Flipping out and taking names.
In Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 2, the eponymous eleventeen hero is a student at the Ninja Academy, of all things. Fans of the series will know that the “Ninja Academy” isn’t quite as much a terrorist camp as a Hogwarts-meets-Pokémon school for the pugnaciously-gifted. It’s a fine idea for a kid’s show, and, judging by the amount of Naruto merchandise on the market, it’s a successful one too.
[image1]In our non-anime world, kids are taught not to fight in school. How wonderful, then, is the Naruto fantasy of a school where all you do is fight? Homework for Wednesday? Break someone’s arm in three places - and then write an essay about it, preferably written in the blood of your enemy. One inch margins on the sides, please.
Naruto's story mode begins at the scene of Naruto’s final exams at the Ninja Academy. Of course, these aren’t the kinds of exams taken with no. 2 pencils, unless those pencils are being used as stabbing weapons. Before you can get your dubious degree in the killing arts though, the exams are hijacked by members of a rival clan who are bent on destroying Naruto’s leaf clan, its village, and its leader. Fighting ensues.
And fighting is quite a bit of fun in Ultimate Ninja 2. It’s not a fighting game for purists, or for those who love unlocking and memorizing complex combo sequences. Instead it is light on the sequences and big on timing. It would not be a stretch to say that Naruto does not just depict a school for fighting, but that it actually serves as an introduction to the fighting game genre for all the little up and coming future gamers - a Ninja Game Academy, if you will.
The game has only a single “attack” button. By wailing away on this button in conjunction with the directional pad, you can build nasty-looking and surprisingly varied combos. Obviously the game gives up the complexity of more mature fighters, but it is also easily accessible and friendly to the button-mashers among us.
[image2]But that doesn’t mean the game is easy. While at first button-mashing will dispatch most opponents, the game quickly begins to throw curves in the form of “winning conditions.” Many of the fights will require more than just victory, some will task you with perform a certain special move several times, finishing with at least half your life bar still full, or defeating the enemy with a secret “Chakra” attack. By the end of the story mode, you will have perfected most of the advanced techniques of the game.
And while the combo list is not deep, there are some neat bells and whistles in the form of those secret “Chakra” attacks. Like an aging hippy, you can harness the “Chakra” energy by performing good moves, breaking objects, or simply praying (to a ninja God, I’m sure). Then you can unleash the attacks, which take the form of fast-paced mini-games in which you compete with your opponent to press a certain button sequence or spin the analog stick more quickly. If the attacker wins the mini-game, whammo, if the defender wins the mini-game, the attack is minimized.
These attacks, as well as the entire world of Naruto, are accomplished with a superb eye for the comic-book graphical style of the series. The cel-shaded graphics are smooth and bright throughout. These ninjas don’t lurk in shadows, they cavort in sunny fields.
The sound is similarly pitch-perfect. The songs, perhaps drawn from the show, hit a pleasant but energetic melodic vibe. And the voice acting is all right, although Naruto himself always sounds a little whiny.
The levels are 2-dimensional in form, but 3-dimensional in spirit. Each level has two or three tiers, and a button push teleports your character from one tier to the other. For example, when fighting in town, you can teleport or jump up to the clotheslines above.
The story mode, entitled “Ultimate Road,” is a good departure from normal “career” modes. Rather than playing the whole game as a single fighter, you will take control of several different fighters to enact scenarios in the course of the story. The story itself is rather short and inconsequential (the ending comes abruptly), seeming like more of a single Naruto episode than a feature-length production.
[image3]But when Ultimate Road is over, the game opens up into a wide RPG world. No longer bound by the linear events of the narrative, Naruto can take on missions and minigames around the small world map. Fulfilling these missions or winning the minigames builds experience points that can be put towards increasing your fighting skills. Offering a ton of content after the credits roll is more of a surprise than finding a ninja in your closet. A friendly ninja... with boobs.
I can’t pretend to have any familiarity with the Naruto mythology, but after playing this game I probably know more about it than you do. If you have a kid who regularly spouts off in Japanese while throwing punches in the air, then Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 2 will probably find its way into your game library. There are few sexual innuendos (for those of you worried about your ultra-violent kids getting a taste of anime-style sexual perversion), but one of the main characters in the game does sport a giant set of knockers, and your teacher is called “the pervy sage.”
There are over 30 playable characters, each with their own unique techniques and skills. However, the button combos that trigger these moves are all the same—resulting in battles that look different, but don’t feel all that different. What the game gains in accessibility, it also loses in variation.
Naruto probably isn’t going to satisfy hardcore gamers, but we gamers are getting older, accumulating not just wives but children. And for those little nerds-in-training, Naruto is a pretty and pleasant introduction to the physical violence they will spend the rest of their lives avoiding.