Version tested: PlayStation 2
If there's one thing we've learned from our time served telling the world which games are worth playing, it's that a game can never be written off based on its subject matter. Def Jam: Fight For New York makes for a perfect example - the idea of a couple of rappers slogging the hell out of each other might not do it for you but if you're big on your wrestling games, it's pretty much a must-have. Similarly, even games based on unfamiliar IPs can tickle you in a special way despite your lack of knowledge, awareness or interest. You may not know what a Naruto is, let alone what to do with one, but trust us when we tell you that regardless, Ultimate Ninja is a deeply enjoyable cartoon fighter. And if you're into the series anyway, the only thing you could really ask for is a bigger roster. But we'll come to that a little later on.
Ultimate Ninja is very much a game forged from the same cast as Super Smash Bros, not that this is any bad thing. Multi-tiered stages are awash with power-ups and helpers for both fighters and all stages have two planes on which to fight - switching from front to back of screen or vice versa is really useful in evading an opponent's special attacks or rounding up collectables in a last ditch effort to claw back a victory. As in Nintendo's popular fighter, items provide a variety of effects, granting limited use of special weapons, calling in helpers for a quick attack or recharging life or Chakra energy a little. Breaking scenery is often the best way to round up these goodies and in some stages, there's an obvious race to power-up areas as both fighters try to get the best stuff for a head start.
Considering it has just a single attack button, the combat in Ultimate Ninja is amazingly varied. Canned strings use the Circle button with all four basic directions to create a decent amount of combos for each fighter, some of which mix up heights to force high/low guard changes while others transition straight into weak Chakra attacks if they hit. Luckily, the defensive side of the game has not been overlooked and with guard assigned to both back shoulder buttons, it's easy enough to throw out a few punches before putting a wall up at the risk of being thrown. Time your defence well enough and you're even able to teleport behind your opponent to launch a barrage of your own and with the ability to switch to background or foreground in a pinch, there's enough technical stuff going on to hold interest far longer than most basic fighting games. Launch into one of the powerful special attacks (which require a quick charge or three with the Triangle button before use, making them tough to land on a skilled opponent) and you'll be thrown into a brief mini-game where quickly pressing a sequence of buttons on-screen can boost or reduce damage depending on whether attacker or defender nails their sequence better. It doesn't distract too much from the superb animations and it breaks up the general action nicely, so thumbs up there.
While many developers may barely remember the drunken flings they had with cel-shading a few years back, relative unknown Cyber Connect 2 is keen for the world to know how in love with the graphical style it is. Using line shading rather than the awkward block colour of so many other cel-shaded titles gives the characters a much more natural, hand-drawn look that manages to continue the style of the series extremely well. Silky-smooth animation seals the deal and the signature attacks each character can employ will make Narutophiles weep tears of absolute joy - some reflect actual events from the anime while other, more general specials play on the series' humour and still more are impressive enough to make even the most jaded of onlookers nod their heads in approval.
The meagre character list is among the few real drawbacks in what is a surprisingly accomplished fighting game, sporting just fourteen selectable fighters (two of which are stronger, slightly broken versions of existing ones). Like with Mortal Kombat's Fatalities, it's great going through all the different Chakra attacks as you play through the story with each character but after that, you'll probably stick to one or two preferred characters for most of the game's plentiful missions. Ultimate Ninja is, for what it is, an extremely competent brawler and given that the two sequels have been out in Japan for over a year already, it really is amazing that it doesn't show its age in the most important areas. A solid rental, certainly, but more importantly, Ultimate Ninja lays the foundations for what should be a couple of extremely exciting sequels. Enjoy the suitably tasty starter for now then, and expect the main course to follow later in the year.
7 / 10