The Naruto anime series thrives on creating unique characters armed with outrageous abilities. It is a world where mortal combat is the logical solution to any problem and it has, therefore, found a home in fighting games. At their best, these games unite the wildly diverse cast of the series within a cohesive system. The action is fast, flashy, and absolutely crazy. When they are at their worst, you have Naruto Shippuden: Shinobi Rumble. This four-player brawler's very design bleeds apathy, manifested in a myriad of tiny nuisances that suck out any enjoyment you might derive within the first few hours. What's left is a disjointed mess that is painfully simplistic in concept, deficient in execution, and destined to fall swiftly into obscurity.
Shinobi Rumble offers up no more complexity than a side-scrolling brawler and none of the fun. Two buttons manage your normal attacks; one is a quick-hitting series of jabs while the other is a combination of uppercut, guard break, forward smash, and a character-specific attack depending on its combination with the directional pad. The other two buttons manage your jumping and blocking, while the right shoulder button lets you teleport. These simple controls make it easy for anyone to hop in and play, but the game's tedium makes it just as easy to hop back out. The tactics used when playing Naruto can just as easy be applied to Sakura, or Kakashi, or Sasuke, or so many others. A few characters, such as Shikamaru, who excel at ranged- or projectile-based combat offer some deviation from the norm, but Shinobi Rumble clearly runs dry of ideas long before its characters.
The combat is rife with repetition, with the trusty quick jab and the powerful guard-breaking attacks being the be all, end all of combos. The game tries to distract from this by tossing in items and power-ups, which appear randomly throughout the fight; however, they are no more than a distraction. After dispensing the aforementioned combo, your opponent will eventually be knocked down, at which point he or she will likely teleport away and disengage from the fight. After a few beats, one of you will catch up with the other for another brief skirmish. These cat-and-mouse fights kill any sense of cohesion and, instead, feel like an endless series of proxy battles that last until one side stops getting up. In larger confrontations, your best bet is to simply hang on the sidelines and lob your devastating special techniques randomly into the fray. Soon, it feels like you are fighting at your opponents rather than against them.
These special techniques are the heart of Shinobi Rumble's woes. What should have been the most exciting element of the game is, instead, its biggest detractor. It all starts with the touch screen. Each character has three special techniques assigned to him or her by default and mapped to the touch screen. To execute a technique, you either swipe your thumb over the screen and hopefully hit the right button or remove your hand entirely from the controls to carefully pick out the intended attack. Without the aid of a stylus, the touch screen can be unresponsive or imprecise, especially when selecting the small icons. This issue is especially problematic in a fighting game in which timing and precision are paramount. You have to choose between sacrificing precision or timing--a choice Shinobi Rumble shouldn't force you to make.
When you do succeed in executing a special technique, the action stops. You are then treated to a brief image of the character's face and the technique's name before the animation plays. This also occurs when you activate chak-rush, a special state that every character may use to prevent your animations from being interrupted. Alone these may not sound so bad; in fact, most fighting games have a special moment of buildup before a big attack is performed. They add excitement to the round and give the players a chance to catch their breath, assess the situation, and plan their next move. And typically, they are a rarity. In Shinobi Rumble, they are not. Characters can employ these moves or enter chak-rush dozens of times during a match--and they can all overlap each other. This spoils any tension that may build up during a fight because you are constantly subjected to one delay after another, over and over, every single match.
For all their nuisances, the special techniques best define what little diversity there is within the cast. Characters may equip up to three of them and can unlock more by completing special missions in the game's mission mode. These missions represent the game at its most interesting, with such objectives as collecting a certain number of items or fighting with only a limited number of moves. Special stat-boosting scrolls can also be unlocked here. These can be equipped to improve your character's strength, defense, or other traits in the place of a special technique. These light elements of character customization breathe some much-needed variety into the system.
Once you have your favorite character decked out just the way you like, it is time to show him or her off to your friends. Unfortunately, only your immediate posse will get to experience your handiwork due to a regrettable lack of online multiplayer. Thankfully, local wireless play works like a breeze, provided all of your friends have their own copy of the game. In lieu of that, the AI is always there for you; however, its fighting capabilities are sporadic at best. At close range, it is hyperaggressive, with little to no regard of the game's numerous defensive techniques, such as blocking. At a distance, it is comically incapable of navigating its own stages. Standing on a platform sends the computer into a frenzy of jumping up and down in an attempt to surmount a new obstacle, like a puppy begging for scraps. Sometimes, it makes it on the first try, but oftentimes, it takes a lot longer. This sort of boneheaded behavior helps ensure that Naruto Shippuden: Shinobi Rumble won't hold the attention of even the most devoted fans for long.
Fighting games are by nature active experiences. They drive us to think fast and act fast, so the game's underlying mechanics should enhance this tension and drive action forward. Shinobi Rumble works in reverse. What little there is to this game pulls you out of the fight, slows you down, and makes you wait. While it may be fun to explore how Naruto's over-the-top cast has been adapted to fit in this game, once you push past that initial sense of discovery, you're left with a game that is truly barren.