Naruto Ultimate NinjaNaruto games have always been plentiful, but unfortunately just not that good, generally leaving a little bit of a bland taste in the mouths of the countless Naruto fans across the globe. Well that was until the original Naruto Ultimate Ninja came along.

Bandai has graced us with a stylish, frantic button-mashing fighter that is overly stylish, yet engaging and fairly simple to pick up. Based on the legendary Masashi Kishimoto’s enduring, ongoing series Naruto (which was unleashed on an unsuspecting public in 2003 and hasn’t looked back since), which tells the story of a brash, arrogant young ninja cadet who has the misfortune of having a nine-tailed demon fox sealed within him and how he aims at becoming the Hokage of his native village, the Village of the Hidden Leaf. Of course the stories have progressed far since those early days, but the premise of the story remains the same – super-powered ninjas fighting against one another.

Naruto Ultimate Ninja is set in the early arc of Naruto, when he was still a genin and as such features characters and scenarios from the first part of the long running Naruto anime series. Although the roster of ninjas that you can unlock and play with is not particularly huge, all the favourites are there, and you get to play with Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, Gaara, Neji, Rock Lee, Hinata, Kakashi, Shikamaru, Zabuza, Haku and even Orochimaru himself! Of course, many of your other favourites make an appearance as support characters and for Naruto fans this game is indeed filled with fanboy material.

The game features all the various modes that a fighting game should contain, including a versus and practice mode, but it is the scenario and mission modes that provide the meat to this title. The scenario mode has you completing a number of storyline battles with a character, with each battle increasing in difficulty until you face a final battle to beat that scenario and hopefully unlock some content.

The mission mode on the other hand is split over a number of levels, with each level consisting of a number of missions, with each mission carrying specific requirements in order to pass. Of course, the level of missions gets increasingly difficult, but the money you earn from completing these missions more than make up for it.

Money is gained for each successful mission and every battle win, and is used to purchase the gamut of bonus content that the game comes with. There are literally hundreds of unlockables and only a true fan will ever be able to earn them all. Of course, purchasing these is sometimes a lesson in frustration because you need to go through a lottery system to win, betting an amount of money and hopefully receiving a random item instead of drawing a blank, which quickly becomes more than a little tiresome.

Back to the fighting however, and it is interesting to see Bandai pull back from pushing out what could have been just a standard fighter with two buttons for two different kicks and two buttons for two different punches. Instead, the buttons are laid out in a particularly simple manner. One button to make you jump, one button to throw your shuriken and other collected items/powerups, one button to raise your chakra level in hope of triggering a chakra-fuelled cutscene attack and one button that handles all the actual attacking (oh and a trigger button for blocking of course).

There is a slight attempt at adding in different combos by mixing up the attack button with directional presses, but other than that you’ll find yourself continuously bashing the same button over and over again in order to dish out maximum damage. Things become a little more interesting though when you manage to land a strike when in a chakra powered up state, unleashing your cutscene driven attack. Each character has three levels of chakra attack and each and every one of them is different and absolutely a joy to behold. However, just to keep things interesting, you’ll be required to frantically input the given button sequence in order to carry out maximum carnage – otherwise you’ll find the damage dealt reduced as well as some of the longer sequences terminated halfway through.

Some of the scenes are particularly humorous to watch while others are downright nasty (though never bloody), but all are wonderfully executed and stylish to boot. A lot of the special attacks come straight out of the manga and anime, making it an instant hit with any long time Naruto fan.

While the characters are all polygonal in nature, the game plays out as a 2D fighter, though each level has a number of different planes which you can instantly travel between by pressing a direction and jump simultaneously. This becomes quite tactical after a while, because your support character will continuously pop in at the various levels to provide you with some or other power-up or special item which may just be what you need to swing the match in your favour.

There are a number of different levels waiting to be unlocked, all from a particular manga location, and usually linked together as you will see when during a battle after getting significantly beaten up you get the ‘change level’ option flashing on your screen. Each location is unique in its presentation, all has its own traps and pitfalls and all are wonderfully fleshed out with hidden areas and secret breakables.

The pacing of the fighting is relentless and at times can feel a bit unorganized and a matter of simple button bashing. However, as with any game in this genre, the more you play, the more tactical your battles become, finally resulting in a thoroughly satisfying experience.

Visually, Naruto Ultimate Ninja is a treat to look at, going entirely for a comic book look which results in a colourful, cel-shaded presentation with thick black outlines which looks as if it leaped straight out of the manga or anime episode. Even the narrative cutscenes are presented in a comic book format which simply adds to Naruto’s ultimately stylish look.

Naruto Ultimate Ninja looks superb and instantly appeals to fans of this type of animated entertainment, which makes it all the more pity that the developers cheapened out to an extent and provide simple stills for each scenario beginning and ending sequences. At least we get an animated opening sequence that is pretty much plucked straight out of the anime series, but I’m afraid that is pretty much it. A surprising decision when you notice just how much of the bonus material actually comes from the anime series itself!

Aurally, Naruto is actually a treat, featuring a strong cast of voice actors for both the Japanese and English language versions (yes, for a change you can actually get a game with its original Japanese soundtrack intact!) and a musical score seemingly plucked straight out of the anime. The sound effects are also top notch, though it must be said that overuse of some of the voices and phrases do become a little annoying after a while.

In summary, while not necessarily carrying the in-depth punch you would expect from a fully fledged fighting game, Naruto Ultimate Ninja more than makes up for it in terms of style and presentation, resulting in a madcap button-bashing exercise that is fun to play and even more fun to watch – particularly if you are already a hardcore Naruto fan!

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