It's been nearly ten years since Naruto made its animated debut in Japan. Over the past decade Studio Pierrot has told countless stories of the young ninja and his friends, introducing dozens of characters into the ever-expanding sage. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations attempts to cram all of that into a single fighting game. We might need a bigger disc.
Japanese developer CyberConnect2 has been creating Ultimate Ninja fighting adventure titles based on the Naruto series since 2003. After five installments on the PlayStation 2 the series made the leap to the PlayStation 3 with Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm. The Xbox 360 got in on the party with Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2, adding in content from the second animated series starring a slightly more mature Naruto and friends. Each game packed in more characters and story than the last, while still maintaining the 3D free-movement fighting system that's become the franchise's calling card.
Now we have Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations. Drawing on the combined history of both Naruto anime series (and adding some fresh content courtesy of Studio Pierrot), this third Ultimate Ninja Storm title is the biggest the franchise has ever seen. How does it manage to avoid collapsing under its own weight?
More Naruto Characters Than I Can Shake My Understanding At: After reviewing five or six different Naruto-inspired games over the past five years and watching a substantial chunk of anime for "research" purposes, I assumed I knew all there was to know about the anime. The 72-character roster of Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations proves that assumption false.
Dipping into two generations of ninja anime, CyberConnect2 has pulled together a massive lineup of fighters with a surprisingly low number of dupes. There are four Narutos and four Sasukes, plus young and old versions of many of the series more popular characters, but for the most part it's a rather diverse group. Even those dupes are diversified; standard Naruto plays differently than Sage Naruto. It's simply one of the most impressive fighting game rosters I've experienced in recent memory.
Refined Ninja Battles: CyberConnect2 continues to refine the Ultimate Ninja Storm fighting engine, transforming a sloppy and unbalanced experience into a much tighter though still unbalanced one. Over the course of the series fans (and this reviewer) have accepted the fact that the more characters we get the lower the chances of getting a truly balanced fighting game become. It's an issue of quantity over quality; CyberConnect2 has made us fans of quantity.
Besides, a lack of balance doesn't necessarily equal a lack of entertainment value; it just means the game won't be an official e-sport any time soon. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations's chaos lends itself to highly entertaining battles online and off, especially when one player's health gets low enough to take advantage of the new Awakening Mode, briefly morphing their character into a ridiculously overpowered version. Awakenings, the fact that Substitution Jitsu (turning into a log to instantly avoid an attack) is now tied to a refillable meter, and the unlockable character cards that players can assign to enhance battle skills all add up to one of the most satisfyingly chaotic Naruto fighting games yet.
Ninja Theory 101: Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations' single-player story mode is a crash-course on the entire run of both anime series. It's got the story of young Naruto, the story of Shippuden-era Naruto, the story of Sasuke, Sasuke's brother, Naruto's dad... hell, it even has a musical story mode for Killer Bee, the series' funky rap enthusiast. I would have preferred a more dynamic presentation (see hated), but as far as telling the tale of the wildly popular anime series, this game's got that covered.
Real, Honest-to-Goodness Unlockables: Fighting games these days seem to be shying away from unlockable characters, preferring to give gamers everything up front and then make them pay for more. Not so with Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations. You start with something like ten playable characters, with the rest unlocked by playing through story mode. You can't even bring a character online to do battle until you unlock it. How I've missed you, character unlocks.
Not only are there characters to acquire, there are secret items to be unlocked via codes on Naruto Collectible Card Game cards. It's a silly little mechanic that appeals to the ravenous consumer child inside of me. Sure, the codes will all be online in a couple of days; I appreciate the effort.
Mad Online Ninja Skills: As I mentioned previously, that polished-yet-unbalanced fighting system makes for some of the most entertaining and dramatic online battles I've had in quite a while. Beating a player down to a sliver of health, only to have them awaken the nine-tailed fox or water shark lurking inside, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; it would be frustrating if it weren't so entertaining to watch. This is the sort of fighting game where novices have a chance to win, and even if they lose it's still a hell of a good time.
Where Has All the Adventure Gone?: The first Ultimate Ninja Storm game featured a fully traversable Leaf Village, giving players a place to screw around between fights. The second game replaced that with static 3D areas to run through, performing various tasks for non-player characters while advancing the story with your fists. I was disappointed, but at least there was still an element of adventure.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations ditches the adventure aspect altogether, instead delivering a single-player experience that is nothing more than a series of fights interspersed with narrated cutscenes built from static art and capped off with original video intros and endings.
It's an incredibly disappointing downgrade. I was expecting the next evolution of Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2's gorgeous cinematic quick time events. Instead the series' pivotal moments play out like an elaborate slideshow.
Recycled Sets: It's time to build some fresh fighting arenas, CyberConnect2. While there are some original stages in Ninja Storm Generations, the majority have been lifted directly from previous games in the series. I realize these are iconic locales that need to be show-accurate, but a little variety never hurt anyone. Move a tree or something.
The Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm series is maturing as it ages. The first game let players rollick about Hidden Leaf Village with nary a care in the world. The second title, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2, dropped that whimsical feature in favor of a more focused adventuring experience.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations is the old man of the franchise, combining all its experience into one massive chronicle of the popular anime series. It has met many characters and tells many tales. It's a little too old for adventuring, preferring to tell stories than actively participate, but its fighting skills have improved with experience. The fighting franchise based on a beloved coming-of-age tale has itself come of age.