Fighting games based on Japanese anime usually fail to excite hardcore fans of the genre. The reason is most of these games end up playing rather poorly. Usually, this is due to a strict development cycle: if a certain anime is hugely popular, then a developer had better turn out a game pronto. That's just how the game industry works. This is true of any hot license, be it a particular movie, musical artist or whatever.
Which makes Naruto: Ultimate Ninja, from developer Cyberconnect 2, somewhat of an exception. To put it simply, Ultimate Ninja succeeds in blending a popular license with good game design. And that's precisely what these games need to do to be successful from a critical standpoint. They need to have enough real meat to satiate the hunger of serious gamers, and not just fans of the comic who will blindly purchase anything with the name Naruto on it. In that respect, Ultimate Ninja delivers the goods.
Like with most fighting games, this one splits into different modes. It has an arcade mode, called Free Battle, where you can jump in and fight with any unlocked character you want. You simply decide who to fight against and where the fight will take place. It's perfect if you just want to come home and start whooping ass without the hassle of going through the main story mode, called Scenario. But for those who want something a little more structured, then Scenario is definitely where you want to be.
Here, you select a fighter from the roster and go through a story. Thankfully, these stories don't repeat themselves, since each character has their own. The downside is none of these stories will excite you very much. For once it'd be nice to see a fighting game take story mode seriously. Maybe have a few characters fighting for something other than personal glory or a murdered father figure. Alas, this isn't that game. Fortunately, if there's one aspect most gamers don't care about in a fighting game, it's story. So the omission of riveting narrative probably won't bother very many people.
The action itself isn't too complicated, but it doesn't need to be, either. Ultimate Ninja has a simple yet thoroughly rewarding combo and counter systems in place. Each character has two main attacks, one basic and one special. Together with the D-Pad, you string these in different combinations to unleash dozens of moves per character. The game controls well, too, which serious fans know matters perhaps more than anything. In the end, no one ever complained that Power Stone lacked the complexity of Street Fighter II, right? Same thing in this case.
Speaking of Power Stone, a few of its most-beloved aspects are put to good use here. When fighting in any of the game's stages, for instance, you can pick up items that greatly affect the flow of battle. Only here, support characters randomly hand them throughout a given battle. When they appear, you need to rush and pick them up before your opponent attacks them and forces them into retreat. Of course, you can also attack your opponent's supporters too. This lends combat a rather distinct flair, as the myriad items (health, weapons) can easily make or break a fight.
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