After nearly a decade of playing Naruto video games, that annoying little jerk of a ninja unleashes his most powerful move yet — making me cry. God I hate him.
The creation of manga artist Masashi Kishimoto, Naruto began as a one-shot comic strip and grew into one of the best-selling manga series of all-time. Studio Pierrot's animated adaptation of the work brought Naruto's dull-witted smile and endless optimism to the non-backwards-reading masses, cementing the young ninja's position as a Japanese cultural icon. He's kind of a big deal.
In an effort to better understand the games (my first introduction to the series was an import copy of 2003's Naruto: Clash of the Ninja for GameCube), I watched all 220 episodes of the original anime series. As any Naruto fan will tell you, this was a massive waste of time, as huge chunks of that run can be completely skipped without losing track of the main story. But I watched it all, coming away with a better understanding of the overall plot and a big question: "Why do so many people love this idiot?"
I've spent the better part of a decade watching Naruto learn to believe in himself over and over and over again. Sometimes he has to believe in his friends, but it generally comes down to finding the power within himself. Often he quite literally has to battle his inner demons to achieve understanding, duking it out with a nine-tailed metaphor for self-doubt, fear and hatred. People love this. They cannot get enough. If I were a manga writer I would be a complete failure, because my hero would only need to learn his lesson once. "You need to believe in yourself, Fahey." "I'll do that." "Oh, and believe in your friends, too." "Okay." The end.
Set two and a half years after the original series, Naruto Shippuden introduced us to a somewhat more mature Naruto, but no amount of intense training can cure whatever brain defect causes a young man to keep attempting to make nice with a "friend" that's tried to kill him on multiple occasions. ("Sasuke is no longer your friend, Fahey." "Bummer. Let's get a slushie.") Not our Naruto. He's filled with hope and bone-headed determination. He won't give up on his friends, no matter how many people they slaughter. You just want to slap the whiskers off his stupid little face.
He'll always be an idiot, but in Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 he's getting better. Over the course of this free-movement fighting game's 10-hour story mode we're treated to a glorious transformation as our ninja hero makes peace with the most important people in his life. (No, not Sasuke.) We've hit the point in the story where creator Masashi Kishimoto started letting his own experience as a father guide his story — when he realized that all children, no matter how powerful, need their parents.
For the sake of potential players not up on the manga and anime I won't spoil the story. Suffice it to say there was one particularly long (talking 30 minutes plus) cut scene that had me crying like a giant, balding and bearded little girl.
In fact, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is filled with touching moments, thanks to characters reanimating just about every important dead ninja in series history and pitting them against the characters most likely to have a touching mid-fight moment with them. Ninja emo girl Gaara's battle against his father is another example of a fighting game based on a cartoon making me cry. It's also indicative of the freshness of the game's story — the episode that inspired that reunion aired in Japan on January 24 of this year. It's so fresh that the ending of the game isn't canon, because the actual ending hasn't been published yet.
The powerful stories are punctuated by the Ultimate Ninja series' signature brand of free-movement battles, enhanced with some significant tweaks. Awakening Mode, the once single-use desperation move that transforms characters into more powerful forms, can now be used at will, as long as the player doesn't mind losing access to their special move powering chakra for a short time after. Assist characters play a larger role in fights now, gaining health bars and the ability to be beaten into submission for their trouble. New battle stages have been added to the rotation (yay), some of which feature the ability to lose by ring-out (boo).
Another new addition to the franchise is the Hero/Legend system. On one hand it's a relatively pointless means of item management. Completing most story battles rewards players with Hero points and Legend points, used to gain ranks in the two categories. Gaining ranks unlocks support item slots (you start with only two of the four unlocked) and allows the player to use more powerful items more often. The trick is you can only use one category of support items per battle — Hero or Legend. As I barely felt the need to use performance enhancing drugs during the relatively easy story mode, these distinctions meant absolutely nothing to me.
The system's more entertaining function comes during key points in the story, when the player must choose between the path of the Hero (easy) or the path of the Legend (hard). Choosing one over the other might mean you simply fight a different set of enemies in a mob battle — a new feature that sees players taking on multiple enemies at once — or it could result in a completely different boss fight entirely. These are profound decisions, at least until you realize you can replay any of the game's sequences from the Ninja World Timeline option in the menu, exploring untraveled branches at your leisure.
The Ninja World Timeline will also allow you to replay the game's incredibly impressive boss fights, triumphantly returning to the series after skipping Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations. As with earlier entries, these gorgeous cel-shaded masterpieces are powered by increasingly pointless quick time events — timed button presses so important that if you should fail one you immediately get a chance to input it again. They were charming, once. Now I'd rather watch the action rather than focus on the middle of the screen, vigilant for flashing prompts.
Once the book is closed on the Fourth Great Ninja War and the last quick time events have been input, Naruto is free to wander the world, engaging in side-quests, collecting items and playing a mini-game involving strengthening your relationship with your fellow ninja. I've given up hope that we'll ever see a return of the fully-explorable 3D Hidden Leaf Village of the original Ultimate Ninja Storm, but the static environments from the second game are beginning to grow on me. Outside of the fighting it's a quite a dull post-denouement dealio, but I suppose the little jerk's earned some rest and relaxation.
While Naruto is off wandering the world, competitive players can revel in the most unbalanced online multiplayer fighting on Earth. With more than 80 different playable characters available, CyberConnect 2 has given up on making sure one ninja with a headband isn't more or less powerful than the other, instead focusing on delivering as many options as possible. The end result of this is a chaotic online multiplayer environment in which everyone eventually settles on using Naruto's father — Minato — to kick my ass all over the place.
I'd try to be better at multiplayer, but I have too much respect for my fellow man to let my hatred get the better of me. Naruto taught me that. It only took five tries.
Die-hard fans of the franchise could doubtlessly spend hours breaking down Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3, pointing out all the ways this game is better or worse than its predecessors. I am not a die-hard fan. I am the sort of sideline-riding Naruto gawker that requires more than a smirking yellow-haired boy with his fist raised beneath a logo to capture and hold my interest. Ginormous, mildly-interactive boss fights are a start, but where's the emotional engagement?