[1 March 2007]
What do we want from our heroes?
The days of the squeaky clean hero are behind us—when’s the last time you saw any legitimate interest or discussion of someone like Captain America? Despite the sometimes disquieting stench of propaganda that follows him around, this is a guy that is never morally questionable, a guy dressed up in the colors of the flag, a guy who is never involved in a one-on-one battle where there is a question as to who the good guy is. Last year’s Superman movie bombed for all intents and purposes, while Batman, the X-Men, and Spider-Man continue to be utter gold at the box office, and why? Because we can more readily identify with heroes who possess a dark side, heroes who initially succumb to (but eventually overcome) the temptation of that dark side, often treading the line between good and evil over the course of their entire epic sagas. Heck, even the popular Hiro of NBC’s Heroes, often cited as the most “lovable” and “fundamentally good” of that show’s characters, couldn’t help but use his power to cheat a bit in Vegas.
And yet, somehow, amongst all of these tortured heroes, there is Naruto, a hero who enjoys surprisingly widespread (and apparently still growing) popularity in Japan and North America. There’s no moral dilemma with Naruto—he always knows what he wants and charges full-speed ahead in his quest to achieve everything he sets his mind to. When presented with a choice between right and wrong, he always gravitates towards what’s right, and when that line is blurred, he gravitates towards whatever will benefit him the most. He is not merely confident in the decisions he makes, he’s straight-up cocky, and he goes out of his way to make sure everyone around him is aware of just how great he thinks he is in the high-pitched yell that he considers his everyday speaking voice.
Truth is, at times, he’s downright annoying. If this guy was a regular in my life, I’d be waiting for the next available opportunity to give him a good swift smack in the back of the head.
For better or for worse, Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles gives us more time than any other recent Naruto title to become acquainted with that personality and all of the other personalities that surround it. The developers at Cavia decided to add a little bit of role-playing to the beat-‘em-up mechanics of the Naruto franchise. No, you won’t be solving any in-depth puzzles, or organizing the perfect party for hours of exploration, or hoping for that well-placed, frustratingly random power-hit on a roll of the die, but you will find random battles, a shop in which to buy necessary items, and tasks set forth for you by various townspeople.
It is in performing these tasks that we learn about Naruto, and his relationships with his acquaintances, and his devotion to completing the various tasks he sets out to do. In an early task, Naruto is asked by a girl named Karin who has lost her father, the shopkeeper, to advertise for the shop that she now runs. Initially, Naruto is hesitant, because he doesn’t want to shill for anyone, but when he notes the sadness and timidity of Karin, he is compelled. That “advertising” actually consists of running around, getting into random battles, beating up evil ninjas (who, as it happens, are spreading lies about our lovely Miss Karin), and tossing flyers all over the place after each battle only sweetens the deal. Really, though, one gets the impression that Naruto is driven far more by a need to do good than a need to kick ass, and it’s just the beginning of a pattern that continues throughout the game. When Naruto is transporting a rare trinket, it never, ever occurs to him that it might benefit him to make off with it, even as those he would call his allies are not so strong of will; truth is, should others fall into temptation with Naruto around, he’s more than willing to slap them around until they fall back in line.
This devotion to his cause, whatever that cause may be, becomes endearing over the course of the game, to the point where we’re almost willing to overlook his obnoxiousness in expressing that devotion. In fact, this refreshing do-gooding nature that borders on naïveté actually serves as motivation for the player—the human player, using an avatar whose goals are never blurry, becomes driven to achieve those goals so as not to break the inherent innocence of such a character; the downcast looks on Naruto’s face after a failed mission become enough to elicit empathy from the player.
And you will see those downcast looks—Uzumaki Chronicles is startling in its difficulty, particularly for a licensed product, and refreshingly, it’s not due to any deficiencies in the control scheme or cheapshots. Rather, Uzumaki Chronicles is simply a well-designed game with a steep learning curve. Sure, you can simply blast through the first few missions, with their paper tiger ninjas and feeble A.I., using whatever combination of moves you feel like using, trying to gain points for artistic merit, maybe, but never fearing that the end of the game will come any time soon.
Almost too suddenly, the missions start to get seriously tough, requiring that all of those combos be mastered, requiring that any allies the game chooses to give you are well-utilized, and even requiring no small bit of strategy on the part of the player. Sure, there are still missions that simply require bashing and crashing through hordes of enemies, but more often, there are bosses that require some actual strategy to approach. There’s also an odd power-up system that one could spend a solid hour perfecting, mastery of which actually becomes necessary for the sake of giving Naruto every edge he can get in his battles.
Still, that difficulty only enhances the sense of accomplishment one gets from helping Naruto complete his missions, thus increasing the drive of the player to complete more. And that becomes the draw of the game—the wish to actually see a hero like Naruto, the likes of which we hardly ever see anymore, succeed. Congratulations to Cavia for making us care about such a character.