When most people think of Naruto-centered video games, they usually split them into two categories. One side includes console titles, titles such as Ultimate Ninja Storm, which tend to be exceptionally polished. On the other side, there's the handheld titles, which are hardly exceptional in any way, but are usually enjoyable enough for the hardcore Naruto fans. Sadly, there hasn't really been a handheld Naruto title, especially on the Nintendo DS, which pushes beyond the fan comfort zone the titles have seemed to be stuck in. Does Naruto Shippuden: Shinobi Rumble change this perception, or is it another game to add to the ever-growing list?
Unlike last year's Naruto Shippuden: Naruto vs. Sasuke, which was an impressive, but still run-of-the-mill platforming title, Shinobi Rumble is a brawler that takes after games such as Jump Superstars (Japan-only) and the Nintendo DS Bleach fighting games. There's quite a variety of modes available, including a story mode, Versus mode, an arcade-style progression mode and a mission mode, all for the most part staples of the fighting game genre.
Being a game in the fighting genre, there are tons of different attacks and combinations to be had. Each character has their own light and strong attacks, which can be combined to make up different combinations. Each stage is quite large, so players are required to figure out when and which attacks they should use at any given time - will you deal a string of light attacks to keep up a combo and run the risk of your opponent breaking free, or will you finish them off with a strong attack that sends them flying back to the other side of the stage?
Each character also has a choice of three unique special attacks, each of which can be executed in a more powerful "Ultra" state as their Chakra gauge builds up during the match by pressing the respective icon on the touch screen, complete with a facial cut-in that quickly pauses the action while on-screen. Attacks can also be done in mid-air, which becomes a useful way to extend combos by utilizing an upwards strong attack after a string of light combos to continue the beat down. A special "Chak-rush" ability is also available, which removes staggering from enemy attacks and allows for continual Ultra attacks as long as the effect lasts.
One slight annoyance is that the game's combo system isn't very accepting of those who like to start up long combos, as the strong and special attacks tend to slam the character down into the ground automatically for the most part. You could say this was implemented to make things easier to digest for newcomers to the fighting game genre, but it is something of a disappointment for veterans. However, the game does control very tightly and the controls, on the whole, are exceptionally responsive, which is a welcome surprise for those used to most licensed titles on the Nintendo DS.
As noted before, the game includes a story mode, which covers the important parts of the series' storyline. Fights are linked together with panel-based cutscenes, very similar to what was implemented in last year's Naruto vs. Sasuke, with the major difference of having background music that actually fits the dialogue, a minor annoyance with the previous title. It's pretty bare-bones, but the game does do a decent enough job of getting those who are not well-versed with the series up-to-speed, which is quite an accomplishment. Unlockables are available for clearing the storyline in the Easy, Normal and Hard modes. The arcade-style progression mode is similar to other games such as Super Smash Bros.'s Classic mode, where you fight one enemy after another in succession.
The meat of the game comes into play in the game's mission mode, which has players choose one of the characters and partake in various missions ranging from easy (collecting items) to harder (defeating an enemy who continually regenerates health). Depending on the difficulty, players will get up to 3 marks, which are randomly placed on a 5x5 bingo board. Get any row of five marks and you'll unlock a new move or special ability which can be used outside the game's story mode. Finally, the Versus mode is your typical standard fare for a handheld fighting game on the Nintendo DS, allowing for 2-4 player brawls, although it's limited to wireless only and doesn't include any online options.
Since Shinobi Rumble will be a single player-only experience for most players unless a bunch of your friends own the game, most players will be fighting against the AI, which is where the game fails miserably. The AI is extremely predictable and can easily be tricked into tight spots in a number of the stages, especially those which have platforms strewn within them. The AI also fails to take into consideration the game's more advanced techniques, such as attack cancelling, so matches tend to become very boring and rote. Considering other Nintendo DS fighters are much more capable in this regard, it's quite sad to see it executed so woefully in Shinobi Rumble.
Naruto Shippuden: Shinobi Rumble is a competent fighter with surprising depth that should keep players interested, especially if one has friends to play against locally. And even if you don't, the mission mode has enough variety that makes unlocking new specials and abilities fun and doesn't drag down the game. Shinobi Rumble lays the groundwork for what could be a very impressive sequel on future handhelds, such as the Nintendo 3DS. Even with its issues, this is one of the few handheld Naruto titles that is worth the purchase for fans and isn't throwing away your money if you are on the fence about the title or are looking for a competent handheld fighter to add to your Nintendo DS library. This game just goes to show you that not every licensed handheld title has to turn out terrible.