Has there been a series as thoroughly milked in recent times as Naruto? The series is barely over two years old and it has over a dozen games out already on seven different platforms (PS2, Wii, GCN, 360, DS, PSP and GBA). For those who can’t do math, that’s a new Naruto game every two months. So, now we’re into the third installment in the Clash of Ninja series, Clash of Ninja Revolution, which just so happens to be the first Naruto game to appear on a current-gen console. Not that it’s easy to notice, as the game looks, plays, feels and sounds like its Gamecube counterparts in every way.
As a fairly hardcore fighting gamer, I am always skeptical of license games that are part of the genre (though, I’m skeptical of license games anyway). Ever since the SNES, fighting games that are based around cartoon licenses tend to be simplistic, glitchy and ugly-as-hell. While CoNR only falls into one of those categories (simplistic), it just doesn’t have anything that would make it worth picking up for anyone outside of Naruto fans. The game plays essentially the same way as the previous two CoN games. I’m not going to really address the Wii controls in-depth. Any self-respecting fighting gamer will use a Cube controller, classic controller or the recently-released Wii fighting stick, because the imprecision of shaking the Wii remote to attack is frustrating to the point where there’s no point in using it.
The Wii controls, as with most games on the Wii, are generally unnecessary and both feel and play like they were thrown in simply for the sake of having them (most likely, that was exactly the case). Instead of pressing a button to do a light attack, you shake the remote, and during supers, you can either spin, shake or move the remote and nunchuck up and down to make the attacks do ridiculous amounts of damage. Regardless, the imprecision of the basic attacks in relation to the uselessness of supers (see below) make it so that the Cube controller is the better idea anyway. There is a light and strong attack button (A and B on a Cube controller, which will be the case for all controls listed in parentheses), you sidestep using the triggers, throw with Y and use super moves with X. That’s it. If it sounds simplistic, that’s because it is. As you’d expect, hitting different directions with the attack buttons results in different attacks, which naturally results in different combos. But the main problem with the entire CoN series is that as soon as an attack lands, everything is simply a matter of pressing either A or B three, four or five times. Outside a couple characters, there is no timing, there is no spacing, there is no complexity and there is no difficulty in executing combos.
Frustratingly, many of these remedial combos can result in more than half of their opponent’s life bar being wiped out. Even more frustratingly, if you are the one doing these combos, your opponent can immediately “teleport” out of one of these combos using the “substitution jutsu” which can be used at the expense of your “super meter,” the bar that you use for super attacks. Because of the sheer power of basic, easy-to-do combos, the entire notion of a super move becomes irrelevant, and since the super meter builds so quickly and effortlessly that meter is best spent to either get out of an opponent’s combo or finish them off for the match (since the meter is kept between rounds). I’m not an especially talented fighting gamer either, mind you. It’s just that this game is so simple that it boils down to “which player can land two combos first?”
There are a few other gameplay elements of note, however. Levels are now two-tiered, where a character can knock an opponent to another level of the stage, resulting in a little mini-cut-scene where the two characters can either attack or dodge, affecting spacing and knockdown once they reach. There are also destructible crates and/or rocks planted in stages. While these were intended to provide a sense of surprise and depth like in Dead or Alive 4, they both look and feel like they simply get in the way…which they do, since their main purpose ends up being to ruin combos. Four-player battles remain from CoN2, and they’re still as pointless and hectic as ever, but I feel myself getting confused as to which direction my character is facing much more frequently than before. Oh, and there’s slowdown. Slowdown is annoying.
For all that, the game does some things right. Something it does that the last couple of games failed at is making characters feel different, which is very refreshing. For example, Sasuke and Kakashi can both activate their Sharingan Eye(s) mid-battle at the cost of some meter (not enough to make it as inadvisable as supers, though). This changes their attack properties, opening up new combos and allowing for different supers (though you shouldn’t be using them). There are other similar examples among characters as well. Rock Lee and Guy can both open their chakra gates, making them faster and stronger at the expense of health. Naruto can turn into his demon-possessed form if his life is under 40%, with similar results to the Sharingan. There are other unique character-specific properties as well, like Shino’s “heat-seeking” projectiles and Neji’s enhanced auto-guards and counters and Rock Lee’s strong juggle game. Additionally, many characters have attacks that become more powerful at the expense of meter. While for some people this is generally useless, it still serves a purpose and does mark some degree of depth in the gameplay. But once again, the majority of your meter in this game will be used in substitutions.
