Naruto has been somewhat of an anime and manga phenomenon in Japan for quite a while now, but the series has only recently started to gain popularity stateside since its debut on Cartoon Network. It only makes sense then that the video games based on the Naruto license make the jump across the Pacific as well. At a recent Nintendo press event, we had a chance to play Naruto: Ninja Council on the Game Boy Advance, and the game seems to do a fairly good job of capturing the spirit of the license.
Naruto: Ninja Council is a side-scrolling beat-'em-up with some light platforming elements thrown in for good measure. The story in the game is fairly simple. Naruto and his rival, Sasuke, are competing to determine who is the most powerful ninja in school. They are guided by their teacher, Kakashi, who dispenses advice and tries to teach the two students the way of the ninja. Naruto, Sasuke, and Kakashi are all playable characters (though Kakashi must be unlocked), and each one has different strengths and abilities. Naruto is your basic fighter, while Sasuke is more adept at ranged attacks, and Kakashi is lightning quick.
The game plays like your basic side-scroller. You move from left to right beating up enemies, and every once in a while you encounter a boss. The fighting in the game is divided between basic melee combat, ranged attacks, and special moves called jutsus. The melee combat is made up of punches and kicks that you can string together to form combos. If you don't want to get too close to your enemies, you can use the R button to throw weapons from a distance. There are three different ranged weapons to get in the game: shuriken, which are your basic ninja stars; kunai, which behave just like shuriken but inflict more damage; and senbon, which don't inflict much damage but fire in two directions simultaneously. You can also pick up scroll attacks in the game. To use one, you hold down the R button to charge it up and then release the button to attack. The scrolls unleash powerful magic blasts that not only damage enemies but also break down certain types of walls.
There are also special melee attacks in the game called jutsus. By holding down the B button, you'll charge up a gauge. Depending on how far you charge it up before you release the button, you'll perform different jutsu attacks. If you don't charge up enough, your attack will fail. The jutsu attacks are more powerful than regular attacks, and they also have a wider area of effect. One of Naruto's jutsu attacks is called "harem." It causes a bunch of scantily clad women to come out onscreen and dance around, which stuns or eliminates certain types of enemies. For example, early in the game you fight an old man and his grandson. If you use the harem jutsu, you'll instantly defeat the dirty old man because he'll be so taken with the beautiful girls. One of Sasuke's jutsu attacks has him throwing several shuriken at once, which basically nails anyone in front of him. These jutsu moves inflict a lot of damage and look pretty cool as well. Every time you use one of these techniques, the action will pause, and you'll see a close-up image of your fighter followed by a nice, flashy attack animation.
Most of the enemies you fight are fairly easy to take care of, but they also each have unique weaknesses you have to learn how to exploit. For example, some enemies can't be damaged with ranged attacks. In addition to the regular enemies, you'll also fight quite a few different boss characters. In the first couple of levels of the game, we faced four different bosses. The first boss we encountered was the young Konohamaru, who is invulnerable to attacks and is protected by his teacher Ebisu. The secret to taking out this boss is to first finish off Ebisu, which leaves Konohamaru vulnerable. Another boss we met was a portly young boy named Choji, who was able to use the human boulder jutsu. Using this move, Choji became a ball and rolled around the screen crushing everything in his path. Another boss we met was a blonde girl named Ino, who puts up a pretty straightforward fight. Finally, we ran into Shikamaru, a weird young ninja who has the ability to use a shadow possession jutsu to summon other bosses to fight for him.
When you aren't fighting, there's some light platforming and exploring to take part in. You're able to crawl on your stomach to reach certain areas, and you can dash up walls by double-tapping a direction on the D pad. There are also some sections where you have to jump over gaps and make sure you don't fall into the requisite bottomless pits. Using all these moves you can explore each level to discover secrets and collect items. A helpful girl named Sakura is hidden away in each level, and if you can find her, she'll give you power-ups or restore your health. You can collect pickups throughout each level as well. In addition to grabbing scrolls and throwing weapons, you can collect leaf tokens that are scattered about the landscape, usually in slightly out-of-the-way spots.
The two levels we played in story mode were fairly basic in terms of design, but each offered slightly different challenges. We started off on a seaside bridge level, where we had to cross a bridge, but at certain points we could drop down to the land below. The second level is a rocky mountain pathway with walls blocking the path, requiring you to use scrolls to break through the rock. You'll be working against the clock in Naruto, so you have to be sure to keep things moving along in each level. This means you often won't have time to fully explore each level on your first run-through, but you can always go back later if you missed anything.
The graphics in Naruto look pretty good, and they're about what you'd expect from a game based on an anime series. The sprites are nice and big, and they're quite detailed. All of the characters animate well too, and the playable characters and bosses have quite a few different animations for attacks, movement, and interacting with one another. The levels we saw did a good job of carrying their respective themes throughout, and while they aren't particularly eye-popping, they provide a fine backdrop for the action in the game. The special effects for the jutsu and scroll attacks are flashy but not overdone. Fans of the series should also be pleased with the static character portraits used in the story sequences.
Naruto: Ninja Council looks like it will appeal to fans of the anime and manga, as well as to fans of beat-'em-ups in general. The game will ship alongside a Game Cube version of Naruto, but apparently there won't be any connectivity functionality built into the game. That isn't a big deal though, since Naruto fans will most likely buy both games anyway. We'll keep you updated on this game as its February 2006 release date approaches.