Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions Review

Ever since his first kick in 1981, Captain Tsubasa, based on the character of the same name, has become widely recognized in Asia. Even though it has never quite reached the same height as Naruto or Dragon Ball, the franchise grew to become one of the most well-beloved series in Japan thanks to numerous adaptations, video games included. This time, the series marks its first return to popular gaming consoles with the newest title, Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions.

The game offers two narratives for both veterans and newcomers alike. The first episode is called Episode: Tsubasa, which takes you through the second arc of Tsubasa’s storyline. Then there is Episode: New Hero, a brand new original story where you get to create your own character. You are free to start whichever campaign you like. However, it is recommended to play the first episode as it provides the necessary introductions and context to the latter one.

Today, Japan. Tomorrow, the World!

Because this is a faithful adaptation of the anime, there is no denying that Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions is filled with cliché interactions and tropes that will feel somewhat familiar to die-hard fans of the series. For those unfamiliar with the manga, this adaptation does a good job at introducing the characters that you meet during the course of the story. At some point in the game you’ll unlock the backstories (hand-drawn animations!) to some of the vital characters in the series and they are accessible in the menu. I’d say it’s possible to enjoy this game without having seen or watched any past Tsubasa releases thanks to numerous unlockable flashbacks that fill you in on the lore.

Between the two episodes, the first storyline is a fairly short one, and you’ll be able to finish it in a couple of hours. There is a sequence of tutorials before each crucial match and these are thoroughly intuitive, as I never felt lost on how to play the game. This mode features some interesting mechanics where the game plays an important scene from the anime if certain conditions are met during the match. I occasionally found myself smiling like a kid when I got to see a certain character finally master a special kick and score the winning goal. However, these scenes can also tip the odds in the AI’s favor if they decide to flex with an unstoppable play, forcing you to concede a goal.

One thing is for certain, the gameplay gets interrupted way too often by the narrative for the player to get into the flow of the game. There are story interactions that will be played at the start and during the halftime break of each match. These can be infuriating as they usually drag on for too long. There’s no reason for players to care about the cutscenes if they more or less provide the same exposition to the story.

The second episode offers a more interactive experience than the first, bringing RPG elements into the mix. Character customization is expansive, but rather than hooking you up on customizing your own avatar, the sheer amount of wardrobe items still fails to help you differentiate between how each one of them looks. The dialogue system implemented most likely won’t raise the bar, but it is still good enough to make you care about your interactions with each character. Furthermore, the dialogue options can help you make friends on your journey and once you build your relationships to a certain level, they’ll teach you skills to play better in matches. You learn from the best, I guess.

Just a normal match for Tsubasa and his team.

It’s basically Shaolin Soccer… with a twist!

While the gameplay is more arcadey than realistic, it still offers a lot of depth. The fundamental mechanic (similar to stamina) is called “Spirit Gauge”, draining whenever you dash or execute an action but recovering at a steady pace. Each team has a special ability bar and that skill is entirely based on the captain of that team, called “V-Zone”. Activating it will result in a stats boost for a short period of time. The strategy of this game lies in how you utilize the “V-Zone” special ability or work to raise up your “Spirit Gauge” by performing well-timed actions during the match. This is what makes the gameplay feel so intense at times thanks to the clever use of “rock, paper, scissors” mechanic.

Passing in the game has few variations which feel unintuitive and unreliable with the exception of special passes. Each time I made a pass in the game, the ball either went to the other team, or to no one even if there was a clear route to the player that I wanted to pass it to. There are also other glitches where the AI just circled the ball instead of collecting it. Granted that while I had a good chance to score thanks to the bug, it did take me out of immersion while playing.

If the passing system leaves a bit to be desired, dribbling takes an interesting approach that revolves around counters, which are similar to an arcade fighting game. As a player approaches with a barge or a tackle, you have to hit the dash button at the right time to get past them. Dodge two players in a row and your stamina will completely fill up, giving you satisfaction when you find the chance to finish the play with a super move. Try to sprint past the whole opposition side and you’ll see there is no need for a good passing system. Teamwork is overrated anyway, right?

Scoring has a few different systems too, but you will have to rely on a character’s ultimate shot if you want to increase your chance at getting a goal. Still, as outrageous and over-the-top your player’s shot is, most likely the goalkeeper will be able to save it. You see, for every single shot you take and the keeper saves , his stamina bar will wear down a little bit (like a health bar!). Once the keeper’s stamina hits zero, it means he won’t be able to save one of your super shots. However, this system robs the game of its spontaneity as it basically comes down to you repeatedly smashing the ball at the goalkeeper’s face until you can get a guaranteed goal.

One thing that I should point out is that fouls are non-existent in this game. Savage tackle is a thing and the ball isn’t the only thing getting kicked around, but thankfully your players virtually (no pun intended) never get hurt. This does allow players to have a good arcadey back-and-forth style of football where the match feels fast and entertaining to play. There’s also something in tackling cartoonish players five feet up the air while flailing their arms around that makes for a great time.

Anime hijinks

Typically during a match, the controls felt really responsive. Playing on the offense and scoring goals was very entertaining. Whenever I found myself on defense, though, the game didn’t know who to switch to when the opposition got past me, which resulted in the control auto switching to the farthest player on the field. While it didn’t affect the flow of the game too much, the tension did rise when the AI had a chance to use its special move.

Take that!

Graphically speaking, Captain Tsubasa looks similar to the anime, which is colorful and crisp. The game faithfully maintains the charming yet grand feeling of a Tsubasa showdown, from the opening to when the players walk onto the field. The music and sound effects emulate the high, intense soccer that the franchise is built around very well. This is thanks in no small part due to the commentators, who do a good job at selling the hype during each game. However, the constant subtitle pop-ups on the screen may frustrate you and keep your attention out of the game for a bit.

One thing I noticed while playing through the story is the animation’s quality, some cutscenes during key moments in the first episode happened to be some of the best quality in the game. As I got further and further toward the end of episode two, the key moments mostly consisted of poorly animated cutscenes with glib dialogue, rather than the pre-rendered cutscenes that were played in the first episode.

Overall, Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions won’t exactly be up your alley if you expect a more traditional football experience, similar to those of PES or FIFA. But given the chance, it may surprises you with its own brand of football, a high-octane, action-packed arcade game where there’s a lot of joy to be had in leading Tsubasa (or your own character) to glory. You may encounter some issues with the AI, as well as plenty of cutscenes interrupting the gameplay, but as long as you don’t mind a different kind of football game and approach it with an open mind, you will have a great time. And for those who are long time Captain Tsubasa fans, this game is an absolute must-have.

Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions can be found on Steam here.

Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions can also be found on Nintendo Switch here.

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