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Naruto: Clash of Ninja

If you ever want to know what the next big thing is going to be, figure out what was cool in Japan at least a year ago. Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z took over gamers' minds there well before kids were lining up for Pikachu pajamas and Budokai in the United States. Flash forward to 2006, and it looks like yet another anime series is set to dominate Cartoon Network. Naruto, (think ninja Hogwarts) has already begun its inevitable ascension from Borders shelf-stuffer to superstar franchise. The impending March release of both a GameCube and GBA title will only add to its stealthy takeover.

You can choose from eight of the show's adolescent star characters including Sasuke, Sakura and obviously title-boy Naruto, pitting them against each other in one-on-one battles. You've probably played a few thousand fighting games by now so you know what to expect. The hook here is the sharp-as-a-shuriken, cel-shaded presentation that mimics the cartoon. Signature moves and locales pulled from the source material will surely speak to some more than others, though even casual fight fans may be able to give the emergent series a shot thanks to an approachable fighting engine.

Basic combat is just that: basic. You and your opponent move around on a 2D plane kicking, punching and shouting at each other while occasionally tossing a projectile weapon. Side stepping such long range attacks figures heavily into a battle system that's filled with chances to counterattack or dodge. Evading and following up keep the action moving, and help to charge a power meter that culminates in a huge attack, the aim of which is (of course) laying your opponent out flat. It's a dance of attack, parry, dodge, counterattack. This is a fighter based on fast action and anime personality, not hardcore memorization and obscure combo moves.

All the same, don't expect Clash of Ninja to rewrite the book on fighting games. The series has racked up plenty of fans in Japan (where the fourth GameCube game just shipped) so even if the action seems familiar, it's clearly exciting enough for international Naruto enthusiasts. It looks like the cartoon, sounds authentic and is dripping with references for anime maniacs to suck up until the next fighter in the series launches this fall.

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