The Naruto phenomenon shows no signs of slowing, teaching kids and tweens the world over how to be a legendary warrior of old. To further saturate the market with this gaming juggernaut, Atlus has felt it's high time to get some of the Tomy games out for the Nintendo consoles. Today's offering, Naruto Shippuden: Naruto vs Sasuke is a bare bones platformer that attempts to encompass the Shippuden storyline, much like how Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 did for the 360/PS3, in a handy dandy portable offering. Unfortunately this game almost feels like it belongs back in the Game Boy Advance era, with some fairly low quality graphics and gameplay that feels like a minimal improvement over Legend of Kage, an early NES game.
Naruto vs Sasuke isn't really that great looking a title, not when you've got stuff like Castlevania, Bleach, or Professor Layton paving the way for great looking 2-D on the DS. What's even stranger is how inconsistent this feels with other Naruto titles released by Tomy in the past. The character sprites are small, have limited animation ranges, and the levels are pretty bland, with the city-scape stages feeling the most detailed and varied. Stages that take place in a forest or cave though feel flat and monochromatic. Some of the special attacks and enemies add a slight graphical variety with some impressive looking effects that can fill up the screen, but that kind of stuff is usually reserved for boss fights. Music is wholly unforgettable with a generic driving rock sound that feels nothing like the soundtrack that the show has to offer. Now, I'm not expecting them to have something like the show opening track playing, but even the ambient music of the Naruto show felt better than this. Sound effects are minimal and somewhat weak with nothing special to note.
Gameplay is a really standard affair, platforming with a fairly simplistic combat system, the wrinkle here is that you've got a party of ninjas, all with different abilities that allow you to explore your surroundings. From the outset you've got Naruto, who on the whole doesn't have much to offer aside from a decent attack strength and the shadow clones ability that will make copies of him appear on screen; Sakura, who is able to destroy obstacles and can stick to walls, allowing her to climb up narrow passageways; Sai, the new guy meant to replace Sasuke, has the ability to draw beasts, one of which can carry him up great heights, perfect for reaching the tops of buildings. Along the way you'll swap out characters as the Shippuden story arc progresses, but the overall usefulness of these initial three characters will make picking another character moot.
Combat consists of a button for physical attacks, a button for consumables like shuriken or bombs, and a dodge move that is perfect for getting past some of the basic traps laid out for you. The bottom screen of the DS is used for activating special moves at the cost of some chakra and for calling in some unlockable support ninja who can boost your stats or restore your health, great in a pinch. These characters are unlocked by finding hidden scrolls throughout the levels, some of which will leave you scratching your head as you attempt to check every nook and cranny for them. Most levels are littered with a variety of animals and countless ninjas that will drop health and chakra items when defeated after a few attacks. Levels will typically end with a boss fight that is unfortunately a really simple affair, with most of my victories just coming from jumping and attacking, but many times I'd find myself unable to attack the enemy until they became available for attack, which at times is frustrating.
It's interesting to play different Naruto games that all revolve around the same universe, mainly because you get bits of story differently than other games. In this instance there is a lot more information regarding the betrayal that happens early in the story arc, with more characters named. This was oddly not the case with Ultimate Ninja Storm 2. I know this is extremely nitpicking but I guess this is the kind of dissonance you get when you have the same intellectual property developed by two different teams.
Previous Naruto games on the DS seem to have a bit more depth in the gameplay department, you've got a few fighting games, a couple of RPGs, stuff with a little bit more variety than this simple platforming affair. It's not to say that Naruto vs Sasuke is a bad game per se, it just doesn't do anything to make it feel special, it feels like a quick cash in on the franchise. Boring platforming, mediocre combat, and meandering boss fights keep this from being an engrossing experience. But if you've got a Naruto itch, this game will do a serviceable job of scratching it.