Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Worst Ninjas You'll Ever Meet

I mentioned a few months ago that one of my bridge games of choice was Naruto Shippuden:  Ultimate Ninja Storm 2.  I've since finished the game, twice over:  Once while attempting to unlock everything so I could transfer things over to the Enabler's PS3, and another time when we both discovered that UNS2 was one of those rare selections that doesn't allow for inter-PS3 transfers (thanks, jackasses).

Although it was a frustrating process to go through again in some ways, a few good things came of this.  For one, it allowed the Enabler, who hadn't seen much of the Naruto: Shippuden anime to get an abridged version of the first 120 episodes in under a few hours.  It allowed me to become slightly more proficient at the game.  But most importantly, it spurred an important conversation point between us where we agreed on one point, which ultimately changed the focus of this point merely from a comparison of two Naruto games, to this:

With very few exceptions, the ninjas in Naruto are the worst ninjas you'll ever meet.  Due to its masterful presentation, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 unintentionally does a great job of highlighting this. 

About Ultimate Ninja

The Ultimate Ninja series of games (beginning on the PS2) are more than just your standard fighters.  The meat of the game comes through the story mode, where you follow the perspective and Naruto and sometimes other characters in a quest mode.  The PS2 incarnations of the game, admittedly, do this more effectively:  The monotony of constant one-on-one battles was broken up with various sidequests and killing of fodder enemies Final Fight (or beat-em up game of your choice).  Your characters could also gain experience points and customize jutsu to an extent, allowing for plenty to do even post game.

Although the various sidequests are still present in UNS2, they mostly amount to item fetch quests and repetitive battles.  Playing through the story mode this time around had me missing beating up the nameless grunts, and even the minor platforming elements.  This was even more pronounced as I'd recently finished Ultimate Ninja 4 on the PS2.

It's a mixed bag, really:  On one hand, the previous incarnations of the game had more to do, but were, by comparison, more unpolished as fighters.  The PS3 entries are definitely superior graphically (it actually feels like you're watching the Naruto anime), put the storyline battles on a more epic scale, and have a smoother fighting engine, but lack a certain degree of substance and "fun" the previous games had.

But as I mentioned before, what the game excels at is presenting the events of the Naruto storyline in an abbreviated form that stays fairly loyal to the series.  Some events, of course, lose some of their emotional impact.  Some events are tweaked in a way that, due to their brevity, actually come across cooler than they did in the anime.

Like actually giving Naruto and Sasuke a proper fight when they meet again.
And still some actually highlight just how inept some characters are at their jobs.

How did these kids become ninjas again?

When you typically think about a ninja, you picture someone who's stealthy, resourceful, intelligent, and above all, puts self-preservation above many other things.  Unfortunately, since Naruto is a shonen manga, you won't see many of these qualities.  Let's start with the most obvious:  He runs around in a bright orange jumpsuit:

Don't know who he's planning on sneaking up on wearing that

But even going beyond that, one incident that sticks out to me comes in the Naruto versus Kakuzu fight later in the game.  As per the events in the anime, Naruto and Yamato (named Captain Mullet Mask by the Enabler) show up at just the right time to save Kakashi (one of the truly competent ninja in the series), along with Ino and Choji from being killed by the seemingly immortal member of the Akatsuki:  A criminal organization consisting of some of the most powerful people in the ninja world.  Awesome!  Now it's five versus one!  Kakuzu's in for it now, especially now that Naruto's completed his training!  That is, until Naruto tells everyone he wants to take on Kakuzu himself.

"Don't worry guys.  Totally have this handled."
In the realm of shonen manga, this is some rite of passage to prove that you're an adult or something.  In the realm of ninja, this is the absolute worst idea ever.  Worse yet, everyone seems content to step back and let Naruto handle this.  Now in the manga and anime, after a close brush with death, Naruto does manage to overcome Kakuzu.

However, in the world where Ayn is trying to rush through the game so he and the Enabler can unlock the full roster, I lost the fight more times than I could count.  It was brutal.  On one hand, I admired how Cyber Connect 2, the developer behind the game, expanded this fight to epic proportions beyond the anime.  On the other hand, the part of me cursing at the TV as the Enabler looked on in pity doesn't know whether to hate Naruto for being an idiot, or everyone else for not sneak-attacking Kakuzu while the kid in the bright orange jumpsuit worked as a decoy.

Next, let's talk about Sakura.  She's long lamented as being one of the most useless characters in the series.  Now, the Enabler made a pretty compelling argument for her (former) like of Sakura:  She wasn't too powerful, but she was supposedly the brains of the original team:  Naruto was the gutsy one, Sasuke was the skilled one, Sakura had better knowledge of chakra.  You know, I could actually get on board with that.

