Reviewed: July 17, 2006
Released: June 26, 2006
Videogames 101 - Rule Number 11
The combination of popular licensed action characters into the melee-fighting genre of videogame, most often results in a less advantageous gameplay experience.
We all know the history of less-than-stellar anime fighters gamers have been subjected to in the past – I mean, how many Dragonball Z’s did it take before we actually found a “good” DBZ game? But the key word really is “generally”, because what just came across my desk is one of the coolest licensed brawlers I have had the pleasure to review.
Naruto: Ultimate Ninja, from Bandai Namco, is modeled after Cartoon Network’s newest – and soon to be hottest – anime series, Naruto. The game finds a excellent balance of simple controls and rewarding gameplay, and even throws in some fresh and unexpected gameplay features. I might not know much about Naruto the television show, but if it’s in any way as cool as Naruto the game you can count me in.
From the outset, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja won’t strike gamers as being much different from any of the countless other martial arts fighting games out there – two challengers squared of in a clearing, butting heads until only one stands. With the requisite arcade battle, story and mission mode, the game just looks a bit hum-drum. In fact, for the first half-hour or so spent fumbling around trying to make sense of the onscreen action, most players might unfairly dismiss Naruto: Ultimate Ninja as just another piece of licensed shovelware.
But then, out of the blue – be it divine intervention (or simply reading the owner’s manual to learn the control scheme and special attacks) – something suddenly clicks into place and Naruto: Ultimate Ninja takes on a whole new appearance. And boy is it fun.
The first thing that gamers will notice is the extremely unique level design. Although the actual fighting takes place in two dimensions, each arena is actually comprised of a series of two or three of these planes stacked in overlapping layers; each of which has its own payoff, and all can be easily teleported between by the characters.
These layers often include unique features, like trees or walls that can be scaled and utilized for Crouching Tiger-like airborne attacks, or underground caverns that can be employed to provide around the back sneak attacks. Finding each little nook and cranny in a level is a game in and of itself, and utilizing them to your benefit is quite rewarding.
Sometimes the payoff comes in the form of special health, magic and weapons power-ups that appear periodically throughout the match in the form of gifts from members of the cheering crowd. As each power-up appears, players must quickly decide whether it is most beneficial to continue the fight, or to make the mad teleportation dash to grab the item before the opponent.
Considering the fact that the artificial AI seems to place the utmost priority into snagging these power-ups, you have to guess there is quite a benefit in raising health and magic powers – and that’s because Naruto: Ultimate Ninja features a truly refreshing method for employing each characters’ special abilities. Ok, this might get a little confusing, but believe that about 20 minutes into the game, and it will all makes perfect sense.
All of the game’s characters have three levels of special attack – special weapon, special magic, and beast summoning – that can be quickly selected by pressing the special button and then the action button 1, 2, or 3 times.
Once a special attack has been initiated, the game quickly cuts away from the action and begins a cinematic standoff featuring a minigame that throws each opponent a series of Parappa-like button combos. If the attacker can nail the combo before the defender, heavy damage will dealt – if the defender nails it first, a reversal takes place and the special is over.
But the fun doesn’t end there, because within these special mini-games there are also has three levels of damage that can be obtained – meaning that if the attacker successfully completes a combo, he will be presented with a second combo, and then maybe a third even, to deal maximum damage. Once the player gets a good handle on the special move system, especially against the early AI or especially unsuspecting human opponents, it is not uncommon to abruptly end matches just moments after they begin.
In an attempt to keep players from abusing the special moves system, there is a three-stage special meter, which must be filled to allow the use of any special move – but even then it is not uncommon to see two or three moves pulled off in succession, given the amount of meter-filling power-ups that pop up around the levels.
The controls are quite simple – using the simplified mix of face buttons and directional presses to achieve a unexpectedly deep array of moves. In fact, as a self-professed button masher, I was surprisingly impressed with the game’s robust control system, and just how accurately the game responded to the button combos I slammed in. Seldom was there a time when the game didn’t do what I was expecting.
Visually, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja takes the toon-shaded anime style and successfully incorporates it into the unique and believable 3D/2D hybrid levels. Each level has its own visual tricks and treats to catch your attention in the background, and you’ll often find yourself impressed with the level of detail included – items like trees, whose branches bounce accordingly as characters fly up to attain a lofty perch above the action.
The character animations themselves are quite impressive as well – with smooth and fluid movement, it is always refreshing to find a primarily-2D fighter that uses polygonal characters as opposed to the sprite-based fare we often find.
The real treat however, would have to be the cinematic cutscenes that accompany the special attacks. While they admittedly are a bit canned for each character – and after a while you will have seen everything there is to see – they really are well crafted, and quite exciting with their motion blurs, slicing lines, and in-your-face action.
The sound carries nearly the same production level of the rest of the game, but with a few flaws here and there, which really don’t detract from the overall gameplay, but one at least is worth mention.
Most noticeably would be the weak (or nonexistent?) normalization on the characters’ voice recordings, which results in irregular volume levels for the different speaking character in the game. There were times when I would find myself jockeying the volume button up to simply hear certain characters talking, then having to immediately turn it down to keep the other characters from waking the wife and kids.
Per the company line, the music and voices are all genuine to the TV series, and the overall production values (barring the normalization problem) are top-notch. Sure, the music leans towards the heavy metal elevator jams that often accompany these anime movie and games, but it is done well so I really can’t complain.
When compared to the likes of Virtua Fighter: Evolution, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja is not even in the same arena. But for a quick and fun brawler, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja definitely will give even the most hardened Virtua Fighter vet some enjoyment.
Considering the fact that Naruto Ultimate Ninja’s story mode actually features a different story for each of the characters, and that the game includes an extremely addictive mission mode (which doles out a laundry-list of requirements for each match) – Naruto: Ultimate Ninja is a very solid buy.
All in all, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja is a very simple and enjoyable fighting game, that would be every bit as cool with or without the television show license tie-in. We need more games like this.