From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Game Review: Observations and Critique on “Naruto: Rise of a Ninja”

How the game designers quest for social acceptance rather than just handing down just another chop-saki-style fighting game.

There have been a small host of Naruto oriented games out on pretty much every console and system available (except the iPhone, but I suspect that’s only a matter of time).

For those of you who don’t know the history of the IP, here’s a rundown so you know what I’m talking about, and why I think this is significant: Naruto is an ongoing manga (comic book/graphic novel) series published internationally by Shonen Jump out of Japan. There is an associated anime (cartoon) series that takes you through the manga almost shot by shot that is currently being run in a number of venues, Cartoon Network being the most widely known, but as is always the case with translated works, the language has been modified for the 8yr old set. If you’re looking for something a little closer to the original Japanese (language issues and all) you can find it on Shonen Jump’s website or places like Hulu and Crunchyroll.

So, insofar as license-able properties go for videogames, this thing is pretty much clad in 24 carat. Most likely not so expensive as to suck all the funding out of the actual game itself, but with a massive fan base already installed and hungry for more. Oh, and it’s got ninjas in it, which makes it an almost brain-dead plugin for the established one-on-one chop-saki style fighting games like the Mortal Kombat and Soul Caliber franchises. You can’t get more instant, visceral action than one of these flying fists-of-fury style games pitting friends against foes, or friends against friends or any combination of the two.

And in fact, on one level, you’re looking at the *obvious* storyline of the original manga. The focus of the main characters is all about getting stronger, becoming better fighters, how to get faster, meaner, and powerful enough to defeat all comers — classic fighting-game stuff. The main character, Naruto, is on a quest to become the Hokage (the story equivalent of the Head of the Village) who is most often the strongest ninja in the village.

But that’s all surface styling. That’s what you get if you blast through the comic pages or the anime at top speed looking for the fight scenes and fancy moves. And if you’re doing that, then you’re missing the entire underlying point of the story. In fact, you’d be missing the thing that makes this IP such a universally acclaimed storyline. At it’s core, Naruto is about one young man’s quest for acceptance, for the recognition of his peers and during this quest rather than change himself, it is the society around him that begins to change for the better.

Of the Naruto games currently on the market, (and there are more currently in development) Naruto: Rise of a Ninja is one of the few titles whose gameplay focuses on this high-concept of the original story. Consequently it has turned out to be one of the better sellers and most positively received games set in this universe. You begin the game a shunned, disconsolate troublemaker, and the game aggressively reflects this, you can do little more than shuffle around and hear the insults and rejections of the villagers around you. You are offered only one way out and it is a classic one, the sort of thing that might happen to any kid in any country looking to achieve recognition. Someone is trying to use you and your troublemaker reputation to suit their own ends and they play to Naruto’s doubts and desires. It walks you through the basics of the combat system, setting you on the path to the larger game experience. Now, granted, it does walk you through large parts of the original anime, even using cutscenes culled from the cartoon to support and guide the game. These are limited, however, to the core storyline, between these scenes the game is remarkably sand-box like, giving the player the opportunity to explore, to try things out and to learn new skills as they choose to advance to plotline without giving you a clear linear path to the endgame.

One of the most clever elements in this game, one that evolves as you go and helps you keep track of your progress, is the “happiness meter.” Interactions with the crowd NPC’s are limited; each has a floating emoticon over their head that shows how they feel about Naruto. Attempt to get help from anyone who doesn’t like you (or run into them as you are bombing around the village at top speed), and you will be met with open scorn and ridicule.

But as you work your way through the assignments given to a junior ninja (such as yourself) you will find more and more people in the village willing to help you out if you need it, thereby making the game easier to navigate. So the player is doubly encouraged through this mechaninism not only to find quests that will make the character stronger, but to explore the universe to find other quests that, while they may not bring you much closer to the end of the game, will bring you more of those little happy icons and thereby give you an added advantage on larger quests. As you increase the overall level of happy villagers, new quests are made available which include racing elements that require not only cleverness with the joystick but also the ability to perform special skills on the fly, new pieces of the core story to follow.

A note about the console controls on this game: As the Xbox controller setup has gotten less alien over time, more and more games are taking innovative advantage of the half dozen buttons and joystick options. Naruto: RoaN is no exception to this rule.

Requisite in-game elements like the ability to cast jutsu (a series of hand signs that end in the execution of a special maneuver or attack) are handled with a clever sequence of moves using both analog joysticks rather than a complicated series of button presses, the effect puts one in mind of actually performing the handsigns, rather than simple button-mashing. These special moves are not restricted to the fight sequences as they open up new areas of play in the sandbox. For example, the player acquires a jutsu level that gives you the ability to run up walls, a skill that lets you climb to the rooftops of the village normally inaccessible by regular running and jumping skills. It’s a refreshing change from games that only allow a useful execution of your character’s “signature” moves in combat. Try to fire up a jutsu in an inappropriate place (where there’s nothing for it to interact with) and you’ll get one or another clever “filler” animations (including bouts of flatulence if one isn’t careful).

I would tend to classify this game as an RPG, or perhaps an Action/Platformer due to the amount of gameplay that involves solving platformer-style timing and spatial-relations puzzles. There are significant fighting elements. In fact in some areas, it feels like having to engage in ninja-style fisticuffs which is your penalty for not being quick enough or smart enough elsewhere.

Alongside the RPG, however, is a fairly complete, separate one-on-one fighting game, but because the access to this second game is nested in the menu and lacks story elements or campaign in the fighting segment, I feel like it is a superb happenstance, an offshoot grown from the solid development work done to include these types of fights in the primary RPG area of the game. Again, one of the things that sets this game apart from the other Nauruto’s out there is the focus on story as the core element of the gameplay, rather than allowing it to become yet another “Hero Vs Antihero” fighting mashup.

After nearly 8 years working in financial services powerhouses like Morgan Stanley and Paine Webber, Kimberly Unger left to pursue her passion for videogames. As a producer she helped develop an initial proof of concept for a USAF operative training program using UT2k4 and has worked in both the entertainment and videogame industries as a texture artist and 3d modeler/animator on such projects as the IMPACT: Motion Simulator ride currently in residence at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the award winning You Don’t Know Jack: Mock II, Tetris Worlds for all consoles and a host of smaller handheld and mobile titles. She is now the CEO of the Bay Area videogame startup “Bushi-go” and has begun expanding her game writing and design expertise into other more traditional venues.

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