Ask any retail clerk, grade school fanboy or anime fanatic what's hot right now, and they'll all likely say "Naruto" in varying degrees of adoration and/or disdain. But like it or hate it, the shinobi school madness of the series translates very easily into fighting games, and with Ultimate Ninja, you're getting a worthy Super Smash Bros. copycat bursting with dizzying, cinematic attacks that look better than anything you're watching on Saturday morning.
It's not just a one-on-one fight - you've got two planes in which to battle (a background and foreground), environmental hazards to avoid and boxes upon boxes of helpful items scattered across the level. Diving in and out of the background, items at the ready, is just as important as jamming on the attack button for seven hit combos. And even though the aforementioned attack button is the only way to throw a punch, there are many more methods you can use to smack your rivals around.
Like Smash Bros., it's all about holding a different direction on the d-pad as you fight. Up and attack will launch your enemies into the air, where you leap in hot pursuit, and smash them back down into the ground. Unless, of course, they teleport out of the way. At practically any point, you can hit the R2 button to avoid an attack and get the drop on your foe. But we're talking about ninjas here, so they can in turn parry back, leading to teleport-parry matches that stretch on like a duel in Dragon Ball Z, but in a good way and without all the grunting.
So you've got the multi-layered arenas, the colorful cast of characters and a workable parrying system that constantly keeps you on your toes. Is there anything else to make the battles truly nuts? Sure is - it's called a Secret Technique, a chargeable move that has three levels of madness to unleash.
Hitting the triangle button charges your fighter up one level, with a maximum of three. If you land a hit while powered up, you go into a cinematic attack that prompts a string of button commands to follow. If you nail 'em, the move goes on to another cinema and deals major damage. Some of these attacks are so damn ruthless and violent, it's amazing these kids stay in school at all.
But, like everything else in Ultimate Ninja, there's a way to lessen the pain. The other fighter can put in commands too, and if they're done in time, the damage is cut. It's a great way to keep both players involved but still reward the better fighter with a flashy finishing move.
And if the whole scrap's just not going your way, you're occasionally asked to ditch the current arena and head to a more favorable place. Doing so takes the fight to a more familiar level and patches you up with some extra life. Extremely long fights can bounce from one area to the next, with feints and mega moves exploding all over the screen until the timer finally runs out.
Before we get on to the final verdict, let's pause for a moment and explore just how much stuff is going on in a given arena. Even though this is a relatively quiet moment, there are still several things to be aware of in each fight. Soak it up for a second and then jet on to the last page for our score.
- Shikamaru's off balance from the star attack, so make with the combos
- If you need to, you can leap into the background and see what's back there
- This is your energy meter. Keep it full by pounding your enemy into the dirt
- Glowing objects can be broken and contain even more items to use
- These slots are where your gathered items are stored, like ninja stars
Outside the main brawl, there's a mission mode that forces you to win under increasingly difficult circumstances. It's fun enough until you're supposed to beat the guy with a level three attack, in less than 30 seconds, when his energy is completely zeroed out and while holding a certain item. Ugh. Your reward for this insanity is cash you can use to unlock movies, sounds and other fan-service goodies. This idea, like most everything else in Ultimate Ninja, has been done before, but wrap a sensible license around a sparkly fighter and you've got a winner.