It’s an unlikely combination, anime and football. But that’s Captain Tsubasa for you, and the premise of the latest game in the franchise made it my most anticipated sports game release of the year.
But for Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions to work, it needed to be a good football game first, with additional drama and over-the-top antics layered on top to add some new flair. And unfortunately, while it does indeed lay on the spectacle, the football aspect of the game is severely lacking. So much so that it’s generally a chore to play.
On the pitch, Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions has all the moves you’d expect. When on the offence, you can pass the ball in a number of ways, for example, and even perform a through-ball, but you never feel confident that the ball is going to go where you want it to. And then there’s the shooting. Like in other football games, you hold the shoot button down to power up your shot. But here, you want to go beyond the standard power bar if you can until you’ve filled yet another tiny additional bar that only strikers have. Do so, and you’ll perform a flashy manoeuvre that really puts the goalie under pressure.
The trouble is, scoring a goal in Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions doesn’t feel like a matter of skill. In fact, every game feels like a war of attrition. You see, each and every player on the pitch, including the goalie, has a spirit bar. The spirit bar powers their abilities – without spirit, a player can’t sprint, for example. And in the case of a goalie, as long as they’ve got spirit, there’s not much chance of putting a ball past them. It does happen once in a blue moon, but generally, to score a goal you’re going to have to shoot numerous times to wear the goalie down, then send a rip-roarer past him. Needless to say, it doesn’t make for a great game of football.
Things aren’t much better when you’re on defence, either. You basically have two ways to steal the ball from your opponents: intercept it during a pass, or perform a tackle. Two tackles are available in Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions: what is essentially a shoulder barge that sends the other player flying, and a more conventional sliding tackle. There are seemingly no fouls here, so you can be as rough as you like, but both of these tackles can be avoided by a player on the offensive if they use the correct dribble skill. The CPU does this a lot. Also, simply taking control of a player close to the ball when on defence can be a chore. You press the designated button, only for it to put you in control of a player that’s off-screen – what’s helpful about that?
And so, playing Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions is largely a joyless experience of chasing opposing players down to attempt to nab the ball off them, to then get in to position to fire a shot off from pretty much anywhere; after all, as long as the goalie has to save it, it’s going to wear down his spirit. It doesn’t really feel like football at all – there’s not much point in playing it like real football, in fact – and ultimately, it feels like a waste of your time to a large degree. But there are moments where it might actually put a smile on your face. Perform a powered-up shot, for example, and the camera might move in to provide a dramatic scene. It does genuinely lift the title a little, though they do eventually become tiresome due to repetition.
It’s a shame that Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions fails on a gameplay level, because content-wise there’s plenty to go at. It has not one, but two campaigns for you to play through for starters. Episode: Tsubasa lets you relive some of the anime that the game is based on, with you taking control of the titular Tsubasa. You’ll journey around Japan, facing off against teams fronted by particularly skilled players. Along the way, you’ll witness ridiculous scenes that will make you laugh in astonishment. You just probably won’t enjoy the bouts of football in between them all that much.
Then there’s Episode: New Hero, a separate campaign that you should tackle only after you’ve finished Episode: Tsubasa. It allows you to create your very own player, and make your way through an original story that also proves to be ludicrously entertaining. On the pitch, you can increase your player’s stats by scoring goals, dribbling the ball past opponents and performing successful tackles, among other things. The stats of your teammates are also increased according to your overall team performance. Throw in multiple story paths depending on your dialogue choices, and you have a rather deep experience. Once it’s over, you can carry your custom-created player into the game’s versus modes too.
It’s perhaps in its suite of offline and online versus modes that players will gleam some genuine enjoyment when playing Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions rather than just watching it. Players are all on an equal footing when it comes to the game’s awkward mechanics, after all – they’re not psychic like the CPU, avoiding tackle after tackle. In offline versus you can play a full match, take part in a penalty shootout, or jump into a championship. And you can do so with up to four local players. Online versus, on the other hand, lets you take part in ranked matches, or create a room for some more laid-back anime football action.
If you’re a big fan of Captain Tsubasa, you might actually get a kick out of what’s on offer here. While its story scenes are a bit lifeless, they are genuinely entertaining, and there are plenty of twists and turns. You’ll have to grit your teeth and make your way through many unfulfilling football matches to enjoy them though. Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions didn’t have to be FIFA, but it at least had to provide a game of football that felt dynamic, fair and fun. It doesn’t do that, unfortunately, and so for most it’s going to be a major disappointment.