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Looking back: Jump Ultimate Stars

On August 8th, 2005, developer Ganbarion released Jump Superstars for the Nintendo DS in Japan. It was a pretty solid party fighter, centered around characters from the Shounen Jump manga magazine, and it gained a fair amount of popularity. The game mechanics weren't perfect, but for what it was, it was a great little game to play, and it was quite possibly the first good fighting game released on the Nintendo DS.

But on November 23rd, 2006 - just over a year later, Ganbarion upped the ante with a sequel - and what a sequel it was! Jump Ultimate Stars took the core gameplay of Jump Superstars and refined it, adding new gameplay mechanics and a plethora of new characters to the already massive roster. Sadly, the game, much like its predecessor, was only released in Japan, but as the DS was region-free, it was possible for people like myself to import the game and play it on our non-Japanese DS systems. Though there is certainly a language barrier with regards to playing through story mode and unlocking characters, as well as building your teams, the actual gameplay requires no knowledge of Japanese whatsoever, and thanks to online translation guides, it's pretty easy to get into the game without having to worry about the fact that you can't read any of the text.

I can't really tell you too much about the story of Jump Ultimate Stars, since I can't read Japanese, but the gist of it seems to be that some bad guy has attacked the worlds of the Jump manga and sealed all of the heroes away into manga panels called Koma. Or something like that. Either way, in Jump Ultimate Stars, you're going to be able to pit heroes and villains from some of your favorite manga series against each other in battle, including characters from Dragon Ball, Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Yu Yu Hakusho, Yu-Gi-Oh!, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure and many more!

In terms of gameplay, you'll find that Jump Ultimate Stars is a very simple game at its core, yet it has a surprising amount of depth once you start to unlock more characters and experiment with different team combinations. Before you begin fighting, you need to build a "Deck", which is made up of various manga panels called "Koma", and each Koma represents one of the characters in your team. Depending on the size of the Koma, the character is either a direct combatant, an assist character that pops in to attack and then vanishes, or a character which acts as a buff that applies to your combatants but doesn't otherwise appear in combat. Once you have assembled your team out of hundreds of different characters to pick from, you enter battle against up to four opponents and as you might expect, when a player runs out of available combatants, they lose.

As the game is a fighting game, combat revolves around utilizing combos against your foes to deplete their life bar - though it is also possible to ignore their life bar entirely and go straight for a ringout. The game is what can be called a "platform fighter", akin to Super Smash Bros., so you have a more free range of movement compared to a traditional fighting game, including being able to jump between different platforms to do battle on, as well as interact with various stage hazards. In a way, the game kind of feels like if you smushed together Super Smash Bros. and something like Marvel vs Capcom, giving you the best of both worlds - a simplified control scheme and platform elements, but also a rich combo system that allows you to call in assist characters and tag between your fighters, to create even more extensive combos.

The game features a fairly long story mode - which you are required to play through if you want to unlock more than the few characters you start with, as well as a few different multiplayer modes. It technically includes an online mode, but as the Nintendo DS online servers have been shut down since 2014, there is no way to play online against other players, leaving you to find people to play with locally (which requires each player to have their own copy of the game), or play against CPU controlled opponents.

But alas, therein lies one of the few problems with Jump Ultimate Stars - It is virtually unplayable in its current state, unless you have friends to play with locally. This is because Jump Ultimate Stars features some of the worst enemy AI that I have ever seen, in any game.

The AI is so dumb that you are more likely to see them repeatedly fling themselves into bottomless pits than you are to ever be knocked out by the CPU. Enemies will sometimes just walk straight off the edge of the stage with no provocation, earning you the kill, and it would be some sort of miracle for the AI to string together more than 2 hits in a single combo. They will sometimes stand around and literally do nothing, not even block your attacks, unless you're playing on Hard mode, which seems to have the exact same AI as the other difficulties except the AI is rigged up to automatically block every attack whenever you press a button - a problem that is easily remedied by throwing out guard-breaking attacks - a strategy which the AI is clearly not programmed to deal with.

There's also the problem that when the game's online was actually functioning, it was rife with cheaters. The game features a number of completely game-breaking glitches, including infinite health restoration and outright invincibility, which can be performed by any player with the knowledge on how to execute these glitches. And that isn't even counting the rampant literal cheaters who used Action Replay cheats to ruin the game for everyone. But at the very least, now that the online is no longer functional, this is no longer a problem...

But despite all of that, the game itself is still excellent. If you can actually find someone to play with, that is. The fighting mechanics are really top-notch, easily making Jump Ultimate Stars one of the best party fighters around.

Graphically, the game looks great. It's actually kind of amazing that Ganbarion were able to animate so many different characters into the game, and they all look fantastic. Everything from the character sprites, to the attack animations, to the backgrounds and even the UI are of beautiful quality. The characters look faithful to their manga counterparts, and you can tell that the developers were big fans of the represented series, since it's clear that a ton of love was poured into every character's animations. It's definitely one of the best looking sprite-based games on the system, in my opinion.

Surprisingly enough, the game also has a pretty great soundtrack as well. Most stages have their own unique music track, and each one definitely has a flair to it that makes you feel like it was really made to represent that particular manga series. Like with the graphics, even the music feels like the composers were huge fans of the series in the game and really wanted to make music that made each stage truly feel like it was part of that manga.

So, in the end, the question must be asked... would I recommend Jump Ultimate Stars? Well, it really depends. I'm going to say "Yes" in general, that I would recommend everyone experience this love letter to Shounen Jump manga, even if you're not a huge fan of the manga within it, simply because it's an incredibly fun game. In my opinion, Jump Ultimate Stars is not only one of my favorite games on the Nintendo DS, but one of my favorite video games of all time.

But at the same time, it's hard to recommend it, because unless you have a couple friends who have also imported the game, your only option at the moment is to play against the totally braindead CPUs, which are more of a hazard to themselves than they are to you. And that... really isn't fun, despite how great the game itself really is.

Final Verdict: Recommended
So ultimately, I will recommend the game, but only if you have actual humans to play with. And I assure you, that if you can get together some players, you're gonna have an absolute blast with Jump Ultimate Stars.

*All images courtesy of Ganbarion