The Nintendo DS is no stranger to the Naruto series, as it has hosted quite a few of the original and Shippuden games. While it is home to more of the adventure games, it has also sported a few vastly different fighting games. Naruto: Ninja Council 3 was more of a large-scale Super Smash Bros. clone while Naruto: Ninja Destiny and its sequel both emulated the fighting game style seen on both the GameCube and Wii incarnations of the title. While neither title was spectacular, both were decent enough and pleased a good number of Naruto fans, who were also avid DS players. The show is still going strong, so the time has come once again for another DS fighting game set in the Naruto universe. It feels like Naruto Shippuden: Shinobi Rumble is more of a step backward for the series than an improvement over its predecessors.
In what seems like a tradition for the series, the fighting engine is very different from its predecessors. Instead of a 3-D space like the Ninja Destiny series, the game goes back to the 2-D arena style seen in the Ninja Council series. The arenas are much smaller, so there is no need for a minimap. Fights can have a maximum of up to four people with any configuration, whether it's a free-for-all or team-based. All matches last for one round, which ends when all opponents have been defeated or time expires. Every fighter still has a repertoire of basic and strong attacks as well as special moves that can be activated by touching the appropriate space on the touch-screen. Defensively, players can either block or teleport to another area. Like the Ninja Council series, items play their part in the fight, though they appear randomly and have immediate effects instead of being something that the player can activate at his own discretion.
A simple fighting system isn't necessarily a bad one, provided there is some depth. Unfortunately, this is as shallow as they come. The two-attack setup isn't necessarily a bad thing since a few fighting games — including the GameCube iterations of the Naruto fighting games — still use it, but the developers didn't implement a good number of combos with the setup. For the most part, you'll find a basic three-hit combo with the quick attack button or a three-hit combo using two quick attacks and one hard attack. Every character plays just about the same way with the same number of combos, so the excitement drains away rather quickly.
Special moves also don't seem to be implemented well enough. At the beginning of each fight, you can choose up to three special moves for your fighter. In battle, you can tap the move on-screen to initiate it or tap the ultra prompt next to the move to unleash a more powerful version of it. However, you can't initiate similar moves via button combinations even though fighting fans have been doing so for close to 20 years. It takes what could have been a fluent fighter and slows it down since players have to take their thumbs away from the primary face controls to move to the touch-screen and initiate a special move. It may be fine when fighting against the lazy CPU AI, but against human competition, this type of maneuver often results in a reversal of fortune and leads to frustration with the system.
There are a few available modes in Shinobi Rumble. The Story mode is the core of the single-player experience, as it tells the story of Naruto after the destruction and disbanding of the Akatsuki. It also covers the story of Sasuke as he forms his own group to find the man who destroyed his home village long ago. Interestingly, the plot in this mode follows the sixth season of the series, so if you follow the series online instead of on Disney XD, you'll be completely lost on the story or spoil yourself for events that won't occur until much later. As in many fighting games, you'll go through different bouts with pre-selected characters and scenarios, such as fighting in a one-on-three bout or fighting against a guy with three life bars instead of one. Other than winning the bout, there are no special conditions to be met throughout the two-hour affair.
After going through the Story mode, two things become apparent. First, the AI seems nonexistent. Even on the highest difficulty levels, enemies seem content to spend the match standing in one place and getting punched, though they toss in the occasional block, teleport or attack for good measure. It makes the opponents seem like punching bags for a practice session rather than true opponents in a fighting game. The partner AI in matches doesn't seem to fare any better, either, as they also stand around instead of trying to land some punches of their own. Unless you're facing human competition, you'll have a hard time losing a match. You'll even grow tired of winning because you can use the same strategy over and over again to finish a fight.
The other thing that people will quickly notice is the lack of variety with the characters and locales. Only six characters are unlocked when you start playing the game, but after unlocking everyone, you get a total of 16 fighters — the smallest number for any Naruto fighting game on the system to date. You'll also notice the small number of arenas, especially since a few of them are used in place of different locales in the story. After seeing the breadth of fighters in earlier incarnations, longtime players who pick up this title will feel shortchanged.
Versus mode is exactly what you'd expect. Whether you're fighting against the CPU or human players, you can select from any fighter in various match types. The fights support any number of players with any configuration, so it's perfectly normal to have one fight be a free-for-all, four-player brawl, a three-on-one fight, or an evenly balanced two-on-two event. Local wireless multiplayer requires each fighter to have his or her own copy of the game, but at least the experience is lag-free during the more hectic moments. Considering the prohibitive cost of getting a full multiplayer match going, it would have been nice to see some sort of online option.
Personal Battles play out like the Arcade mode in other fighting games. You'll select a character and fight through a parade of 10 randomly selected enemies. Once this is completed, you'll get a personal vignette on your character as well as a symbol that can be used to unlock more fighters and/or arenas. Having to draw the symbol you just obtained is unique but feels like a gimmick to lengthen the game. For those who are into the whole Naruto lore, though, it's a nice bonus to be able to draw the characters and have them do something in the game.
Finally, the Special Missions mode gives you the opportunity to select any fighter and take him or her through a series of challenges that you also select. Unlike the other game modes, this has you aiming for specific challenges, such as beating an opponent without the use of super moves or defeating three opponents while poisoned. Winning matches gives you stamps, which are randomly placed on a character's bingo board. Getting bingo unlocks a new ability or move for the player, and missions continue piling up until all of the bingo spaces are filled.
The controls aren't too bad, considering the setup. The face buttons are responsive enough that simple combos can be executed without hesitation, and the same goes for the responsiveness of the R trigger for teleporting. Some players may have to adjust to using the A button to block instead of holding back on the d-pad, but considering how little you'd block anyway, it's not that much of an issue. What will get people, though, is the use of the touch-screen for special moves. The screen is responsive, and there's a good amount of space for each move, but it helps if you have thinner thumbs to avoid accidentally hitting the wrong move.
From a graphical standpoint, this game is better than Naruto: Ninja Council 3 but not as eye-popping as Naruto: Ninja Destiny. The sprites for each fighter are a little larger than the ones in Ninja Council 3 and are better animated, though there are still missing frames here and there. The stylized look for each fighter makes them appear more chibi-like, but it pays off when you see their winning pose expressions. The colors for the backgrounds and characters are bright, and the camera zooming does a good job of balancing focus on your own fighter and keeping track of the other fighters on the screen. It does all of this smoothly, so while it may not be as impressive as a 3-D fighter, it makes for a good-looking 2-D sprite-based fighter.
The sound is good, though not exceptional. The effects are good, but they feel hampered by the tiny speakers on the system. Things certainly improve with headphones, though, so players who want the best audio fidelity from the game should go that route. The music is also good, as it does a good job of setting the mood for a fight. There's a lack of stages in the game, so players will notice the same tunes being repeated; the music then becomes background noise instead of something that heightens the game experience.
Naruto Shippuden: Shinobi Rumble is an example that changing a working formula can sometimes be a bad thing. The small roster, shallow fighting system, and extremely similar move sets make for a boring fighting game. The lack of decent AI also makes this a short game for fans who decide to skip the multiplayer experience. Add in a control system that forces players to use the touch-screen for special moves, and even the most die-hard Naruto fans won't enjoy this title. If you insist on grabbing the game, wait until it drops in price to lessen your disappointment.
More articles about Naruto Shippuden: Shinobi Rumble