When I was a younger man, a teenager you might say, I had a taste for Manga. We all did, my mates and me. Founded in 1991 and headquartered in Los Angeles, the company, not the medium, was the market leader in supplying Japanese animation to Western audiences. In other words, it shipped anime, the cartoons, not manga, the comics, which was very confusing for the 14-year-old me who just wanted to watch Cyber City Oedo 808 on a Sunday morning, or sit down with a mate to plough through half a dozen episodes of Fist of the North Star when we should have been seeing to our homework.
The titles available seemed to stretch on forever, like there was no end to the amazing shows and full-lengths films we could watch. Manga picked up countless series from the 1980s and later, and put out new-at-the-time movies that blew our still-developing minds. The first time I saw 1995's Ghost in the Shell, I was sure it was the greatest sci-fi film of all time. For, like, a week, until I remembered Alien, and Blade Runner, and Total Recall, and Star Wars, and so forth. (It's still magnificent, mind.) But then, without any real reason, I went cold on anime. The fascinating near-future worlds of Appleseed and Akira were committed to memory, but I suddenly wasn't interested in investigating others like them. Going to pubs might have had something to do with it.
Anime remains massive today. It's bigger than it was when I was queuing up to buy a VHS copy of Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. (I still have it.) The Japanese animation industry brought in over $2 billion in 2013, the highest it'd been since 2006, and films like Studio Ghibli's glorious Spirited Away have done much to make these surreal visions from the Far East more palatable for mainstream audiences (although I hesitate to say that everything Ghibli co-founder and celebrated director Hayao Miyazaki's put his name to is entirely "family friendly"). But much of what I hear modern-day fans of all things anime talking about might as well be Japanese to me – I simply don't understand any of it. I mean, I know of the existence of the Dragon Ball Z franchise, but when 2015's XenoVerse game came out, I had no idea why I was doing what I was, who these characters were, or why I should care about any of it.
And now there's a new game in front of me: CyberConnect2's Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4. Try saying that after four pints. Of Baileys. It is, it says here on the blurb that comes with a very attractive press-kit promo box, "the latest title in the acclaimed STORM series based on the beloved Naruto anime and manga" – this being the same beloved franchise that I, until this game's arrival, had genuinely never heard of. I've poked my face into Wikipedia and found out that Naruto is a character who had a nine-tailed demon fox shoved into him as a kid, or something; and that now he's an absolute badass ninja who can clone himself and summon "natural energy" to defeat his foes. Hell, if I can buy a teenager rewinding time to save her town from a tornado, and a dude in a cape and cowl being able to see through brick walls at the press of a button, I can get down with an awesome high-kicking supernatural ninja dude with bananas hair and an evil mammal somewhere in his guts. Seems entirely normal, actually, for the gaming world.
But what, exactly, can Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, a 3D fighting game, tell me about the state of anime in 2016? I'm guessing: not a great deal if you're a complete noob regarding 21st century productions, themes and trends. But, you know, I'm going to have a crack at finding out. Because I've written the headline now, haven't I? Idiot. Here's five points from an hour's play that may or may not enrage anime fans because of my blithering beginner's naivety.
The action, oh crikey, the action is just breathtakingly stupid, in a sort of mostly brilliant way
There are two modes to Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, Story and Adventure, the latter of which allows you to explore the game's world after its plot's been seen out (I think?). So it's on with the Story. Immediately a screen pops up explaining "Interactive Actions". So I'm going to see some quick-time events, then. How very unexpected. (That's sarcasm, obviously?)
Cue, titles cutscene: a tale spanning "the history of the ninja", "the story of a never-ending chain of battles". Oh, wait, it's semi-interactive – silhouetted figures are doing a dance of death and I can control one of them. It's a tutorial, of sorts: RT to guard, A to jump, you know how these things go.
'Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4', opening animation
One of the characters summons a ginormous fox beast thing. Oh shit, this is the game, already – I (whoever "I" am) have to defeat this enormous enemy. And, true to expectations, what follows is fast and loud and full of ridiculous "special moves", exactly how I imagine the anime series to be. Without trying – or, rather, knowing what the hell I'm doing – I nail a 50-hit combo and earn an Xbox achievement for my efforts. I get beaten – I think that's the point.
Turns out it's not the point. I revive, and beat some chap called Madara – I'm Hashirama, turns out. But then he leaps atop his foxy pal and I do some titanic wood golem thing and we set about trashing an area of outstanding natural beauty. Lesson learned: anime is completely ludicrous and this sort of action shouldn't exist in the mind of a measured human being. Imagine Michael Bay absolutely wired on every upper under the sun and given infinite budget to blow up the Earth – it still wouldn't look as captivatingly cataclysmic as what's going on here.
