Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: August 28, 2007
In the old days of gaming, it was not at all uncommon for the Japanese versions of games to be significantly better than their U.S. equivalents, or for the U.S. versions to have removed, edited or toned-down functionality or imagery. Some examples (Doki Doki Panic getting a U.S. release as Super Mario Bros. 2) are a lot higher profile than others (editing blood out of countless games for U.S. release), but the same pattern still applies today to countless releases that are published in Japan before hitting U.S. shelves.
Functionality is sometimes cut, with recent examples including the Phoenix Wright series, whose Japanese DS (re)releases get both Japanese and English modes, while the U.S. one only gets a (different!) English translation. We don't even get the European version, which at least gets multiple languages, which are in turn based on the American translation. This practice has started to become less common ... outside of the realm of games based on highly popular anime series, at least. Unfortunately, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes (originally Narultimate Portable) doesn't just fall into this pattern, it drops right into it so hard and blatantly as to ruin the game for players on this side of the pond.
If you've played Naruto: Ultimate Ninja, you're probably in this game's target audience and know the basic game format pretty well. Combat is one-on-one in a "layered" arena (rather than true 3D), button combinations are highly simplistic (heightened by removing the button-sequence elements that could increase damage in the PS2 version) and a variety of items is set around the arena to shift the battle around a bit. Ultimate Ninja Heroes twists this up by introducing a team-based, three-on-three mechanic, in the vein of the Capcom vs. SNK series, with the ability to use "skills" before the fights when playing in the game's story mode.
For example, these skills let you manipulate the fight before it starts by using the infamous Sexy no Jutsu to lower someone's attack. While this tries to bring about the sense of teamwork that defines the actual series, it really doesn't give you any feel for the team dynamic, instead feeling like an add-on to the "group of characters-only sets round ordering," which is unfortunately so common in the genre (and rarely, if ever, handled as well as Capcom vs. SNK did). The game also differs from the fighting game norm by letting characters "level up"; each match you play as a character will earn them points, which go toward upgrading various statistics.
The fighting gameplay itself is just okay; it's slower paced than the GameCube Clash of Ninja series but doesn't require significantly more thought to match, with simpler and often less fulfilling mechanics, and no four-player matches to provide for a solid multiplayer experience. The PSP version provides for game sharing to allow single-UMD play, but it takes quite a while to transfer the data to the other person's PSP, and the gameplay simply isn't fun enough to warrant this. It doesn't help that players can use their upgraded versions of characters, severely weakening play balance to the point of all but killing it on par with the Gold versions of characters in the Guilty Gear series, or Shin Akuma in Street Fighter.
How is Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes crippled from the Japanese release? A few characters have been removed from the game, even though they've shown up in other U.S.-released material so far, including the recent PS2 release of Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 2. It's not as if the American gaming audience is unfamiliar with the characters, and they were already in the Japanese release of the game, so it's a bit of a mystery as to why they were removed. Far worse, the 130-match "storyline" of the PSP version in Japan has been cut down to less than 30 scenarios and a series of "Promotion Test" mission groups, which are unlockable by repeating the four groups of scenarios over and over again to artificially increase a gameplay length that had already been there. Of course, the ever-questionable U.S. voice acting is also out in full force.
Ignoring the Japanese release, Ultimate Ninja Heroes isn't bad on the presentation front, but it's not very good, either. The same clip-art of the characters you've seen before is used all over the place with a few original pieces (mostly on the cover art) to mix things up. Character models actually port very well to the PSP, taking full advantage of cel-shading and textures to hide the fact that there aren't actually as many polygons per character or per environment. If you compare the graphics of this version to the PS2 version, though, it's difficult to tell them apart. The bad news is that this also applies to the game's sound effects; a few of the same pieces from the PS2 versions are used, not that you'd tell if you didn't take the time to listen, since it's all just as forgettable as the music in, well, every Naruto release. Standard sound effects have even less "oomph" and effect than is normal for a PSP title, with punches sounding particularly weird; the voice acting has little to no variety to it, meaning you can expect to hear the same tired lines from characters multiple times during a single round.
Overall, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes takes an okay series of PS2 games and manages to downgrade them severely, not once, but twice — once from PS2 to PSP and again, in mostly inexcusable fashion, from Japan to the U.S. The fighting gameplay, while decent, doesn't hold up for long matches against unneeded and poorly implemented features and the ever-frustrating voice acting. Any kid who is enough of a Naruto fan to want this game should just go ahead and import the Japanese version. At this point, it won't cost much more, and they'll get a much better deal out of it. Alternatively, just wait for the upcoming Rise of a Ninja or grab Clash of Ninja 3 on the DS and support the somewhat-decent games in the series.
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