The added characters are wise choices. CoNR adds Jiraiya, Tsunade, Temari, Shino, Itachi, Kisame and Orochimaru while removing or re-integrating some of the “clones” like Sharingan Kakashi and Sasuke, Crow and Akamaru. For some reason, however, Kiba, Zabuza, Haku and Iruka all got axed. It’s very odd that they’d remove characters, especially in a game based on a series so emphatic on its large, varied cast. Honestly, I can’t think of a good reason that they’d be removed. On top of this, there are several notable cast omissions. Choji is still yet to appear as a real playable character (he shows up during Ino’s super in CoN2). Kabuto is one of the leading antagonists in the series and has fought many times in the anime, making him the most inexplicable of the characters missing from the game. Kurenai and Asuma (Asuma replaces Choji in Ino’s super) both got their combat debut alongside Kisame and Itachi but don’t show up in the game. Really, there should have been more characters. And, as a random note if any publishers are out there, don’t make us unlock characters. Really, we shouldn’t have to go through six hours of gameplay before we can even start playing the game as it is meant to be played. This goes for Soul Calibur, Dead or Alive, and everyone else. If it’s something like alternate costumes for fighters (like in Dead or Alive) or crazy alternate versions of the characters (like Guilty Gear’s Gold, Dark and EX characters) or even the over-the-top boss characters (like Gill in Street Fighter III), then that's fine. But investing a day into the tedium of beating a game’s single player as everybody, just to unlock somebody I should have had access to from the very start, especially when there’s no defined list of what you have to do to get these characters, is simply not fun. The point is that unlockables should be extras. Not integral parts of the game like characters and levels.
The graphics and sound are, for the most part, all taken directly from CoN2. The well-done, cell-shaded characters look good and have slick attacks and solid voice acting done by the show’s cast. The animations for many of the special moves have been improved, and the mid-battle cut-scenes look great. Even though the game was ripped directly from its last-gen predecessor, the series’ strongest aspect has always been its superbly-done cell-shaded graphics. Some people give the series grief for its voice acting, but you can simply brush that off as silly anime elitism (as with most non-Fox anime series). The legitimate criticism lies in the game’s non-existent presentation when it comes to the fact that it’s an anime. There is no story mode. Instead, it has been replaced with mission mode, which is just a series of battles that have semi-random conditions for victory with conversations in between. There are no actual cut-scenes when it comes to advancing the plot, and all you are left with is something that kind of resembles a part of the anime a little…but not much. Really, the series needs to have some DBZ Budokai 1-style cut scenes and it needs to start from the beginning. If it had this, it would get a huge boost, review-wise. And characters need to say “kill” instead of “destroy.” Kids of all ages realize that when you get a kunai to the temple, you’re dead. Not destroyed.
Despite all this, Naruto: Clash of Ninja Revolution is still just a simple, mediocre fighting game that doesn’t adequately fall back on its source material enough for it to warrant a purchase for anybody expecting an experience like the one offered by the show. While it’s definitely a step above many other fighting games, including past Clash of Ninja games, it still ends up falling short of games like Dead or Alive and Virtua Fighter. The saddest part is that the Clash of Ninja series really isn’t too far off from becoming a real, good fighting game series. If they added more attack buttons (and mapped existing attacks to the directions of various buttons), made the combos harder (pressing B, B, A, A, A and wiping out 60% of an opponent’s health isn’t good), expanded the super meter (if you could have enough meter to do a super move and substitution, that would greatly change the game) and dumped the side-stepping and used an eight-way run (the movement style that Soul Calibur has, for the people ignorant of fighting game lingo), the game would pretty much instantly become one of the best new fighting game series in years. Instead, with two newer Clash of Ninja games out in Japan (the series is called Gekitou Ninja Taisen over there) that play identically, the only thing we can expect out of the series for the foreseeable future is the same thing with a slightly different cast.