Naruto: Ninja Council 3 for the Nintendo DS is a fighting game where as many as four people can duke it out as Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke, or any of 25 other characters from the Naruto universe. The game offers plenty of visual and vocal fan service for followers of the Naruto comic books and animated series. Thanks to its easygoing controls and multitiered arenas, it also bears a striking resemblance to the Super Smash Bros. games that Nintendo has produced for the Nintendo 64 and GameCube. However, Ninja Council 3 doesn't yield the same depth as a typical Super Smash Bros. game, which means that the game is ultimately best suited for diehard Naruto nuts and people who don't take fighting games too seriously.
Because this is a fighting game, the main idea here is to beat your opponents senseless and drain their life meters until you're the last one left standing. This is a 2D fighter, but the arenas are as tall as they are wide, and they have multiple tiers from which you can easily jump up and down. You can smash boxes or rocks to uncover health items and weapons that you can throw at your opponents. Some arenas also play host to booby traps, pits, and flying debris that will chip away some of your health when you come into contact with them. If you've ever played one of the Super Smash Bros. games, this should all seem very familiar to you.
The character sprites and animations have mostly been recycled from the previous Ninja Council games (which were made for the Game Boy Advance). But all of the backgrounds and attack cutaways are brand new. The 2D characters looked like tiny renditions of their TV counterparts, and they look fine on the DS as well. The backgrounds are nothing special compared to other DS games, but they're twice as large as the backdrops in the GBA's Ninja Council games. They're also more colorful and flaunt a better variety of cute details, such as flying birds or crumbling walkways. The action largely takes place on the top screen while the bottom screen serves as a radar and a collection of "buttons" for initiating special Jutsu techniques. When you perform a Jutsu technique, a dramatic cutaway put together with the game's characters and hand-drawn artwork will temporarily fill both screens. Fans of the Naruto animated series will really appreciate these flashy attack sequences particularly because they employ the voices of the show's actual voice cast. The music and sound effects that make up the rest of the audio are fine, but they're also generic and forgettable.
Jumping around the multitiered environments and trading blows with other people is fun, though Ninja Council 3 does suffer from a lack of depth. The D pad moves your chosen character around, and the system's six buttons matter-of-factly allow you to run, jump, guard, teleport, perform a throw, or perform a single attack. Defensively, you can roll out of a throw or grab on to walls to propel yourself higher. Offensively, you can press the attack button a couple of times to dish out a combo, or you can tap one of the four designated spots on the touch screen to initiate one of your character's special Jutsu techniques. Jutsu techniques are the same as the special attacks you've seen in other fighting games, except that you have to complete a brief minigame on the touch screen for them to work. Most minigames involve scribbling or tapping symbols, but a few require an additional quick scrawl of the stylus or a puff into the microphone. While the inputs aren't all that time-consuming, fumbling with the touch screen just to perform a special attack feels counterintuitive when you otherwise spend the rest of the time using the buttons to control your character. It's easy to get the hang of Ninja Council 3, which may be good or bad, depending on what you look for in fighting games.
Besides making use of the touch screen, the other thing this new game does differently from the GBA's Ninja Council games is that it allows you to assign any of the Jutsu techniques of the other characters to your own character. For instance, you can mix and match Naruto's wind and toad magic with Orochimaru's snake magic. This feature doesn't really inject any additional strategy into the game because all Jutsu attacks fall into the same two categories with respect to recharge period and damage output. However, it is useful if you pick a character that doesn't already have a full set of four Jutsu techniques. It's also useful if that character normally only has a couple of first-level Jutsu techniques but none of the stronger second-level techniques.
Incredibly, the game doesn't offer a traditional single-player battle mode. The only way to play against CPU opponents is to do so in the mission mode. Unfortunately, out of 62 different missions, just a few provide a level playing field and a fair set of rules. Most missions involve defeating a certain number of respawning enemies, using a specific Jutsu technique to finish off another character in a short amount of time or beating an opponent in an arena loaded with hungry animals and painful hazards. You have to play through the mission mode to unlock characters besides Naruto, but that is literally the mode's sole redeeming aspect. You'll see the same mission goals constantly, there's no story to speak of, and the CPU falls into the same patterns all the time. If you want to enjoy some fair competition and truly see the game's best qualities, you have to do so in the multiplayer party mode. The party mode lets as many as four players link their systems together to participate in treasure hunt and battle royal matches. Unlike the battles setup in the mission mode, matches played against human beings are crazy and fun, especially if you can link up with two or three other people. The problem with the party mode is that everyone has to have their own copy of the game, but this probably isn't the sort of game that your friends are going to buy without major prodding on your part.
You won't like Naruto: Ninja Council 3 if you prefer your fighting games to be finely balanced and packed with depth. However, if you're freaky for Naruto and simply want to make some mischief with your favorite characters, then you should be able to enjoy the frenzy of fists and fan service that this game dishes out. Just make sure you can convince at least one of your friends to buy the game so you can take advantage of the multiplayer party mode and see the game at its best.