If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's a familiar life lesson and also the approach that Namco-Bandai has taken with the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja series of fighting games. The first game established the easygoing controls and frantic pace. The second installment greatly expanded the character roster. And now, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3, the third game in the series, brings balance to the force.
Once again, Naruto Uzumaki and 44 of his ninja pals have come together for a one-on-one fighting fest that combines button mashing and strategy in much the same way that Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. games do. The buttons let you jump, block, attack, and throw knives or other objects at your opponent. Special attacks, or Jutsu as they're known in the Naruto universe, are performed by double-tapping the directional pad and pressing the attack button.
Sounds simple, and it is. However, you'll quickly discover that winning requires a keen sense of timing: knowing when to change places in the arena, knowing when to tap the block button to teleport behind your opponent, and knowing how to activate your Jutsu during a combo for maximum damage.
The arenas themselves also come into play. In most, you can jump into the background or climb to higher levels. Some have hazards you have to watch out for, such as puddles that will slow you down, or man-eating spiders that'll take a bite out of you. Trees and sparring dummies can be smashed, releasing health items, knives, bombs, and other useful goodies. If Nintendo isn't going to bring Super Smash Bros. to Sony consoles, we won't complain when other companies borrow some of Nintendo's ideas, especially when those ideas make each fight frantic and fun.
Anyone that played Ultimate Ninja 2 remembers that it had more than a few balance issues. Some characters were too strong. Others were downright worthless. In this third game, everyone seems to be able to hold their own. The new jutsu clash gimmick also helps. Before, characters with speedier specials could just steamroll characters whose jutsu was slower to unleash. Now, when characters perform jutsu at the same time, they'll lock arms and trigger a button mashing minigame. This is a fairer way of handling things, because regardless of who wins the minigame, nobody ends up pinned in the corner.
On top of that, if you don't like a certain character's special attacks, you can jump into the customization menu and assign them any of the other characters' jutsu. They cut back the number of "ultimate jutsu" finishing moves each character can have (from three to one), which is a bit weak, but at least you get to pick the finisher you want to see as opposed to being stuck with a bunch you don't.
The story mode hasn't changed. Once again, players can dive into four different story arcs and participate in key battles from the TV show. However, they did expand the RPG mode significantly. Instead of outright picking missions from a list, you now have to explore Hidden Leaf Village, talk to people to get missions, and track down scrolls and other items to enhance your character.
Furthermore, the experience you gain from battle is poured into your character's attack, health, defense, and other attributes. In turn, that bulked up character, as well as any new characters or jutsu you've unlocked, can be used in the other game modes.
Little was done to beef up this latest game's graphics and audio. That's understandable, considering how hard it pushes the system. The 3D backdrops and large, cel-shaded characters look great, as they always have. Again, the Japanese-rock soundtrack and screechy battle dialogue were lifted straight from the TV show, only now you have the option of choosing between the English or Japanese voice cast.
The only audio-visual upgrade worth mentioning are the wildly elaborate cutaways that appear when characters perform jutsu and ultimate jutsu attacks. Naruto's shadow clone jutsu, for example, now involves a series of camera transitions and comic book overlays that show him leaping into the air, splitting into multiple clones, and tagging the opponent multiple times. Other finishers show the characters transforming into huge, screen-filling beasts, which you then get to control for a while.
The developers likely had to employ some high level tricks to get the game running on the PlayStation 2, so we weren't too shocked when we ran into problems trying to play it on various PlayStation 3 models. The older 20GB and 60GB models fared fine, for the most part, but we did encounter random graphical glitches every now and then. On the more recent 80GB model, which emulates one of the PS2's chips through built-in software, the results were much worse: the game simply froze during story scenes and whenever certain special attacks were performed. Hopefully, Namco-Bandai will work with Sony to fix these issues in a future system update.
There's no denying that Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3 is a textbook case of "been there, done that." But, so what? The crazy, flashy fights are still as addictive as ever, and all of the little changes and improvements do ultimately render the previous installment obsolete by comparison. That sure sounds like a solid sequel to us.
Mar 28, 2008