Like its plucky eponymous hero, Ultimate Ninja 3 gets by on sheer charm. Unlike the boy ninja, its ninjutsu is weaker than watered-down ramen. No, it isn't much of a fighting game. But it's so faithful to its source material, it should nevertheless provide hours of good entertainment to fans of the series. It has two short single-player modes, pitch-perfect writing, flawless voice acting, spit-shined graphics, and a surprisingly entertaining dating system. All of this is stuffed with the usual long list of unlockable characters, item collection, several terrible minigames, and of course, the wimpy combat. If you're looking for a good fighter, look elsewhere. But if you're looking for an interactive and sweet-tempered trip to Hidden Leaf Village, this is the game for you.
The meatiest single-player mode is called Ultimate Contest, and it tells the story of a festival thrown together by Tsunade for the sake of visitors from the hidden village of Sand. The main event is a battle royal in which each contestant gets a crystal. When contestants fight, the winner gets the loser's crystals. The two who finish with the most crystals get to battle for the right to create a new Hidden Leaf Village regulation. Rock Lee wants to force everyone to grow bushy eyebrows. Kiba wants to mandate regular medical examinations for the village canines. Sakura wants to create a lovey-dovey Sasuke rule. And Naruto, of course, wants to be Hokage.
If that sounds just like an episode, it also feels like one. From the way Naruto says, "I'm hittin' you, and you're hittin' the ground!" to Hinata's shy mumbling, every character is perfectly represented here, and they all get their chances to shine. This is immaculate fan service. The story unfolds in three stages: a qualifying round in which you have to get 60 crystals, a semifinal round in which you try to get as many as possible, and a final fight with another ninja. By the way, Jounin are also allowed to compete, so your opponent could be anybody. (If you don't know what a Jounin is, look at it this way: If Naruto is as tough as a nail, your average Jounin is as tough as a hammer.)
The way this all plays out is simple: You run around Hidden Leaf Village completing simple quests and challenging other characters to fights. For instance, at one point you happen upon Hinata, who has been badly beaten, so you go find her some medicine. As you travel around the village you can destroy pots and crates to find money, and collect scrolls that spawn after each completed quest. Money buys all sorts of things, and scrolls by the items you'll need to unlock new jutsus.
There are also a handful of minigames you'll be asked to compete in, nearly all of which are really, really bad. The shuriken-tossing game misses its mark the worst: Targets pop up in a field with button symbols on their chests, and you have to hit the corresponding button faster than your opponent. It seems simple, until they start appearing in numbers larger than three at a time. There's a penalty associated with hitting a wrong button, and in your scramble to throw shuriken at five different targets, it's easy to somehow completely lose all of your points. Right when you think all hope is lost, giant dummies spring up that can absorb dozens of shuriken, letting you make up all your lost points just hitting the button faster than your competitor. In short, this minigame kicks your butt and then lets you win.
The other minigames are just as bad, but in less interesting ways. To give you an idea of this without describing them all, the best one is Orochimaru's Whack-A-Snake. But the best thing about it isn't repeatedly bopping snakes with a hammer, but rather all the money you get for doing so (since Whack-A-Snake is a casino game). And you'll want all the money you can muster in order to buy high-priced gifts for all the characters you encounter. Why? So you can go out on dates with them, of course!
In the third round of the competition, when the only thing left for you to do is challenge your rival, you can walk around talking to people. Or, if you have gifts they might like, you can give it to them. This will cause them to show up later, and ask you out on a date. These are generally a lot of fun, though you can go on only two dates per character. Some are sweet (Hinata's dates are very cute), some are sassy (when you go out with Temari, you basically call her fat), and others are downright weird (Kurenai wants to watch you eat vegetables. Lots and lots of vegetables.)
At first, you'll probably only go out on dates with the girl characters, and you'll be so busy with that, you won't even notice you can give gifts to the guys. But when girl dates run out, you may find yourself taking long walks with Gaara, who wishes he were more like you, or with Kankuro, who wishes Gaara liked him more. The date with Neji is hilarious, because it's so awkward. None of the dates are very interactive (no hot ramen here), but they are good for an hour or two of quirky fun.
After you've dated everyone and finished your fight with your main rival, Ultimate Contest goes into Open mode, where you can take on a long list of missions that have you either playing a minigame or fighting someone. Instead of grinding through these, you're better off jumping into Hero's History. This mode lets you play through four different periods in the series, culminating in a crazy fight with Sasuke. Though it isn't as good as Ultimate Contest, it is good for two or three hours of play.
It's when you've finished both Ultimate Contest and Hero's History (about six hours) that Ultimate Ninja 3 starts to die on you. All that remains is to fight through missions for money and unlockables, yet fighting is Ultimate Ninja 3's greatest weakness. Your skill is based entirely on your ability to hit one button and counterattack, so you're either beating the crap out of people with your single attack button (and maybe a super move, also one button), or trying desperately to reverse the combo they're inflicting on you.
Since there's no depth, difficulty has to be manufactured by either handicapping yourself or boosting your opponent's abilities (double health, double speed, double damage, and sometimes a combination of the three). That's because if the game jacks up your computer opponents' skill level too high, they'll simply counter every single attack you make, and juggle the crap out of you with nonstop combos. This game is either too easy (in the six hours it took us to beat Ultimate Contest and Hero History, we lost one round) or crazy cheap (that one round was lost to Kimimaro, who is a total jerk).
It all looks incredible, though. You may actually check the box to remind yourself that this isn't a PlayStation 3 game, because all of the super attacks you unleash are rendered in glistening HD quality, as are most of the backgrounds. The characters themselves don't look as good, but they move lightning fast and execute all sorts of amazing-looking attacks. Though Ultimate Ninja 3 isn't thrilling to play, it's really fun to watch. The price of these slick visuals is paid in loading times, and while it's a shame that you can't travel seamlessly throughout Hidden Leaf Village and the surrounding area (you have to select locations from a map screen), the gorgeous fighting makes it all worthwhile.
The music and sound effects are also fantastic, though the voice acting is the aural MVP here. It's completely authentic, and done with as much enthusiasm and professionalism as you'd find in a real episode. That's rare.
Ultimate Ninja 3 lacks online play, but that isn't a big deal since the game isn't a deep enough fighter to play competitively anyway. One addition that would be awesome, though, is four-player local play. There are already tiered environments, and the simple controls would be perfect for parties.
However Namco Bandai and CyberConnect2 decide to approach the many future versions of Ultimate Ninja bound for release on PS3s, they will hopefully maintain the same level of fan service found in Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3. Since the actual combat is so weak, fighting fans who aren't familiar with the source material will want to give this game the cold shoulder. But if you love Naruto, you should definitely make a date with Ultimate Ninja 3.