Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes (PSP)
Millions of testosterone-filled boys are glued to VIZ Media's mega-popular Naruto animated TV series, and if you count the number of related videogames, it's no secret that the company is milking this IP something serious.
If you've been following the interactive versions of this ninja fighting series you'll know some have fared quite well, such as Ubisoft's Naruto: Rise of a Ninja for the Xbox 360, while others have failed to impress, including Namco Bandai's Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles 2 for the PlayStation 2.
The latest from the Naruto money tree is Namco Bandai's Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes for the PlayStation Portable, a decent 3-D fighting game developed exclusively for North American and European markets.
While not a slam dunk, it's a good -- and good-looking -- fighter that deserves some kudos for providing a host of game modes (including wireless multiplayer for the first time in the franchise), accessible controls and some depth to boot.
The goal of the main Heroes mode is to rise through the ranks and become the ultimate Hokage. But before you begin your fight against the game's tough artificial intelligence, players first choose a pre-made team of three fighters -- each with their own unique moves and special abilities -- or you can create your own custom team by selecting unlocked available characters. Before the battle commences you'll also see the enemy team's lineup and can then select the order of their fighters to best match the opponents.
As an example of a pre-made squad, Team Kakashi consists of Naruto Uzumaki (special skill: 'Sexy Jutsu,' which kicks the opponent into the air before being smashed down towards the ground), Sasuke Uchiha (special skill: 'Chidori,' which releases a damaging lightning ball) and Sakura Haruno, who can help teammates power up before a fight.
Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes is a fairly straightforward 3-D fighting game between two characters, but the battles take place in large environments that should be familiar to fans of the show, including The Forest of Death, Chunin Exam Stadium, Kikyo Castle Keep, Ichiraku Ramen Shop and Hidden Leaf Hot Spring. The 'camera' will zoom in fairly tight while fighting in one spot, so the characters will fill up more of the screen, but it dynamically changes to a wider shot if the fight goes airborne for a few seconds or if the player or CPU-controlled enemy jumps to another spot in the environment. An example of the latter might be hopping from the grass in front of the Ichiraku Ramen Shop to the rear rooftops and then onto a bridge.
Controlling your fighter is quite simple: The four arrow buttons (d-pad) on the left-hand side of the PSP are used to move him or her around the game, while the four buttons on the right (triangle, square, circle and X) are for kicking, punching, special attacks (which usually involve some kind of projectile) or combos. Players will soon learn moves like throwing an opponent (press d-pad away from an opponent and press the circle button) and uppercut punch (up on the d-pad and circle). The Left and Right shoulder buttons are for selecting an item and blocking, respectively. Regrettably, the analog stick isn't used for anything -- it would have been a welcome alternative to the four arrows used for movement.
Boxes, signs and training dummies can be broken open on the screen, revealing consumable items inside, such as food to recover strength: spheres and statues to recover chakra (magic); and weapons including explosive throwing knives, paper bombs and magic such as the ability to instantly relocate to behind your enemy.
As with many fighting games, you'll see your (as well as your opponent's) health bar on top of the screen, and the first to dip down to zero loses the fight. Underneath the health bars are shakra gauges, which will begin to recede after using special attacks and long, drawn-out battles, but you can press the down arrow on the d-pad to slowly charge your chakra gauge.
Along with the Heroes mode is a Vs. CPU mode, where you can select from any of the unlocked characters and take on the computer in one-on-one battles. You can also choose your fighting arena and tweak the rules such as length of battle, chakra levels (infinite or normal), handicaps and so on.
In Wireless mode, gamers first enter a waiting room to check out other player's profiles or initiate a battle. The problem is, despite logging in many times over a three-week period, not one player could be found to play, therefore I'm not able to report on the online experience. What did work, however, is the Game Sharing feature, where you can play against a friend even though only one gamer has the UMD.
Players can visit Naruto's House from the main menu, where you can view obtained items, unlockable goodies (such as game music, images and movies) or edit your character profiles. Another accessible area off the main menu is called Promotions Power-Up, a role-playing game (RPG)-like feature that allows players to use awarded power-up points to improve a character's abilities in a number of categories: Attack, Defense, Speed, Chakra, Stamina and Ninjutsu (weapon attacks).
For a PSP fighting game, there is certainly a lot of meat on which to gnaw in Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes, and it's certainly more than a brainless button masher. It's also quite a looker with bright and colorful anime-style graphics and animation. While some players might write this game off as a shameless cash cow tied to the popular TV series -- which might very well be the case -- it's a fun ride nonetheless.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.