Remember when sports games were just dumb, weird fun? Remember the hyper-active insanity of NFL Blitz, or the bobble-headed boom-shacka-lacka-ing action of NBA Jam? For a long time, there were just as many wild and arcade takes on the virtual world of athletic competition as there were serious and sophisticated sports games. In recent years, though, simulation sports titles have reigned supreme, and while I can appreciate the hot-blooded competition of sports, so many video game interpretations of these physical competitions are an absolute snorefest.
I grew up obsessed with the over-the-top soccer action of Mario Strikers Charged, and I’ve wanted another game in that style for well over a decade. That’s why my jaw hit the floor when I found out that Bandai Namco was making a fierce-looking video game version of iconic soccer manga Captain Tsubasa, and then my jaw plummeted into the crust of the Earth when I found out that it was actually getting localised!
There are plenty of popular mainstream sports manga and anime, from the volleyball action of Haikyuu!! to the basketball drama of Kuroko’s Basketball, but the aged silver fox of Japanese sports manga has got to be Captain Tsubasa. This football manga started in the early 1980s, and for nearly four decades it has spawned countless manga chapters, anime adaptations, games, and more. Yet, for as big as it is in Japan and many parts of the non-English speaking world – it’s inspired countless real world football stars – it’s barely a whisper on the wind to even the most passionate English-speaking anime enthusiasts. You don’t need to be a diehard Captain Tsubasa fan to appreciate a hot-blooded anime-style sports game, though, and Bandai Namco was well aware of that when they decided to develop Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions.
This might be anime football, but the standard form of the sport is here and the presentation of the game will be instantly familiar to any fans of football… just all cartoony and anime. While it might initially feel like you’re just playing an anime FIFA, you’ll immediately notice the difference when you have to tackle for possession, dribble past an opponent or shoot at goal. If any of these abilities make their mark, be prepared for a stylish quick close-up of the two participating players filling your screen before getting right back into the action.
Stringing together successful attacks lets you get even fancier; two successful dodges in a row puts you in the Zone, allowing you to hold down the kick button to unleash a charged superkick that plays out an eye-widening special animation as you unleash your special attack, forcing the goalie into an energy sapping save that makes later shots more likely to end up in the net. Defenders are just as powerful, though, and you’ll often go right into a stylish cutscene of the enemy player doing their best to block your shot. The raw elements of gameplay in Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions are a standard sort of rock-paper-scissors medley, but all of the visual flair and style that permeates the action is what really makes it special.
That style extends into the incredibly beefy story mode. Players can choose to either tackle Episode: Tsubasa or Episode: New Hero. The Tsubasa story takes you on the path of manga protagonist Tsubasa Oozora as he takes on rival soccer teams and aims to conquer the middle school Nationals. This mode is full of scenes depicting the massive cast of the series interacting, boasting, and challenging each other, but it’s also packed with intense football matches where any number of unique cutscenes can occur mid-match. Like Heat Moves in a Yakuza game, fulfilling specific undisclosed tasks like defending against an oncoming player as Tsubasa or going for a charged shot with a few seconds left on the clock can cause you to instantly transition into a special scene, and each one more sensational and giving me more goosebumps than the last.
The other half of the single-player offering in Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions, Episode: New Hero, swaps the pre-determined narrative of Tsubasa for a more open-ended and customizable story experience starring your very own character. The amount of options available to visually customize your rising soccer star are staggering, but there are just as many opportunities to personally guide the stats and personality of your protagonist as well. As you progress through the story you’ll engage in plenty of dialogue options that can dictate your friendship levels with certain characters, and getting close enough to these players can earn you new over-the-top moves and paths through the story.
There’s solid gameplay and an impressive amount of story content in Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions, but it isn’t a flawless package. The visual style of the game is gorgeous, perfectly replicating the cartoonish, wildly proportioned style of the original manga. Unfortunately, for all the effort put into the character rendering in the game, the performance of the game isn’t nearly as polished on PS4. Plenty of long load times permeate the experience, and there were a number of moments during story cutscenes where the frame rate hitched up or the subtitles started suffering from a weird overlapping visual glitch.