Article continues after the video below
And the patter is just remarkable, like, I know it's supposed to be OTT, but it's so much fun
The dialogue is absolutely hilarious, so drenched in cliché that I might drown under the pressure of it all. These guys, on their magical monsters, are pals, sort of. "I don't want to fight you," one, me, shouts; "You always were blinded by sentimentality," comes the reply, or something to that effect (look, I'm not taking word-for-word notes here). The pomposity of this curtain-raising battle is off the scale, its visual spectacle matched by the moreish garbage spouted by the combatants.
I mean, really? "You leave me no choice... Sage Art, Wood Style!" Which immediately triggers a 1,000-armed god-like figure to rise out of the ground and slap the shit out of ol' foxy. But then, inevitably, comes the narrator's (?) line about how "the battle will never end". Lesson learned: no matter how much incredible shit you pull out of your arsenal, and however grandiose your slang becomes, the anime wars last forever. You can't bring about the downfall of these evil powers. They're going to be here, always. So why even try? But I'm going to try – I've only been playing this for 13 minutes, apparently. Story completion: two percent!
Except you might take several steps backwards before learning what comes next
I've accidentally restarted the game, replaying what I've already achieved a B rank at (which I'm happy enough with). Lesson learned: anime is incredibly confusing with its messaging (which I guess leads into my next observation, down there). Pause. Return to storyboard. How the hell do I see what's next in this game? Where is this Naruto chap who's on the packaging? These menus are a nightmare. Oh right. Press right. Could have maybe made that clearer, Game Maker People. "The cycle of battle never ended!" Of course it didn't. New chapter unlocked, "Two Unparalleled Warriors". Let's go.
Even when it's doing its best to make sense, it makes barely any sense at all
Finally I meet Naruto, and get a little backstory – basically what I've seen on the internet prior to playing. Except now I get to know my enemies, too – the guys behind these "flames of a massive conflict" oh Jesus this cheesiness is almost, almost, too much. (If the voice acting wasn't so gravely serious with it, it would begin to grate.) I understand the need to contextualise why the player is going through these motions, of course. But this brief recap of what's come before this point is, even with its selling point of "the ultimate deathmatch", completely befuddling.
Naruto is dreaming about being the best of the best at kicking arse, which is admirable enough. But there's an off-putting cockiness to him, ahead of the instruction to "destroy Tobi". Who's Tobi? Was that explained? Did I miss something? (It transpires that he's someone we know already, "we", from our past or something like that. Some chap called Obito. He has a nice jacket.) It's clear that if the Naruto series means as much to you as it does me, no amount of in-game exposition is quite going to bring you up to speed before caving in some other sucker's skull. Lesson learned: anime is a commitment, not a casual distraction. You need to research this stuff or it's entirely alienating when it's not simply demanding you press the B button to smash stuff up, or flick the left stick to meet the demands of a QTE.
I get an A rank for battling Tobi, since you asked, and an achievement for him not busting up my clothes. Which is nice. The game's menu shows two paths through its core story, which you can shift from point to point in to replay for better ranks.
Something, something, the Land of Fire, something about a bridge, something else. Nope, not one real idea what's happening with the story, here. Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 absolutely requires its player to know about its cast of characters, their world, and its accompanying mythology, before pressing start. Coming to it cold is like diving straight into the deep end of a pool of vodka jelly and being told to reach the other end without a) touching the bottom, tough as you're fully clothed in your heaviest threads, and b) consuming any of the boozy deliciousness you're slowly being swallowed by. Impossible. Why would you do it? You wouldn't, unless you were properly prepared, in Speedos, with some packing tape over your mouth. To understand this game, to understand anime, you need to be the Speedos.
New on Motherboard: Developers Will Soon Code VR Games Inside Virtual Reality
But even when it's all utterly baffling, it's weirdly hypnotic and compelling
I don't give a monkeys about the ninja code, or any of these newly introduced characters who are running about in a gang decking shadow clones of some antagonistic sort. But I'm bashing away at the buttons, enjoying the core combat of this game – which is evidently a system that rewards experimentation with awesome-looking special abilities while also remaining flexible enough for idiots like me to make progress with. Point being: I'm sticking with it, for now. Lesson learned: even when anime's effectively an alien language, it's hard to take your eyes off it. Does this game make me want to find out more about the best Japanese animation has to offer right now? Or investigate the Naruto series itself, in greater depth? Ask me again once I've played it for a second hour, assuming I can cut through all the teenage angst and tangled melodrama – entirely natural for this sort of thing, probably. Right?
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is out now for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (version tested). More information is available at the game's official website.
More from VICE Gaming: