Portable Naruto games have a spotty history. Too often they try to pack in the features and gameplay of their big brothers on the consoles, and end up being as strained and disemboweled as you would expect. Instead of that route, Naruto Shippuden: Naruto vs. Sasuke plays to the strengths of the DS and succeeds as a fun action-platformer that would have felt perfectly at home in the 16-bit era.
Naruto vs. Sasuke is set immediately after Sasori’s defeat at the hands of Sakura and Lady Chiyo. You team up with Yamato and Sai, face down Orochimaru at Tenchi bridge, and infiltrate the villain’s hideout in search of Sasuke. By no means is the presentation of the story newbie-friendly, but the dialogue is sparse enough that everyone can still enjoy the gameplay without prior knowledge of the series. Fans, who have witnessed these events a few times over, can at least look forward to fresh levels.
Naruto vs. Sasuke has the appearance of a sidescrolling platformer, but the stages are much more massive than meets the eye, with towering cliffs, subterranean tunnels, precarious treetops, and plenty of secrets. Stages rarely have one path, and harbor room for so much exploration that a map would be quite handy to have. You unlock additional characters with unique abilities as you collect hidden scrolls, which in turn encourages you to repeat completed stages in search of even more scrolls.
No Naruto game is complete without acrobatic fisticuffs, and the sounds of enemies getting brutally pummeled to the beat of a surprisingly kicking soundtrack is cause to pull out the good headphones. Combat is easy to grasp and very responsive with single-button combos, projectiles, and a teleportation maneuver, but enemies hit hard and extra health is rare. Each character has two ninjitsu (special moves), including Naruto’s Rasengan and Shadow Clones, with flashy cutscenes that are a blast to watch. Characters can also team up for spectacular displays of power, like Sakura throwing Naruto for an earth-shattering Rasen Bomb.
You can have up to three playable characters and one support character in your party. Switching among them and activating abilities is instantaneous and easy with the thumb-sized icons on the touchscreen. They all play the same, aside from ninjitsu, but it’s in your best interest to keep them all alive. Naruto vs. Sasuke has no extra lives or mid-level checkpoints. Once a character falls, he/she is out for the remainder of that section.
The lack of traditional lives and checkpoints is bound to rub a few people the wrong way. Most sections are broken into two large stages and a final boss. Fail to make it all the way through in one attempt and the entire section has to be repeated. I typically performed a practice run, a real run, and then one or two more to find the hidden scrolls.
There is a surprising amount of replay-value in this package. Even disregarding secrets, completing the game unlocks a Boss Rush mode as well as a Free mode, which lets you use any mix of characters in the game. Up to four players can duke it out using any of 11 character in Wireless mode. The friendly brawls sound promising, but the lack of AI or download play limited me and my single cartridge to solo adventuring.
There is not much of anything new on display here, but the traditional gameplay is part of the appeal. Whether you’re a fan or not, Naruto vs. Sasuke is a solid action-platformer with entertaining combat, challenging levels, and a good amount of replay-value.