I first started watching the Naruto anime about ten years ago, when it was airing the middle of the Chuunin Exam Arc.
I caught up, then stopped somewhere during the Konoha Crush Arc because I couldn't be bothered anymore with the week-to-week pacing of the series.
Fortunately, I revisited the anime earlier this year and binge-watched both Naruto and Naruto Shippuden.
For the longest time, I thought of Naruto and Naruto Shippuden as two parts of one series. Now that I've finished both, I don't think they are. To me, Naruto Shippuden feels like a different show altogether from Naruto.
They might share the same settings and characters, but there are many creative differences that set them apart—so much so that I now consider them as two separate anime series rather than two parts of one whole.
Here's how Naruto and Naruto Shippuden differ, and which series is better. (Since I never watched any of the filler episodes in either series, my thoughts are solely based on canon episodes.)
Naruto vs. Naruto Shippuden: Plot
Naruto's plot is primarily personal: it's all about Naruto's struggle as a discarded outsider who wants to become Hokage and win the respect of those around him.
Naruto Shippuden evolves far beyond Naruto himself and encompasses a wider plot that involves the fate of the known world. Some of the seeds of that plot were planted in Naruto, but it only takes root after the time jump between the two series.
While Naruto Shippuden's plot was full of mind-blowing twists and turns, it ultimately grew unwieldy and far too contrived at points.
The more you think about Naruto Shippuden, the more you see the various retcons, plot holes, and dropped plot threads that never really went anywhere (or led to unsatisfying conclusions).
The tone of the series grew quite a bit darker as well, shifting from the youthful exuberance and optimism of Naruto's childhood to the uncomfortable realities of adulthood, war, and grief.
In retrospect, I find that Naruto was more enjoyable overall.
The simplicity of Naruto's singular goal and the progression of obstacles he had to overcome led to some of the most powerful moments in anime, and it was a lot easier to follow because the story was so focused.
And while the optimism of Naruto was intoxicating, the darker tone of Naruto Shippuden often felt like it took itself too seriously. It lost the jovial levity that made Naruto so fun in the first place.
Not to mention that the Chuunin Exam Arc is still my favorite story arc in all of Naruto, followed by the Sasuke Retrieval Arc which had the best written fights of all time (back when fights were about theme and smarts, not just who has the most chakra and willpower).
Naruto vs. Naruto Shippuden: Characters
In only 135 episodes, Naruto introduced us to all the key protagonists for the rest of the series, and fully fleshed them out with distinct personalities, interesting backstories, and powerful relationship dynamics.
We got Naruto, Team 7, Team 8, Team 10, as well as Team Guy and the Sand Siblings, plus the Sannin. These are the characters that come to mind when you think "Naruto."
In about 480 episodes, Naruto Shippuden not only failed to deliver the same level of character depth as Naruto, but actually went ahead and destroyed some of the more interesting characters from the original series.
Madara is a one-dimensional villain with too much plot armor. The Otsusuki clan, which comes out of nowhere, is even worse. And both Kabuto and Orochimaru are butchered by character arcs that make very little sense to their internal motivations.
I don't even want to touch on the various other characters whose potential were wasted, such as Sasuke's companions in Taka, or the Kages from the neighboring countries, or even Danzo who could've been very interesting if he wasn't so frequently played as a one-note villain for fabricated tension.
Other than Yamato and the villains in Akatsuki, Naruto Shippuden delivered far less than Naruto did in terms of characters despite having 3.5x more episodes.
Naruto vs. Naruto Shippuden: Music
Check out the soundtracks for both Naruto and Naruto Shippuden to hear just how different they are. It's like they were composed by two different people—which they were—and they rarely shared the same style, tone, or even the same set of instruments.
All of that is totally fine. It's just jarring when you binge-watch Naruto and Naruto Shippuden right after one another. The differences are stark and readily apparent.
Compare this melancholy track from Naruto:
With this melancholy track from Naruto Shippuden:
While I hated the Naruto Shippuden soundtrack on first listen, it grew on me. I came to appreciate it when I realized that the story of Naruto Shippuden was intended to be more mature.
Through that lens, the new direction of the soundtrack fits perfectly, and I have to say that I now much prefer the music of Naruto Shippuden.
It's orchestral, it's complex, and it's deeply moving. Truly one of the best anime soundtracks ever produced, if you ask me. By comparison, the original Naruto's music is simplistic and flat, even if it is fun and memorable.
Winner: Naruto Shippuden
Naruto vs. Naruto Shippuden: Animation
Animation involves a lot: art direction, color palettes, framing and composition, cinematography, fluidity of the animations themselves, the overall feel of the animation as it pertains to the scene, and more.
Generally speaking, both Naruto and Naruto Shippuden have average animation quality compared to the entire availability of anime out there. It's difficult to create a consistently great look when you're pumping out an episode every week for years.
Overall, I think Naruto takes the cake here.
While I do think that Naruto Shippuden had some amazing character designs and worldbuilding, I don't really consider those as part of animation.
The art direction, framing and composition, and animation consistency was just better in Naruto, with more attention given to how things appear on camera and how that affects the viewer's perception of what's happening in a scene.
Naruto Shippuden had a lot of basic, front-on composition angles that were flat and uninspired.
Naruto had two of the best animated fight scenes in the entire series: the first being Orochimaru's reveal in the Forest of Death, and the fight between Naruto and Sasuke at the Valley of the End.
The Sannin showdown near the end of Naruto also had a lot of great creative direction.
In Naruto Shippuden, we just got a lot of straightforward angles and wider shots, mainly because everything ramped up to world-destroying scales and there isn't much room for creative battle depictions when you always have to show that much.
Naruto vs. Naruto Shippuden: Verdict
Naruto Shippuden was the more exciting series to watch from episode to episode because you're dying to know what happens next. But after it ends and you dwell on what you just watched, it's not as memorable compared to the original Naruto.
My impression of Naruto Shippuden is tainted because it felt like the story and characters fumbled toward the end, whereas I will always remember Naruto fondly because it executed everything well. For me, Naruto is the better series overall.