Naruto’s debut on the PlayStation 2 may have some problems, but Ultimate Ninja does a great job of translating the franchise’s zaniness to virtual fights.
Although Naruto has never achieved the ubiquity of classic anime series such as Dragon Ball and Saint Seiya, it did become a hit in America. The success of the franchise has extended to multiple media, including manga, TV series, collectible cards and of course, video games. Ultimate Ninja is the first iteration of a long running series that shares elements with other fighting games such as Power Stone, Super Smash Bros. and the Budokai Tenkaichi franchises.
On the surface, Ultimate Ninja is a pretty standard 1-on-1 fighting game, but it does have some welcome additions that set it apart from the competition. One notable feature is the inclusion of super attacks that appear in the form of secret techniques. In order to pull these off, the characters need to accrue chakra, a form of energy that can be obtained through various methods.
Once enough chakra has been collected to fill at least one bar of the special meter (located under the player’s health,) the secret technique may be used. The way in which they are executed is pretty simple: first, you must press the triangle button one to three times, depending on the level of the chakra meter. The level of the technique indicates how powerful it is, so the higher the number, the more damage you can make. Once the chakra meter has been activated, you have limited time to land an attack on your opponent. If the attack misses, you have to wait a few seconds to try again, but if the attack lands successfully, a cinematic starts and you must input a fixed combination of buttons to try and make critical damage. At the same time, the opponent also has to press a combination of buttons to decrease the damage of the technique.
Overall, these secret techniques work quite well, the only problem is that they overstay their welcome. Matches where three or four secret techniques have been executed are a common sight. As a consequence, these special instances become so repetitive that their dramatic impact is totally diminished.
Apart from regular attacks and special techniques, there is another unique feature: changing planes. At any moment during a fight you can move your character to the foreground or background and vice versa. Not only is this convenient to evade enemy attacks, but also to pick up items that are scattered around different parts of the environment. There is a wide variety of objects that assist you in battle, including offensive, defensive and healing items. You can throw shuriken, use assist attacks, speed up your moves, slow the enemy down and so on and so forth.
Additionally, if a player’s performance isn’t very good, the game allows that player to do a “stage shift.” Basically, this sends both characters to a different stage and the player who initiated this move gets a little extra health. Since every stage allows you to make use of different tactics, this feature has an immense strategic value. For example, some stages are covered in water, others have tall constructions, underground caves and huge trees and players can definitely make use of the environment to their advantage. It’s worth pointing out that characters can run up walls and walk on water, but doing these amazing feats consume valuable chakra. Other basic moves include: jump, double jump, grabbing, throwing and substitution jutsu. The substitution jutsu is probably the most interesting one, allowing players to evade attacks right after juggling an opponent.
In addition, the game features various modes in which you can make use of all the aforementioned moves. There’s a story mode, mission mode, practice mode, free battle, a shop and a section called Naruto’s House. The story mode represents the regular arcade mode. Mission mode gives you various undertakings with some special requirements, such as defeat your enemy in X number of seconds, defeat your enemy with a level 3 secret technique and so forth. In Naruto’s House, you can check out all the myriad unlockables bought at the shop.
In the shop section, you can buy capsules to get more collectibles, but the main problem with this system is that you have to select the amount of money you want to pay. The more money you bet, the more chances of getting something of value, but beware, for paying the minimum means that a lot of the capsules will be empty. As a result, this system requires excessive grinding, encouraging players to get more money to spend on secret items that aren’t really worth it. Secret items include character figures, audio data, video data and hundreds of collectible cards that add absolutely nothing meaningful to the experience.
Soundwise, the game features all the English voices of the TV series and these are absolutely detrimental to the overall experience. Dialogues are overly dull and quite repetitive (Naruto utters “Believe it!” over and over and over again.) The English voice acting leaves a lot to be desired and offering the original Japanese voices would have been a great addition, especially for purists and avid fans of the source material.
Unfortunately, bad voice acting isn’t the only shortcoming. First of all, there aren’t many modes and there isn’t much extra content either. Moreover, the gameplay has its issues and in most matches, you depend on landing a secret technique to finish the fight. Also, more characters could have been added, especially considering that the franchise is teeming with them. Finally, the shop section is poorly designed and I can’t see many players spending a lot of time with it.
In the end, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja is a solid first installment. Naruto’s debut on the PlayStation 2 may have some problems, but Ultimate Ninja does a great job of translating the franchise’s zaniness to virtual fights. Although the raucous action will likely appeal to fans of the genre or the source material, some interesting additions make Naruto: Ultimate Ninja an easy game to recommend to everyone interested in its premise.