Turning Japanese

From Pokémon to Dragon Ball Z, Japanese pop culture has captured the imagination of American kids. How long has it been since a homegrown cartoon was this successful?

The latest import craze is Naruto. Anyone hip to Harry Potter will find the story familiar: A bunch of otherwise ordinary kids, including titular hero Naruto Uzumaki, study ninjitsu (rather than wizardry) in a secret training camp called the Village Hidden in the Leaves (basically Hogwarts, but with more karate-chopping).

Though Naruto has existed as a comic book and anime in Japan for years now, it made its way to the States only recently. In a short time, though, it has already become one of the biggest new properties since Yu-Gi-Oh!

Now PlayStation 2 gets the requisite videogame tie-in, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja. Usually, licensed property games are a disaster, which makes Ultimate Ninja a pleasant surprise.

Ultimate Ninja plays a lot like Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. Melee: simple, frenetic fighting set in multilevel arenas. In true ninja style, players leap onto trees, climb walls, and skip across ponds while peppering one another with throwing knives and flying kicks. And just to make it more insane, sometimes your ninja buddies will jump into the fray and sucker-punch your opponent.

Littering the arenas are items to pick up and use, from weapons (a huge heat-seeking shuriken) to health. One item slows your opponent down to a crawl; another turns you invisible. Whenever a ninja shows up to deliver an item, you can either grab it yourself or beat the tar out of him for trying to help your foe.

The meat of the game play, though, is the mastery of "secret techniques": those uniquely anime moves that are so powerful, you have to scream out their delightfully nonsensical names, like "Nine-Tailed Fox Power!" And while they're tricky to pull off, they do loads more damage than anything else in the game, so most matches are spent hopping from tree to ledge to rooftop, waiting for that perfect opportunity to unleash "1000 Years of Death!" on your best friend.

Ultimate Ninja accurately re-creates the show's peculiarly translated dialogue, including Naruto's weird penchant for ending every sentence with "Believe it!" One character proclaims, "I'm the rules here. If you understand this, bring it on!" At another point, an evil character announces, "I exist to kill everyone other than myself," to which Naruto replies, "Don't be so selfish!" (What?) Luckily, understanding the story isn't a prerequisite for enjoying the action.

Even the game's look is loyal to the source material: Characters are rendered in bold colors with dark outlines, making them appear hand drawn, and scenes shift with an animation of a page turning, as if the battle were taking place in a manga. Secret techniques are accompanied by epilepsy-inducing effects.

Ultimate Ninja has a decent replay value, as it comes loaded with secrets and bonuses, including eight additional unlockable fighters. There are also voice samples, music, and short movie clips, though most of those will appeal only to Naruto devotees.

The one strike against Ultimate Ninja is that it isn't the deepest game in the world. It's certainly action-packed, but this ninja school encourages quick reflexes rather than careful planning. Gamers who crave complex strategic fighting won't be giving up Virtua Fighter for this.

But apart from that minor concern, Ultimate Ninja's enthusiasm is really infectious, even for nonfans. Believe it!

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Gary Hodges
Contact: Gary Hodges