Publisher: Namco Bandai Games America
Release Date: March 25, 2008
Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3 marks the latest entry in the popular fighting series on the PlayStation 2. The basic formula hasn't seen much change throughout the series, and the same holds true with this title. The roster is definitely bigger, and the story line is new, two factors that should keep the die-hard Naruto fans happy. However, does the game hold up as a fighter, or is it too bogged down in the role-playing elements that it tries to emulate? In truth, it succeeds as much as it fails, and we'll go into that in a bit.
First, however, if you're not familiar with the popular universe of Naruto, I'll give you a bit of a rundown. Naruto stems from a popular shounen (boys) manga in Japan that currently has a mega-popular anime that runs on Cartoon Network in the U.S. If you venture into a Hot Topic store, you'll notice that there is Naruto merchandise all over the place, a testament to how popular the series has become. In Japan, there have been a series of Naruto games, ranging from action-adventure titles to simple fighters, all across various platforms. Ultimate Ninja is one of those entries, and it's seen quite a bit of popularity in the U.S.
In Ultimate Ninja 3, the main mode featured is Ultimate Contest, which revolves around a festival being held in Naruto's hometown, the Leaf Village, and the village elder has decided to create a tournament for the village ninja. The game takes place prior to the TV series' current plot, but it's current enough to include Naruto's new teacher, Jiraiya, so the roster is pretty up-to-date with the series.
In Ultimate Contest mode, you'll be able to navigate the Leaf Village (along with a few nearby locations), using Naruto to hop around from building to building, all in a quest to collect small gemstones by either finding them hidden around the village or fighting other ninja that possess them. This is where the fighting element comes into play, and you only have only one round to defeat your opponent.
The fighting engine of Ultimate Ninja 3 hasn't changed much since the previous entry, but it still holds up quite well. At first glance, the mechanics seem pretty simple, with only one true attack button, a jump button, and a single counter technique. Even the combo system is pretty simple, with the majority of moves consisting of a repeating pattern of the attack button plus two directional moves. The moves are also universal from character to character, which is one of the bigger faults I have with the series. Regardless of whom you pick, they play exactly the same, with just different animations for their special attacks or ultimate moves. It's definitely a fighting engine designed for a younger crowd, so you won't be seeing Virtua Fighter complexity in the fighting here.
Along with your basic combos, you can perform up to two different Jutsu moves, which are special attacks that drain your Jutsu meter, which rests underneath your life bar. Finally, you can also perform a very flashy Ultimate Ninjutsu attack, which is definitely the hardest-hitting attack in your arsenal. Once it hits, you'll be greeted with an animation sequence that also requires you to hit a certain button combination that pops up on the screen. Your opponent can also defend against the attack by hitting his own string of buttons, which makes the whole event a bit more interactive and challenging. However, every time I went up against the AI in these Ultimate Ninjutsu sequences, I would win hands down, so it's really only going to challenge you if you're going up against another human opponent.
The counter system in Ultimate Ninja 3 allows you to tap the R2 or L2 button right before your opponent lands a hit; it will replace your body with a fake double, allowing you to come up behind your opponent for a surprise attack. It's a bit difficult to time at first, but once you do, you'll become almost unstoppable against the computer AI. The usefulness of the counter system really comes into play when going against another player, and it can make for some frustratingly fun matches.
After every match, you'll gain experience points based on how well you did. There's a variety of criteria, including the amount of Jutsu attacks used, Ultimate Ninjutsu attacks, the amount of life you have left, the amount of combo attacks pulled off, and a few more. Once you hit 100 experience points, you'll gain a new level, which will typically boost your stats — such as strength, agility and defense — by one point. I'm not entirely sure what improving these stats actually does, and after 10 levels, I didn't see any noticeable improvement in my character's performance.
The other benefit of leveling up comes from the addition of new Jutsu and Ultimate Ninjutsu abilities. Once you start gaining new abilities you can switch these out with the ones you started with, which keeps the animations from getting stale. However, you'll have to obtain new items (typically found in the item shop in the main menu), to be able to use these abilities. You'll also gain the cash to obtain these items after the results from every fight, which is tallied up in the same way as your experience points.
The other big mode of Ultimate Ninja 3 is Hero's History, where you play through previous events in the Naruto series, starting from the very beginning. These don't include free-roaming sections like Ultimate Contest; instead, they typically consist of a cut scene followed by a fight, usually involving Naruto and one other opponent. There are four different acts to participate in, with each act consisting of three different chapters. If you're not familiar with the series, this is the best way to get caught up, but don't expect to learn as much here as you would from actually watching the show or reading the manga.
Both of these modes provide the means to unlocking Ultimate Ninja 3's gigantic roster. There are over 40 playable characters, with only half of them being available from the outset. You'll unlock quite a few unique characters, and a couple of other characters that are slight variations of the ones you start with (think of them as a new form). Without spoiling anything, there are enough characters here to satisfy fans of any main cast member, so nobody should be disappointed with the selection.
If you don't enjoy the story aspects of Ultimate Ninja 3, there is a basic versus mode as well, which can include another player or the computer as an opponent. However, there's no tournament structure, and since the matches only consist of one round, it doesn't provide a satisfying alternative to your typical fighter. The game also lacks any kind of online mode, so you're stuck playing with whomever you can find locally.
Personally, I didn't enjoy the Ultimate Contest nearly as much as the Hero's History mode, simply because the RPG elements in Ultimate Contest felt a bit tacked-on. The leveling-up doesn't provide any noticeable effect, and traversing the Leaf Village on foot looking for fights gets pretty old after five minutes, since the entire map is incredibly small in the first place. There isn't much to do, and there's only limited character interaction, so I would have much preferred a typical fighting game story that consisted of a cut scene or two before a match, which is exactly what you get from the Hero's History mode.
However, if you want to unlock everything in the title, you'll be forced to play through Ultimate Contest at some point. I imagine that the series' big fans will get a slight kick out of that mode, but for the average player, it's going to feel tedious at best.
Rounding out the available modes in Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3 is Iruka's Training and The Break Room. Iruka's Training allows you to go one-on-one against a computer AI opponent to practice your combo skills and new abilities that you've unlocked. There's an on-screen display to tell you which buttons you're hitting so you know if you're actually performing the moves correctly, and you can set up the AI to defend, attack or just stand there while you pound away on it.
The Break Room, on the other hand, is a collection of three mini-games that can be played against the computer or another player. The mini-games are all really simple and won't do much to distract you from the fighting game stuff. One mode has you tossing throwing stars at targets that pop up on the screen, while another has you facing off against one of the teachers in a triathlon of events, like one-armed push-ups and macho poses. The third event has you scaling a tree by running straight up, collecting speed power-ups while dodging branches on your way to the top. Each of these games is really short, and not all that fun to play due to how incredibly easy they are.
Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3 is a really fun fighting game when it actually allows you to fight. The RPG elements of the main mode are definitely a bore and don't have a noticeable impact on the actual gameplay. Hero's Quest mode is where fighting fans will feel more at home, but unfortunately, that portion is too short to feel like a full game. If you're a big Naruto fan, then you'll enjoy the variety of characters and story references, but for the old-school fighter fans, there isn't enough depth here to satisfy you for long. With a little more focus, Ultimate Ninja 3 could have been a far greater game than it ended up being. Hopefully, the next version will make a few adjustments to help it find a solid identity against other like-minded fighting titles.
More articles about NARUTO: Ultimate Ninja 3