But then Shippuden came along and ruined everything.  And Ultimate Ninja storm worsens the issue in an unintentionally comical way.  At one point in the game, when her village is under attack, Sakura is given the simple task of telling the Hokage that "shit's hit the fan".  In the game, you're given temporary control of Sakura -- now, normally when the game shifts control over to someone other than Naruto, this is a heads up that you're going to be fighting some major enemy with this character.

Not so much with Sakura.  You get to run through three different screens to reach Tsunade, only to find that other ninja have arrived to inform her of what happened.  I'm not even talking about major characters either:  Even the random nameless ninja made it there before Sakura:

Even Paul the ninja made it there before her.

It's like the developers at Cyber Connect 2 realized how horrible of an idea it would be to subject you to actually using her more than you needed to.

Fortunately, there's one functional ninja out there.  Just, not who you might think of immediately.

A Surprisingly Functional Ninja

As much as recent events in the manga have made us come to loathe Sasuke Uchiha, playing through Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 made me realize something:  In spite of the Sharingan god-moding, he's actually one of the most competent ninjas in the series.  Consider that his first big move when you're able to control him in game is backstabbing Orochimaru:  This is one of the biggest ninja bad guys in the series, and while he was using Sasuke for his own purposes, he did happen to train him for a few years and give him the power needed for his goal.  Definitely ninja-like.

The next thing he does?  Gathers some of Orochimaru's previous followers to aid in his goal.  Before I give the Sauce too much credit here, we need to actually look at who he chose to gather.  First, there's Suigetsu Hozuki, who in addition to be a proficient swordsman, has some ability that allows him to turn into water.  His bad-assness is damped by the fact that he's perpetually holding a sippy cup.

Sadly, this is the most reliable guy on your team.
Then there's Karin.  While she's an expert tracker, she's unsurprisingly in love with Sasuke and a bit of a loon.

I think the picture says it all.
Then there's Jugo.  Sasuke recruits him since every group needs a strong man, and this guy is the origin of the curse seal, which as you Naruto fans know, equates to ninja steroids.  His title is "Bipolar Jugo"

So Sasuke gathers a group consisting of Captain Sippy Cup, a stalker, and a guy who's defining characteristic is a psychological disorder.  I'm not even sure if, aside from Suigetsu, this people are even ninjas, but it's Naruto, so just about everyone in the show is a ninja by default.  Anyway, he's gathered these people for one purpose:  To kill his brother, Itachi.

Here's the issue:  None of them ever question why he's gathering them.  When he finally does reveal the purpose, all of them just sort of nod dumbly, aside from Suigetsu who says "Yeah, that's kind of what I thought".

Let's have a refresher here:  Itachi is the guy who almost singlehandedly murdered an entire clan of Sharingan users effortlessly when he was 14.  While the rest of us were reading Hamlet, Itachi was acting out the play with brutal accuracy.

"Alas, poor Yorick!"
You would think that perhaps one of them, just one of them would speak up and say "You know, maybe this isn't the best idea." None of them even asked exactly how Sasuke planned to accomplish this.  Itachi is a guy whose level of forethought is enough to make Light Yagami jealous.  This is a guy who had a contingency plan for everything, even in, and especially in the event of his death.  Maybe, just maybe you want to give this a little thought?  You know, in case he has some hidden trump card out there?

Just as planned.
So on one hand, Sasuke's posse gets negative points for being inept ninjas.  On the other hand, Sasuke gets some credit here.  Not only is he resourceful in knowing which people to gather (because he was obviously paying enough attention to know where Orochimaru had these people stashed away), but he's smart enough to know who's stupid enough to accompany him on this suicide mission.  Maybe his plan was operation ninja shield.  When you think about it, it's certainly something from the ninja playbook.

There will ALWAYS be more ninja.

Concluding thoughts

While not every ninja in Naruto isn't a total failure at what they do, the series certainly highlights the most un-ninjalike ninja and extolls their virtues.  It's sad when you think about it, because one of the first things they're taught, and one of the things that's frequently emphasized in the series is the power of teamwork.

Then again, I have to try to look at it from Naruto's perspective.  The lesson of teamwork seems pretty farfetched when one of your teammates is the major villain and the other one is, well.. Sakura.

But perhaps we're missing the bigger point here.  Perhaps staying out of the limelight is what makes a truly great ninja.

Like our friend Paul.

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