Japanese fighting animes have always maintained a careful balance between their epic fighting foundation and the science fiction/fantasy that fleshes these encounters out. At its core, a show like Naruto is remarkably similar to the WWF. You have villains and heroes, factions and rivalries, and countless battles that build up a huge drama of who will fight and who will win. Each battle demonstrates the character’s abilities and these formulaic contests act as the ongoing motivation for the show.
To distinguish itself from simple displays of constant fighting, though, animes of this sort tend to create complex rule systems and abilities to heighten the drama and keep things interesting. Goku can triple his power level but it hurts his body, the shadow clone ability is handy but the strength gets divided between clones so they weaken quickly, etc. The fighting may sustain these shows, but the sci-fi mythology is what keeps them interesting. With that essence of the show in mind, it’s a bit disappointing that Naruto: Ninja Destiny retains almost none of these except the names and faces.
The reason the game doesn’t deliver any of the nuances of Naruto is because all of the characters play exactly the same. I don’t mean Smash Bros. exactly the same, I mean right down to the same moves. You’ve got the strong attack, weak attack, re-appear, and a super attack. True, the super attacks all look different but…so what? I activate all of them the same way, they all do the exact same thing (damage) and they all get built up the same way. Having incredible simplicity in a fighting game is by no means a bad thing, the success of Smash Bros. is proof enough of that. But each of those characters have different moves that substantially affect which player you choose. The very point of having a huge roster of characters to play is the change of tactics and style that different characters bring with them. With Naruto, none of that exists. Some characters are too slow and some don’t do enough damage, but that’s about as deep as the variation gets. A typical round consists of wailing on the opponent until your chakra meter is built up and then hitting the super attack button. This will usually finish them off and have you well on your way to best out of three. And…that’s it.
There are a variety of things they could’ve done to improve the game even with these substantial limitations. For starters, a dynamic environment to move around in would’ve broken up the monotony of each fight. Numerous games have explored this territory with varying success and it could’ve added depth here. The game does utilize a power-up in the form of items you carry into combat but they do little more than boost strength, defense, attack, or health. This is fair enough, but because the player is never given a choice to choose what they bring into battle it’s little more than a slot machine addition to the game. The fact that the power-ups themselves are so incredibly dull doesn’t help either. The player taps these while playing, meaning there is no way to interrupt their use or even be aware when one has been used. So again, it adds very little except a random shift in how many punches are person needs.
The game is certainly pretty and it does run well. It’s refreshing to see that the DS is capable of good looking games, but I doubt many owners considered it inferior because it doesn’t look like a PS3. It’s still the game and narrative that are at issue here and both fail. Any amusement out of beating the story mode with different characters is short-lived because of the lack of difference between them. The story mode takes about an hour or so to beat and was pretty much gibberish to me. There’s an angry Gene Simmons ninja, something about a fox, and a lot of people who like to fight with luggage on their back.
I should warn: I’ve never actually watched Naruto the show. I’ve tabbed through enough YouTube and Wikipedia to get the overall concept, but I can’t say that I understand the show after beating the game’s story mode and completing it as several different characters. This is possibly biggest problem with the game, that it doesn’t communicate anything about the show’s story or characters. There’s no fighting game here for people who want that and there is hardly anything that maintains the essence of a Japanese fighting anime like Naruto either. The fun of something like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat is beating it with multiple characters and taking on your friends once you’ve picked out a favorite. But when all those characters are generally the same, the very essence of the game itself has been boiled into nothing. At this point, Naruto: Ninja Destiny basically plays like baby’s first fighting game. There’s nothing here for the fans and there’s nothing here for newcomers.