‘Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions’ review: an absolute joy, except for the football

A fun festival of arcade football that gets dragged down by the fundamentals

Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions can’t seem to decide what it is. At times it’s an arcade football game taking itself too seriously, but other times it’s just a proper football game that wants to be a bit silly. Most of the time I played, I sat with a big smile on my face, but the rest of the time I was gurning in frustration at the mechanics which were somehow both too simple and too complex. It’s definitely fun, no doubt about that. But is it good? I’m not quite sure.

Based on the Captain Tsubasa manga series (and subsequent TV series and movies), it tells the story of Tsubasa, a 14-year-old Japanese football player on a quest for greatness. While he’s Messi, Cruyff and Pelé all rolled into one, the base game is a fairly normal football game; 11 versus 11, you pass, you shoot, you tackle. You don’t need to be that bothered about the story or Tsubasa himself to enjoy yourself here, although you would be robbing yourself of the experience somewhat.

Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions
Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions. Credit: Tamsoft

It features a meaty 30-hour campaign, and leans more towards narrative than actual gameplay, followed by their version of new game plus where you create your own character and lead them, instead of Tsubasa, to greatness. The storyline is original, in the sense that it doesn’t use any existing Tsubasa manga arc, but that’s the only sense in which it is original. Like most sporting tales, it follows very similar narrative beats. It won’t surprise you, heck, you probably won’t even remember much of what’s happening, but the game has an infectious enthusiasm that will take players in.

The biggest problem is that the game really seems to have focused its energy in all of the wrong places. These two campaigns, for example, form the backbone of the game, and while they’re very well done, I don’t think they’re the big draw. I don’t think that many players will come to the game for Tsubasa. These campaigns come at the sacrifice of a focus on the pitch, both in the campaigns themselves and in the general design of the game. It’s a Tsubasa game with football, rather than a football game with Tsubasa.

There isn’t much reason to compare FIFA and Captain Tsubasa aside from the obvious football link, but I’m going to do it anyway. The best way to describe how the game is built is to imagine if FIFA only had The Journey and Kick Off modes. There could be more to Tsubasa, and for a sports game with campaigns that offer 50-60 hours, it feels incredibly harsh to criticise it as empty. But then, it does kind of feel empty, especially when the campaigns are so heavily weighted towards cutscenes.

This may well be a problem with expectations, but I don’t think I’m alone in the hopes I had for this game. I wanted something like Sega Soccer Slam or Mario Strikers. Something energetic and wonderful and fizzing with a sugar rush.

At times, the game leans into this mentality, but it wants to give you a ‘proper’ football experience, and I just don’t understand why.We have enough ‘proper’ football games – There’s a new FIFA and Pro Evo every year – Captain Tsubasa didn’t need to mimic them, and it’s a weaker game for trying.

Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions
Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions. Credit: Tamsoft

There is a lot to celebrate about Captain Tsubasa’s football. When it leans into the anime stuff, it’s fantastic. Each team’s star player has a special shooting mechanic, where golden tigers or red falcons are summoned out of nowhere to help power the ball past the bemused goalkeeper. Why he’s bemused, when this happens three or four times a game, is anyone’s guess.

Tackling players happens by either barging them off the ball, throwing them up the air with cartoonish flailing, or with hyper stylish sliding tackles. Like I said, the whole game had me smiling. When you’re chucking someone six feet in the air with a shoulder barge or scoring a goal thanks to a cartoon jaguar, it’s a joy. But far too often you’re not doing that.

Even on the pitch, Captain Tsubasa often robs itself of its own simple pleasures. Sprinting in the game is hard work. It’s too slow and leaves you too exposed to those stylish tackles. Too much emphasis is put on defense for a game which should really be free spirited. Games should be ending 13-7, but instead you’re grinding out 1-0s, passing and passing and passing and passing until you find a gap. I want heavy metal football and I’m getting tiki-taka.

There’s no real option to cross, though balls are a nightmare to aim, the pace is well off, and if you’re not unleashing one of these super shots (which take forever to charge up anyway), shooting is bland and difficult to control. It’s such a shame because the game is so fun, but it’s buried under a failure to fully grasp the fundamentals.

Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions
Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions. Credit: Tamsoft

This focusing on the wrong things is true of the positives as well as the negatives. There are areas you’d expect to be barren which instead sparkle. There’s a customisation centre, hidden inside the online mode, which has surprising depth when it comes to changing your team’s home and away kit designs, kit colours, and even renaming your team and creating your own badge. It’s a football game with 20 different options for your jersey and zero ways to effectively cross the ball.

Overall, Captain Tsubasa gives it the old college try when it comes to creating a football that brings something new to the table, but ultimately still feels like it’s in junior high. It has some interesting ideas, but too often feels like its desire to be taken seriously holds it back, and it picks up too much inspiration from the wrong places.

‘Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions’ is out August 28 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Our Verdict

Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of The Champions is a very well-made video game with a substantial campaign, but it plays football like it’s on reins, the defense too powerful and the play too slow for the stylish flair to really shine though. This will whet your appetite for a real arcade football game rather than fill it.

Pros

  • A genuinely joyful game
  • Customisation has surprising depth
  • Substantial campaigns

Cons

  • If you aren’t a Tsubasa fan, the campaign probably won’t do it for you
  • Football is way too defensive
  • Controls are too limited
  • Not enough focus on the gameplay’s unique aspects
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