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The Nintendo DS has hosted an awful lot of Naruto games. At this point, it would help if Tomy gave us all a scorecard to keep track of two different Ninja Councils, two other Path of the Ninjas, a pair of Ninja Destinys, Naruto vs. Sasuke, the Japan-only Naruto RPGs, and however many other Narutos we’ve long forgotten about.

To make matters more confusing, the new Naruto Shippuden: Shinobi Rumble doesn’t have much in common with any other DS game, at least once you look under the hood. It’s the first handheld entry in the series from Eighting, the company that used to make Bloody Roar for a living before succumbing to the siren song of the anime fanboy market. In America, their games became the Clash of Ninja 3D fighters for the GameCube and Wii. This title is something like Clash of Ninja’s distant little handheld cousin.

To use a more familiar analogy, Shinobi Rumble plays like a handheld Smash Brothers Lite. It’s a four-player-not-quite-beat-‘em-up, not-quite-fighting game. The action is strictly two-dimensional, unfolding in a series of interactive arenas that look like small platformer levels. There’s space in every stage for up to four players, but not so much elbow room that anyone can just run away and turtle. The fighting system emphasizes closing in and mixing it up—there are very few projectile attacks or special items, forcing characters to do most of their fighting with hand-to-hand combos and countermoves.

First and foremost, this is a multiplayer game. It does contain solo modes, ranging from missions with special victory conditions to a story mode that recounts a few plotlines from the original series. (Continuity freaks may be interested to know that the story mode covers events up through episode 138, so it would probably be wise to catch up with the show before playing all the way to the end.)

It’s only so much fun playing against the computer, though. Even on harder difficulty levels, the AI doesn’t put up much of a challenge, and some of the single-player modes run out of gas just when they get going. At around 20 simple fights, the story mode is short enough to knock out in one sitting.

Thankfully, for a multiplayer game, there’s a lot to work with here. Shinobi Rumble dates more or less to the sixth season of the Shippuden TV show, so the character line-up revolves around fighters that take the forefront in those stories. Aside from the usual marquee characters (Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke, Kakashi), there are Akatsuki villains like Pain and Tobi, Sasuke’s three comrades from the “Hebi” team, and perennial background figures like Jiraiya. The dev team includes a few oddballs, too—a couple of Jiraiya’s frog-god compatriots fight together as a single unit.

Most of the Naruto fighting games haven’t been what you’d call exquisitely balanced, and Shinobi Rumble doesn’t do a heck of a lot better. Faster-moving characters that can spit out combos quickly tend to have an advantage. Slower characters that have to wait for a gap in an opponent’s attack can be frustrating to use. With that in mind, players who learn how to counter are going to have an edge over opponents that haven’t quite mastered the timing yet.

Anyone who wants perfect balance in a fighter has already gone out and bought titles like Guilty Gear. What most Naruto fans want, this game delivers: sharp graphics, a lot of characters, and a lot more personality. Every fighter has three or four colorful special techniques, and ever since the old days of Bloody Roar, Eighting’s artists have had a knack for doing that sort of thing well. Jiraiya drops a gigantic toad on his opponents. Karin dishes out a hilarious two-handed pimp-slap combo, and Kakashi’s “Thousand Years of Pain” does something that can’t really be described on a family-friendly website (just trust us, it’s good for a laugh).

There’s been a lot of Naruto DS games so far, and there’s going to be a lot more after this one. Even compared with so much competition, Shinobi Rumble doesn’t do a bad job at all. It’s fast, it’s colorful, it’s funny, and it goes down smoothly—in other words, it has many of the same things going for it as the Naruto comics themselves. For the moment, at least, this is the game that fans should be looking for.

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