Although they are perhaps a little alien to those outside of Europe, soccer management titles have a long and respected pedigree among those who commit weeks, months and even years of their lives to playing them. In the United Kingdom especially, such games have existed since the days of the 8-bit microcomputers, with franchises like Championship Manager and Football Manager selling millions worldwide — an amazing achievement when you consider that much of the "game" is hidden behind pages of almost impenetrable statistics.
Nintendo Pocket Football Club is an attempt to create an experience that will keep armchair managers happy but deliver it in a more casual and breezy fashion. The sequel to Japan-only 2006 title Calcio Bit for the Game Boy Advance, this game remains faithful to the visuals of its forerunner; players are flat 2D sprites which trundle purposefully around a 3D pitch. Although this deliberately retro aesthetic has been hijacked in recent years by mobile studio Kairosoft and its line of addictive, bite-sized smartphone titles, it's still utterly charming. While the squat players look basic in static screenshots, they possess a surprisingly diverse selection of animations; there's no mistaking the despondency of your keeper as he is soundly beaten by a 30-yard screamer, or the heartfelt protestations of your defender as he is given his second yellow card for a questionable tackle.
Staying with the visuals for a moment, it's worth noting that Nintendo Pocket Football Club looks especially fetching with the 3D slider turned up to maximum. During a match, the top screen displays the on-pitch antics, and you can move the camera around using the slider pad. There are moments when things appear a little rough around the edges — the advertising hoardings which surround the pitch look like they were created using MS Paint, for example — but on the whole, this title has an infectious charm which is difficult to remain unmoved by.
Of course, as any seasoned Football Manager veteran will tell you, the presentation of such a game matters for little; this genre is governed by the depth and immersion provided by the core gameplay. In this regard, Nintendo Pocket Football Club does things a little differently to its rivals. The biggest change is that it's impossible to fast-forward or entirely skip a match; you have to sit through each one in order to discover the result. The game's designer Hiroyuki Sonobe has stated that this was an intentional move to ensure that players would feel more invested in the performance of their teams — his aim was to replicate the same excitement that a proper soccer match provides, making every tackle, run and attempt on goal seem even more exciting.
To a degree, it's a successful move — matches can be quite captivating affairs, and it's enjoyable watching your finely-honed team take apart an opponent based on your suggested tactics. The issue is that having to sit through each match can sometimes be a chore, and on more than one occasion you'll find yourself wishing that you could at least speed things up a little. Thankfully, you're not just a passive observer during each game — you can tinker with player positions, issue fresh tactics and pick out opposition players for close marking, all based on the progress of the game itself. Sadly you can't switch your team's formation once a match is in progress, and the degree of tactical control is still very slight — especially when compared to more established soccer management games — but your changes can nevertheless make quite an impact.
During each match, you earn special training cards which can be used to improve the talents of your players. The conditions under which these are handed out usually relate to areas where your team is struggling, and the accompanying comments — usually involving soccer-based clichés that wouldn't be out of place in real life commentary — make them both amusing and believable. In-between matches you can use up to three training cards per player, but deploying them requires deep consideration.
Players have a "Potential" rating which indicates how receptive they will be to training and how far their can be pushed based on their raw talent, so there's little sense in expending loads of precious cards on someone who isn't going to mature as quickly as his team mates. You'll also want to distribute cards logically; a defender will benefit more from increased tackling than a striker, for example. To make this system even more interesting, it's possible to create card combinations which unlock special benefits, so experimentation is vital.
Beating your players into shape is one way to ensure victory, but you don't have to rely solely on the team you've been given. A transfer market exists within the game which allows you to purchase new talent, providing your club has the required funds. It's also possible to share players with other 3DS users — assuming you have the required funds — as well as offer up members of your own squad.
