One time this kid dropped his fork, and a ninja totally killed his whole village. BELIEVE IT!
As a long-time reader of the manga, Naruto: Clash of Ninja appealed to me not only because I'd heard such great things about its sequels, but also because it seemed like a great chance to throw down with some of my favorite characters. And true enough, the game delivers in that respect, with fan-favorites like Rock Lee, Sasuke, and Kakashi taking the front stage. Unfortunately, the lack of content is what drowns what could have been a stellar fighting title.
If you've never heard of Naruto before, here's a crash course. Basically, there are several hidden villages in the world, each with its own clan of ninja. The story takes place in Konoha, Village of the Hidden Leaf. One day, many years ago, the Kyuubi (or nine-tailed demon fox of Japanese folklore) came to the village and began destroying the countryside. Knowing that there was only one way out, the Fourth Hokage (head ninja and leader of the village) sacrificed his life to seal the demon within a newborn baby, the hero of the story, Naruto Uzumaki. Growing up without any parents or attention from the surrounding villagers (they see him as a reincarnation of the Kyuubi), he finds himself acting the part of a prankster, desperate for any type of emotional contact. After becoming a ninja, he finds the meaning of true friendship. But when push comes to shove, watch out; in addition to his own chakra (energy), he's able to draw from the demon fox's power, making him quite the fighter.
What's so disappointing is that you won't be able to see too much of his power, since Clash of Ninja only goes up through the Bridgebuilder Arc, which for those of you watching the anime on Cartoon Network, know to be a very early chapter. The story mode can easily be beaten in around twenty minutes, much less if you bypass the intervening cutscenes. Also, because of the small amount of characters introduced at this point of the plot, only eight characters total can be used, with unlockable alternates of Naruto (early Kyuubi transformation) and Kakashi (with his Sharingan Eye exposed).
I was all ready to condemn this game for lacking any sort of incentive to return after all of the unlockables had been attained (in addition to the aforementioned secret character forms, there are also profiles and sound bytes for each fighter), but luckily, I decided to give the multiplayer some more time. I called over a couple buddies, and sure enough, Clash of Ninja is a great party game. This is probably due to its simplified control scheme; A is your weapon/sneak attack, B is your basic martial arts button, Y is your throw, and X is your special attack. To use your special ability, from Naruto's Shadow Clone gang-up attack or Haku's Ice Mirror, you'll have to fill up your Chakra Meter all the way, whether by taking or inflicting damage. If you'd rather not use a special attack, though, you can also use your energy as a counter-move. Shortly after being attacked, if you press R or L at the right time, your character will perform what's commonly referred to as the "Log Trick," where he'll teleport right behind your opponent and inflict a finishing blow. Your enemy can counter this as well, but keep in mind it takes up a large chunk of your energy, so the game doesn't become one counter after another.
Visually, Clash of Ninja's cel-shading is perfectly tuned to the art style of the anime, and barring a few hiccups, you won't encounter any slowdown during gameplay, which is quite impressive. Dodging and counter effects look particularly great, and energy attacks glow with intensity. The backgrounds don't look quite as impressive, lacking the attention to detail that went into the character models, but they get the job done, especially for a game that debuted in Japan almost four years ago.
Even before booting up the game, I knew the voice-overs wouldn't be that great, having seen the localized anime a few times. Naruto's raspy whine from the show is in place, and unfortunately, you won't be able to opt for the original Japanese voice track. Some are tolerable, though, and the acting for Kakashi and Zabuza (who's voiced by Steve Blum of Cowboy Bebop / Wolf's Rain fame) is particularly well-done.
At the end of the day, Naruto: Clash of Ninja is a great two-player game, but don't expect much if you're looking at a mostly single-player run. You can unlock everything in a couple extended sittings, so if you must play alone, rent. But if you've got a hankering for some spankering, ninja-style, and you've got a pal who's the same way, don't hesitate to pick this one up. It's great fighting fun, BELIEVE IT!