Captain Tsubasa has been around for nearly 40 years. Initially appearing as a series in the best-selling manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump in April 1981, he’s seen numerous comics, animated series, movies and, yes, video games over the years. It’s one of the most well-loved series in Japan and is credited with contributing to the growth of football’s popularity in the country.
Despite this, hardly any of Tsubasa’s gaming exploits have made it overseas. There have been nearly 20 games about the plucky midfielder going all the way back to the Famicom days, yet in the west, he may as well not exist (1988's Captain Tsubasa was localised as Tecmo Cup Soccer Game for the NES, but it stripped away all references to the character). That changes with Captain Tsubasa: Rise Of New Champions, Bandai Namco’s latest Captain Tsubasa romp, which sees the man himself (well, the lad) make a rare appearance on western shores. Thankfully, it wasn’t a wasted trip, because it’s a fun time.
The main mode is The Journey, which is not to be confused with the FIFA story mode of the same name (because this one actually made it to the Switch, for starters). There are two different storylines to choose from here: the first follows Tsubasa as he tries to guide his Nankatsu school team to their third consecutive youth national championship, while the second has you playing as a created player (more on that in a second, though).
The first story does a decent job of helping you learn more about the Captain Tsubasa character, in case you aren’t familiar with him. Although the game was developed in Japan with a Japanese audience primarily in mind, it fortunately assumes that some players still may not know about this long-running character and backs up the story with numerous unlockable flashback sequences that essentially fill you in on Captain Tsubasa lore. In other words, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy this game even if you’re never seen a single second or read a single panel of past Tsubasa works.
The Tsubasa story is fairly short, and you’ll have it beaten in a couple of hours. The second story is a little longer and has more meat on its bones. You get to create your own character, then pick one of three other teams to put him in – Toho, Furano or Musashi – as you try to win the hastily-arranged Junior Hero League and earn a chance to play for Japan in the Junior Youth World Challenge.
Whereas the first storyline is more or less a linear affair, this second one regularly gives you dialogue options to choose from and grades you on your performances, levelling-up your stats in the process. You can also select players to form friendships with, and as you play together and build these friendships you’ll learn some of their special moves and skills. It makes things far more compelling and there’s ultimately a reason for it all: once you finish the storyline you can register your character – upgraded stats and all – to your custom team for online play.
All of this would be a bit pointless if you didn’t actually have fun playing the game, of course, and this is where Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions is possibly going to be quite divisive. This game is to football what Punch-Out!! is to boxing, in that if you treat it like a realistic representation of the sport you’re going to fail miserably and get really annoyed with it. Instead of playing this game like you would any other football title, you have to treat it like it belongs to a different genre altogether, because in a sense it does.
Passing, crossing, through balls and the like are all very much present and accounted for here, but dribbling is an interesting affair that revolves around counters, almost like a fighting game or a modern beat ‘em up. As a player approaches with a barge or a slide tackle, you have to hit the dodge button at just the right time to shimmy past them. Dodge two players in a row and your stamina will completely fill up, giving you a better chance of sprinting to the box for a shot.
If dribbling feels unlike most other football games, shooting may as well be a different sport. You have to quickly come to terms with the fact that, short of a freak deflection or bug, your normal shots will absolutely never go in – the keeper will save them every single time. This even goes for many of your super shots, the massively over-the-top moves that have to be charged by holding down the shoot button and result in the sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in Shaolin Soccer. A lot of times, they’ll still be saved, too. So what gives?
Well, you see, each goalkeeper has a stamina bar, and shots wear it down. Super shots wear it down more, as does getting as close to the keeper as possible before shooting. Eventually, if you wear down the keeper’s stamina and your next shot is strong enough to empty it, the ball will slip through their hands and go into the net. It’s a very strange system and one that can cause a little frustration until you learn some of its quirks; nowhere does the game tell you that getting closer to the keeper takes a bigger chunk out of their stamina, for example.
The result of all this is a game that doesn’t really play like real football. Instead, it’s more about countering enemy tackles enough times to bring you close to the goal, then taking as much energy off the goalie as you can, then repeating this until you score. Football purists will completely dismiss it as a terrible representation of the world's favourite sport, but if you treat it as a sort of weird back-and-forth arcade-style game with a health bar at either end of the pitch, it becomes oddly compelling. Once it all clicked for us, we found it difficult to put it down.
This extends to the Online Versus mode, which gives the game some longevity after you beat both the stories in The Journey. After creating your own custom team name, logo and strip, you’ll be placed in the lowest division and tasked with working your way up through the ranks by beating other players. For the first few divisions if you can’t find a player online you’ll be matched with a CPU opponent instead, so at least there’s no worry about a lack of opposition for a while, at least. Once you reach a certain level, though, the game only searches for real people to play against, so it remains to be seen if you’ll be hit with the brick wall of a dead online community at some point.
There are flaws to be found elsewhere in the game. While the story mode is handled well and everything looks phenomenally crisp and clean, the dialogue can go on for a bit and a lot of it gets fairly predictable; we lost count how many times Tsubasa fainted during or after a match, to the point that if you were to make it a drinking game you’d probably be hitting the deck, too. The camera during matches can also get a little erratic; sometimes when you pass, instead of moving with the ball, it stays focused on the player who made the pass before instantly snapping to the player receiving the ball.
By and large, though, we had a pretty good time with this one. It absolutely won’t be for everyone, and we include football game fans in that bracket – you may love your FIFA or PES, but this is such a wildly different take on the sport that your skills there aren’t really transferable here. If you’re willing to give it a chance and judge it on what it actually is, though, you may be as pleasantly surprised as we were.
As a traditional football game, Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions falls flat in many ways. As its own unique interpretation of the sport, though, there's something oddly compelling about the way it gives each goalie an energy bar as if it were some sort of ball-based fighting game (Street Striker II, if you will). Play it with an open mind and as long as you're not against a game that tries something different – as well as plenty of cutscenes – you'll have fun with this one. If you're a fan of the wider Captain Tsubasa franchise, then you're going to love it even more.