A beautiful, competent fighter on the DS? That's un-possible!
Let’s face it: the DS is lacking when it comes to fighting games. In fact, the only other one I can recall is Ultimate Mortal Kombat. With such thin competion, Tomy didn’t have to put that much effort into Naruto: Ninja Destiny to make an impact, but they did. While it’s no Soulcalibur, Naruto: Ninja Destiny is the ultimate DS fighter released so far. It’s fun, gorgeous, and engaging. What more do you need?
The game’s two main modes are Story and Arcade. Because I’m in no way familiar with Naruto, I cannot pretend to intelligently review the Story mode’s storyline. I can only assume that it follows the plot of the TV show. Story sequences take place between fights and involve character portraits and scrolling text. Occasionally these sequences take far too long, although pressing Start will skip them entirely. Interestingly, Story mode does not force you to play through one character’s entire storyline; rather, you play as virtually every character at least once. For example, in one fight you’ll play as a scary-looking dude against a woman. In the very next fight, you’ll be the woman against Naruto! The Story mode is fairly short, but it comes in two difficulty flavors, and you can unlock four characters by playing it.
Meanwhile, Arcade mode lets you select a single character and proceed to battle a string of other characters with no storyline in between. Arcade mode goes quickly and you can unlock a lot more characters by playing through it. Additionally, Arcade mode allows you to become familiar with the very divergent fighting styles of all the characters.
The fighting engine itself is surprisingly robust. You attack with the Y and B buttons, alternating them in different orders to roll out some awesome combos. Each character has his or her own combo strings which you’ll have to discover on your own. R blocks, and L teleports your fighter behind your opponent—this is great for avoiding getting your ass handed to you, but be aware that your opponents can do it too! Jumping is performed with the X button, and different attacks can be unleashed while you’re in the air.
The A button initiates an unblockable super attack. The super attacks are a bit unbalanced; some characters have fairly weak super attacks, but one evil, cheap bastard in particular has a super attack that drains 75% of your health on Hard mode. Super attacks also tend to be unreliable—if your opponent hits you while you are pressing A, the attack will cancel, but your chakra power (see below) will be drained as if the attack was performed. Fail!
Chakra power builds throughout the fight, being eventually used for super attacks and teleports. You do not want to abuse the teleporting move, because before you know it you’ll be out of chakra power and your opponent will be shoving his foot up your nose while you helplessly mash the A button. It’s better to block an opponent’s combo attempt (gaining chakra as he attacks), then teleport behind him at the last second and lay down the smack. In fact, once you get the hang of how the chakra meter works, you can start teleporting, attacking, and finishing things off with a super attack, at which point you feel like a total bad-ass.
The touch screen adds some unique elements to gameplay. At the beginning of every fight, you are randomly assigned six symbols that grant bonuses when you tap them on the bottom screen. You might receive a stat increase, extra health, or disable your opponent’s ability to use chakra power. More than just a gimmick, the symbols add a huge element of strategy to each match, forcing you to think ahead and make use of whichever bonuses might ensure a win. However, once a symbol is used it’s gone for good. Unfortunately, each new battle brings a random assemblage of symbols; you might get a killer mix in one fight, but then nothing but chakra increases or defense uppers in the next fight. Despite being initially irritating, this random aspect actually forces you to improve your button game so that you don’t rely too heavily on the symbols to win fights.
Ninja Destiny’s graphics are beautiful. In fact, they’re some of the best to hit the DS. The fully 3D characters are clean and blacklined (reminiscent of Viewtiful Joe, but with more polish), character models animate smoothly, and the framerate never stutters. The backgrounds are oddly captivating, resembling out-of-focus landscapes against the focused fighting in the foreground. Colors are bright, and the particle effects (2D cheats though they may be) are surprisingly impressive. The voice actors from the show lend their talents to the game, albeit in yelping form. There is also some spoken “victory” dialogue, which is always good to hear.
Naruto: Ninja Destiny features multi-card local wireless play. One can only hope that future iterations of this series will implement single-card download play or - dare I say it - full Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection support. As it stands, this is one DS game which will be played solo for most of its lifespan.
Other than the lack of multiplayer options, there isn’t much to complain about in this newest iteration of the Naruto franchise. More game modes would be nice, and super attacks shouldn’t be so cheap (it’s tough to watch 75% of your health drained by one attack), but these issues aren’t enough to direct gamers away from Naruto: Ninja Destiny. It is truly one of the powerhouse titles on the DS, and everybody should give it a try - especially Naruto fans.