I’ll be honest; I have no idea what is going on. I’ve never been versed on Naruto canon, I don’t who the characters are (though I have a sneaking suspicion the one in the orange tracksuit is Naruto himself), everything about the series seems foreign and odd to me and frankly while playing this game I felt lost. So with that said we’ve established that I know nothing about the Naruto universe but I do know about video games and what separates a good game from a lousy one. So, does Naruto Shippuden: Naruto VS. Sasuke spark an interest in the series for me or is this just another trend that will pass me by?
Naruto Shippuden: Naruto VS. Sasuke (try to say that 6 times fast) is your typical 2D sidescrolling brawler. You take control of as many as 15 different characters, and do battle with waves of enemies as you try to navigate the level. Naruto Shippuden: Naruto VS. Sasuke attempts to shake things up by allowing you to recruit a party of up to three characters to assist you in your quest. You can switch between these characters at will throughout a stage but once their health bar reaches zero, they are unusable until you complete the stage, making this potentially neat feature seem more akin to having ‘extra lives’.
The game (I’m trying to avoid typing that title over and over again) also attempts to throw in some traditional platforming with multi-branching levels (ala Sonic The Hedgehog), however, while the levels are large and offer a ton of exploration, they’re also very confusing and repetitive. More often than not you will find yourself backtracking, searching for a certain switch or enemy so you can advance, only to later discover that it was hiding in a seemingly impossible to reach area. Naruto Shippuden: Naruto VS. Sasuke (darn it) is a textbook example of a game that forces you to discover its secrets via frustrating trial and error.
However this wouldn’t be so bad if the developers hadn’t decided to ignore a basic function for this type of game, checkpoints.
That’s right, none of the game’s stages features any checkpoints or rest areas to save your progress mid-level, which wouldn't be so bad if the levels weren’t so A) needlessly long, B) consisting of several stages (again without checkpoints) or C) so confusing and frustrating. Case in point, while researching for this review (i.e. playing the game) on a train, I decided to tackle one of the game's later and therefore more challenging levels. My DSi battery was about ¼ full, still enough to finish one level, or so I thought. I spent a good 40 minutes struggling to find my way through the stage, and when I finally did, there was a particularly difficult boss battle who defeated me. This sent me back to the beginning of the whole stage (keep in mind these are multi-level areas), so I decided to try again, and got up to the boss again, when my battery died. Now I admit, maybe the second go at it wasn’t the brightest idea, but it still makes a good argument for a seemingly innocent idea like checkpoints in a game that features large areas that take a long time to complete.
The controls are relatively simple, and would have been perfectly suited for a game on the Super NES. You move with the D-pad and perform your moves and attacks with the face buttons. The game is also, thankfully, light on the touch-screen input, which can get troublesome in more action oriented titles. In fact, the touch-screen is only used to switch between party members and perform special tag-team attacks. It’s a nice control scheme, and really feels like it was pulled straight out of an arcade or SNES game from the mid-90’s.
Speaking of Super NES games, did I mention anything about what this game actually looks like? With its sprite based 2D graphics Naruto Shippuden: Naruto VS. Sasuke looks to be pulled straight from 1993. Now this might thrill some of you retro gamers out there enjoying this current trend of ‘what is old is new again’, but Naruto Shippuden: Naruto VS. Sasuke takes a lazy approach towards the ‘old look’. The environments are mostly re-used and different sections of the same level are often recycled (another point of how confusing it is to navigate the levels). On the positive side, the character animations are well drawn and the colors are bright and vibrant; it’s just a shame that the overall look and feel is so dated.
However, I must admit that the game does a pretty good job of capturing the look and feel of the animated show. The scenes and artwork could almost have been pulled from the animation cells and fans (and non fans) will appreciate the game's dedication to the source material. The music is also in-line with what you would expect to hear while watching an episode of the anime: fast, catchy, j-pop with a hint of metal.
The game’s story is a near-complete and accurate retelling of the entire second season of the Naruto anime, which should thrill fans of the series, as they can experience the storyline from the show on the dual-screens. Newcomers (like me) can appreciate this fact as it does open up the ‘canon’ world of Naruto to a wider audience (and I must admit, it’s not half bad). It’s a just shame the game completely drops the ball when it comes to telling its story. Absolutely no explanations are given for the characters actions, motivations or goals and since most of the proper names of cities and people are in their original Japanese, it’s extremely difficult for someone who is not versed in the series’ lore to have a clue of what is actually going on. Even worse is that during the ‘cut-scenes’ (term used loosely) there is no indication of which character is even speaking, making what could actually be an interesting story a nonsensical mess that only die-hard Naruto fans will understand.
Clocking in at roughly 8 hours for a complete playthrough Naruto Shippuden: Naruto VS. Sasuke actually manages to hit a pretty decent length for a game in this genre. Mind you a lot of those hours will be spent actually figuring out where to go and what to do. The game’s large roster of characters also adds replay value and the incentive to find all the secret items and hidden characters will keep the obsessed coming back for more. The game also features a local-only multiplayer mode for up to four players, although it requires everyone to bring their copy of the game along, which, unless you congregate with other Naruto fans, could be a tall order. There is also a free-play mode and a boss rush mode to add a bit more value to the game, and frankly these ‘arcade’ modes do actually end up being better then the story mode itself.
Naruto Shippuden: Naruto VS. Sasuke for the Nintendo DS not only takes home the award for the most nonsensical title in video game history, but is also a boring, confusing, dated, ugly and underwhelming sidescroller. Die-hard Naruto fans will enjoy the story, which stays close to established Naruto canon, but this is almost impossible to follow for everyone else. The playable roster is quite large, and the extra modes do add a bit of fun to the experience, but it's still only fans who will enjoy the experience, while the rest of us are left playing a game that makes no sense and is just plain bad.