoid fans wondering “why didn’t they just use the Dragon Balls?” every time something bad happened.