As you always start from the bottom of the league, it takes time for your team to develop into a formidable, championship-winning outfit. In the early stages of the game you can expect to find yourself on the wrong end of some dismal scorelines, but with each match comes the promise of new training cards, and therefore gradual improvement. It's also possible to take part in training and friendly matches in the weeks when a league or cup contest isn't scheduled; both are vital when it comes to getting more training cards and augmenting your team, but friendlies count for more as they take place in front of a paying crowd — just like a real league match — and therefore effect your overall rating as a manager. During the game your status with the fans is constantly monitored, and if they decide you're not doing well enough then you'll be given the sack.
Eventually you'll spot the key players within your squad and can therefore build your strategy around them. Closely observing the statistics revealed at the close of each match shows where you need to improve, and by tirelessly analysing player attributes you can spot who needs nurturing and who is only fit for the scrapheap. Dismissing players frees up cash for new salaries, and before long you can start to shape a winning club. It's also possible to change the formation of your team, and experimenting with different tactics is vital when you're playing some of the stronger clubs in the game. Players also suffer from fatigue over time — denoted by a red circle next to their name instead of the usual green — and will need to be rested in order to regain match fitness. There's a balancing act to master here; lots of matches means lots of training cards with which to improve your team, but this strategy puts an intense physical strain on your squad.
Playing as many matches as possible is the best way to gain access to new training cards, and as you progress through the leagues you notice that new challenges are offered which allow you to track down new and unique cards. For example, it's possible — but entirely optional — to play practice games against Focused Training Teams and Challenge Teams when you move to the Advanced league, and these meetings offer the chance to bolster your team in specific areas you feel they need work. To play these special sides you'll need to dig deep, however — they are locked away behind a paywall and require an in-app purchase to access. Fans of FIFA's "Ultimate Team" mode will know all too well about frittering away precious cash on virtual goods, but casual users may find the experience rather exploitative, given Nintendo Pocket Football Club's already high price tag in relation to other 3DS eShop offerings.
Although it wasn't always the case in the very early years of the genre, soccer management games these days come with official licenses which permit the use of proper clubs and players. This is all part of the intrinsic appeal; you feel like you're the one calling the shots at your favourite club, and every time you face a team like Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid, the status of those famous names adds some welcome drama to proceedings. It almost goes without saying that Nintendo Pocket Football Club lacks such finery; the teams and players are entirely fictional, although you are given the chance to name your club when you begin a career. You can also rechristen your players so that they accurately represent the real-world squad you wish to replicate, but everything else in the game is a fantasy, which could prove disappointing for soccer fans raised on real-world authenticity. Those old enough to recall when FIFA and International Superstar Soccer didn't boast official licenses are likely to be less dismayed, however.
Nintendo Pocket Football Club has an online ranking mode where you compete against other 3DS players in Europe to see who has the most talented squad. These matches are automatic affairs which don't allow you to make substitutions or change tactics manually. Therefore it's vital that you use the online mode's "Command" menu to ensure the team is setup exactly how you want it — you can change settings such as how aggressive your team is, or determine their level of discipline. Special tournament events are also scheduled to run when the game launches, and StreetPass connectivity is also utilized, allowing you to play against fellow 3DS owners who also own the game. This focus on social play is likely to be a neat aside to the single-player campaign — surely the meat of the game — but the allure of testing your mettle against fellow players and rising up the European league will surely keep fans busy.
Like all soccer management titles, Nintendo Pocket Football Club isn't about immediate action, but instead hides its long-term appeal behind a deeper and more involving style of gameplay. If you're willing to invest hours of your time in building the right team, observing the unskippable matches and training up your rag-tag selection of players, then you'll find it an engaging experience which is hard to put down. However, for all its charm, there's no escaping the fact that Nintendo Pocket Football Club will be compared to rival titles in this genre, and in that regard it falls short; there are no official teams, players or leagues — a massive part of the appeal of soccer management games — and the cute visual style is perhaps better suited to a release which doesn't take itself quite as seriously, like Kairosoft's Pocket League Story series. Still, its earnest approach — combined with impressive multiplayer options and a fantastic English localization packed with amusing dialogue — means that it gets further in the competition than you might expect, and those willing to put in the required time will be handsomely rewarded.