Who says ninjas have to be sneaky?
The diehards of animé-fandom live on the wavy fringes of society, in a land of Pocky-munching otaku and cosplayers poking one another with plastic shuriken. I’m not one to impose judgment, as I still play with tabletop miniatures (a.k.a. little plastic men), but animé and the games based off them have always been mysterious to outsiders. The gameplay always seems to fall under par, the in-jokes are meaningless, and the plot is usually equivalent to starting a Grisham thriller halfway through.
[image1]Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3 is one of the few animé-based games that breaks the stereotype. The gameplay is easy to pick up, the character designs are amazing, and something about Naruto’s story is completely addicting. If you ever wanted to see what this Naruto business is about, UN3 is the perfect place to get your first taste, although it still won’t explain the appeal of gelling your hair into purple spikes.
Everyone loves ninjas. It’s an undisputable fact. Some of you probably while away the hours at work with daydreams of black-masked danger. I know I do, but Naruto isn’t your typical ninja. He’s an underdog with dreams of greatness and the passion to see them fulfilled. He lives in a world where ninjas are local celebrities, kids go to ninja schools, and people toss fireballs from their hands. As you can imagine, there is bound to be a battle or two with that many ninjas on the loose.
First and foremost, UN3 is a one-on-one fighter overflowing with flamboyant combos that strike with retinal-imploding speed. In true ninjitsu fashion, it took me by complete surprise. I walked into my first fight expecting a lazy exchange of button-mashed fists, only to get laid flat before I could even hit the block button. I picked myself up, viciously tapped the attack button, and retaliated with a triple-kick-spin-backflip. I had no idea how I did it, but it felt good.
UN3 is all about acrobatic maneuvers that would make Jet Li cower in fear, and they are stupidly easy to perform. There are no combo-chains to memorize or quarter-circles to practice. Nearly every move is a simple variation of pressing the d-pad and hammering the attack button. That’s not to say the battles are easy by any means, though. You have to know the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. While someone like Rock Lee criss-crosses the screen with brutal kicks, Choji’s obesity requires a slower plan of attack. Then there’s someone like Shino, who prefers to let insect minions do the fighting.
[image2]UN3 offers 19 characters to begin with and unlocks to an astounding roster of 40. Even if you don’t watch the animé or read the manga, you’re bound to find someone you like. If you do, this is fan-service to the highest degree. The 20 battlegrounds have been ripped straight from the source, and each one has multiple platforms, ledges to scale, and breakable objects, in which you might find a power-up or additional weaponry to nail your opponent with. All things considered, UN3 is the closest you can get to Super Smash Bros. on the PS2.
Kicking and punching is all well and good, but everyone knows that true martial artists need to have signature moves, and then shout the name of their moves as battle cries. In Naruto, such moves are called Jutsu. Every character has customizable slots for two basic Jutsu attacks and one Ultimate Jutsu - earth-shattering blows of massive destruction. Whether performing Naruto’s Rasengan punch, Gaara’s Sand Burial, or the dozens of other Ultimate Jutsu, the result is a stunning display of unfettered power that no fighter on any system can rival.
The developers, CyberConnect2, nailed the style of Naruto with some of the most brilliant cel-shading to date. When the action gets heated, I don’t hesitate to say that the game looks even better than the animé. As if all of this weren’t enough to appease the Naruto fanboys (and fangirls?), CyberConnect2 threw in a slew of collectible items, subbed and dubbed voice-overs, and a few additional modes of play. For the uninitiated, Hero’s History should be the first stop on the journey.
Hero’s History treks through Naruto’s early years of training, his battle to save his village, and his desperate attempt to save Sasuke. Hero’s History is nothing more than a series of fights interspersed with cut-scenes, but a little bit of drama can go a long way. UN3 is the only fighter that ever made me care and say to myself, “I have to win!” UN3 could have left it at that and walked away as a memorable experience. Regrettably, it had to go one step further.
[image3]Ultimate Contest offers the chance to walk the streets of Hidden Leaf Village, interact with the townsfolk, and go on missions in a 3-D world. In practice, the controls and camera are frustratingly loose, the streets are surprisingly vacant, and the missions are the very definition of repetition. Opening with a village festival, the main attraction is a two-day battle royale in which all the ninjas brawl for each other’s crystals. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea, except that the following four hours are spent fighting the same handful of opponents again and again and again.
Once the festival is over, Naruto is free to take on a long list of missions which usually end in - you guessed it - more battles. Fetch-quests are also high priority, but all you have to do is follow the yellow dot on the map or go to the vendor and buy the indicated item. You’ll run around for hours on end but feel like you’re going nowhere. It’s an ordeal of fierce boredom that is made into a chore if you're going after the ton of extra Jutsu, additional characters, and items that can only be unlocked through Ultimate Contest.
If you want my advice, think of Ultimate Contest as a bandage and tear it off as quickly as possible. Underneath it is a martial-arts fighter of epic proportions sure to satisfy fans and newcomers alike. If you’re a fighting purist who stands by the need for complex combos and counter-attacks, call it an action game. Either way, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3 has some of the most intense, stylish one-on-one rumbles to hit the PS2.