Ninja Council 2 is very much an advertisement for the Naruto license first and a game as an afterthought.
Genres: Platformer, Action
Multimedia: Naruto: Ninja Council 2
Number of players: 1-4
ESRB rating: Everyone 10+
US release date: 2006-10-10
This is the second time in as many weeks where I've attempted to review a game that normally I wouldn't give a passing glance to. I never really got into the whole 'anime' scene, so I'm unable to, say, recite the banter between Naruto and Sasuke from episode 4 of season 3 of the TV version of Naruto. I am, however, able to tell the difference between a good game and a bad game. Naruto: Ninja Council 2, for example, falls firmly in the latter category.
Naruto is the anime of choice for a lot of fans, fans whose passion applies to all forms of Naruto merchandise: scarves, rings, wallets, T-shirts and, of course, videogames, regardless of their quality. The devotion and sometimes obsession shown by fans (of anything, really) to fully absorb themselves into the sub-culture that they've dedicated themselves to is a fact not lost on game companies. A fan is likely to be blinded by love of the brand and unable to tell any better -- at least, so hopes the developer. As a result, licensed nonsense like this probably doesn't even go through the Q&A process before it gets released and ready to be consumed by its ever loyal following.
Things start off well, for the presentation is striking, most noticeably in the level of detail given to the three main characters Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura as they attempt to thwart the evil Orochimaru as well as pass their ninja exams. Each is playable from the start, with the option to alternate between the three on the fly, via simply tapping the L button. You'll utilise each persona's strengths to pass the various obstacles, while saving health for the trickier segments of the game. One can start fighting with Naruto, then when his health and his repertoire of skills let you down, switch to the fresher Sasuke (and his own set of techniques) and then finally finish off your nemeses with Sakura.
While basic attacks make up the barebones of the combat, the main draw is the spectacular super attacks -- extravagant and outlandish, they add to the already silly, over the top flavour the series is known and loved for. An interesting addition is the scrolls feature; you're allowed to store up to three different scrolls at any time, and by pressing the R and A buttons simultaneously, the scrolls will unleash one of the side characters to help you in battle. This turns out to be a a useful aid and a testament to developers Aspect, who have incorporated a fairly vast array of techniques into the humble old Gameboy without ever being too excessive.
At this point, though, the novelties of the license should wear off as you encounter some of the blandest and most unimaginative level design ever to rear its ugly head. The typical Naruto level goes like this: Hold down right on the directional pad and press B to mash your way through the endless hordes of incompetent clone enemies. Fight the end of level boss (which surely must be the oldest cliché in gaming history). That's it. Occasionally, you're required to jump over the odd log or to avoid an oncoming attack, but that's as imaginative as it gets.
As you keep playing, you'll yearn for some decent platforming or, for that matter, even some lousy platforming, anything to take you away from the horrendous, sleep-inducing combat. Yet it never happens -- while each level does have its own gimmick such as the cave level where you'll battle on the backs of snakes, in reality you're just repeating the same trick. The change of scenery is the only attempt to differentiate the levels between each other. The world feels empty and void of any life, and even when playing as the hyperactive Naruto, Ninja Council 2 fails to spark any excitement.
The saving grace for Ninja Council 2 has to be its combat; 2D, scrolling fighters are always welcome and the GBA is the perfect fit for that glove. Yet even that isn't accomplished with any degree of flair -- the action is clunky and simplistic with horrid collision detection thrown in to boot. Button bashing becomes an all-too-easy habit to fall into, made even easier by the omission of any challenge from your enemies.
The chunky combat isn't just exclusive to your ground attacks as even the aerial combat lacks the fluidity and, most importantly, the pace you'd expect from a series of brawlers that bases itself on lightning quick action. The collision detection only serves to reinforce the notion that most of development time was spent on capturing the look of the cartoon rather than the actual feel that a beat-em-up should have. Receiving and dishing out attacks when there's clearly a huge pixel divide reeks of laziness and really grates when enemies that are nowhere near you land fatal blows.
Undeniably, Ninja Council 2 is very much an advertisement for the Naruto license first and a game as an afterthought. The sense of style over substance is overwhelmingly clear; why Aspect didn't put as much effort into the actual gameplay, to rival the effort it put into Ninja Council's presentation is a question that won't leave the player's mind for the entirety of the gameplay.
Naruto: Ninja Council 2, for lack of a better word, feels unfinished, though worryingly that is unlikely to be a deterrent for the diehard fans. You don't need to know the ins and outs of all of Naruto's cartoon antics to know that this is a bad game, pure and simple. Truth be told, if it didn't have the Naruto name branded across its front cover this would be lucky to sell ten copies. But, just as the headline implies, until certain fans are actually deterred by this fact, there's no incentive on the development side to even slightly improve matters.