Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions lets players step into the shoes of Japan’s Golden Generation and lead them to victory against the world.
The first time Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions was shown I was immediately hooked. The bombastic trailer made the game look like the arcade-style football game the world truly needs. Unfortunately, Tsubasa isn’t quite that game, but that doesn’t make it any less great.
Sure, getting something in the vein of Sega Soccer Slam or Super Mario Strikers would be the perfect remedy to sports fans’ 2020 ills. However, having something that sits somewhere in between those classic arcade games and something like Blood Bowl is almost just as good.
Captain Tsubasa’s gameplay is very simple. Each time you come up against an opponent on the field, you can either press RB or RT. The opponent does likewise and this decides who wins the ball. So, if you’re on defense and you and the other guy both press RB, you’ll make the tackle. If you press RT and they hit RB, they’ll dribble past you in a flurry of skill. Different stats and skills complicate this a bit, but essentially, this game of rock-paper-scissors is the foundation the game is built upon.
Each character has a bar above their head that represents their spirit. It goes down when you sprint or use dribble moves and rises when you’re just doing a normal jog. If it bottoms out, you can’t use a dribble move to get by someone and you can’t power your shot up to unleash your super shots.
These shots are both awesome to watch and incredibly important. See, the goalkeeper also has a spirit bar that only goes down when you pepper him with shots. Even if you unleash something wild like Tsubasa’s world-famous Drive Shot, it usually won’t go in without taking down a keeper’s bar. Of course, some keepers aren’t as skilled and those shots do slip by, but when you come up against someone like Wayabayashi, the SSGK himself, he’s going to turn those shots away like it’s nothing if you don’t constantly whittle down his bar.
This style of gameplay means that the meta is pretty simple, at least against the CPU. You use dribble wor your way down the field. Then, you just get it to your best striker once most of the defense is out of the play. That gives him time to power up, and then you just crank as many balls as possible at the keeper. Eventually, they’ll wear down and if you can defend, victory is yours.
Of course, it’s not quite this simple. Some players have super passing moves that can open up new strategies, especially when you play against human opponents. And, each character has up to six special skills that can change how they play pretty drastically.
That said, Captain Tsubasa is firmly on the simpler side. It would rather deliver spectacle in the form of over-the-top cutscenes for your powered-up shots than deep gameplay. That’s far from a bad thing. I mean, how rad is it to see someone’s kick infused with a Tiger’s spirit? That said, it does make me wonder if the game has legs as a multiplayer title.
Plus, it’s not like the gameplay isn’t without some flaws. Because there are so many moments where the game cuts away from the on-pitch action, it can feel like there’s some bad button delay at times. You’ll come out of a fancy dribble move and be hammering RT to get past the next guy, but because you’re locked into the animation, he’ll get the tackle off before you can do anything.
It’s not game-breaking in single-player, but it is frustrating. And, when it happens in multiplayer, it feels like garbage. Also, I really hate how they handle penalty shootouts. Obviously, every shootout is a guessing game, but there’s literally no skill involved from either player. You just guess a direction and hope for the best. It sucks to have a great battle decided by something so random.
Finally, player-switching is worse than just about any sports game I’ve played (which is saying something given the state of EA Sports games). You sort of have control, but it auto-swaps to the closest player all the time. Maybe I missed a setting, but it was a bear to get used to. Now, I’m capable, but at the start, I wanted to rip my hair out.
No matter your thoughts on the gameplay, the story content is a perfect contrast to how bad Madden 21’s Face of the Franchise is. There are two fully-fleshed out tales for you to play through. One sees you taking Captain Tsubasa and his middle school team through the National tournament to cement his status as the best player in Japan. The other has you creating a new character and competing with Japan’s best players on the world stage.
Tsubasa’s story is meant to serve as a tutorial for the game. You’ll play around six matches and learn the basics. However, I thought this tale was way harder than the New Hero story. Maybe it’s just because I’d gotten in the groove more, but so many opponents in Tsubasa’s arc have shots that almost always go in against your poor excuse for a keeper. If you let them get away from you, you’ll be eating Hyuga’s Fierce Tiger Shot or the Tachibana Twins’ weird header all day long.
And, at the start of the story, Tsubasa doesn’t have his counter. You don’t unlock the Drive Shot until about halfway through the story. So, scoring is much harder. I almost gave up against those darn Tachibana kids because they just kept beating me back.
The New Hero story is where the meat of the game happens though. Here, you’ll face off against the world’s best as you build up Japan’s next great youngster. Not only does this serve as a fun way to get to know all the characters, but you can take your player into online games. Heck, if you wanted to, you could play through the mode 11 times and have a team full of created players.
The game’s card packs also come in to play with the New Story mode. Instead of hiding the best players behind a pay-wall like in FIFA, Captain Tsubasa lets you play with most of the roster out of the gate. You do have to beat some of the international teams to unlock them, but you never have to pay for anyone.
Instead, the card packs you open just level those cards up, which means your created player’s stats will go up if you select them as a friend. It’s also worth noting that you can’t spend real-world money on the packs. You earn points from playing and completing various challenges.
The whole friend system is a bit confusing. Basically, you select a few players that you want to get to know better at the start of the story. Before each match, the game puts your friends into randomly sorted groups with the world’s best players. You select one of those groups as your “appeal group” and those will be the ones you try to level up based on your performance. As your friendship deepens, you’ll unlock new skills, team-wide boosts, and challenges.
While it’s not the easiest system to fully wrap your head around, in practice, it goes pretty smoothly. Basically, you just pick who you want and gain some of their traits if you play well. So, if you want to shoot like Italy’s Rusciano and boss the midfield like France’s Pierre, then you choose them as your friend and soon enough you’ll be doing just that.
It’s a fun system that has you getting to know the many great characters in Tsubasa’s world. Plus, it provides you with tons of choices for how to build up a new character. Like the Tsubasa-centric story, hanging out with the boys is more than half the fun.
And, it’s a good thing all the characters are so likable. You’re going to see quite a bit of them.
Each match lasts roughly 10 minutes. Afterward, you can expect at least 20 minutes of dialogue and cutscenes. That could be annoying for people who just want to play, but the kids in Tsubasa (outside of one mercurial Italian) are all so positive whether they win or lose. I loved seeing such outstanding sportsmanship from each and every player not named Rusciano.
That constant note of staying positive and doing your best was comforting given our current world climate. If you’re looking for a game that will put you in a good place, Captain Tsubasa is one to check out. In fact, the only issue I could take with the story is they do a lot of assuming that you know the boys’ story. There are tons of callbacks to their elementary school days, which new players like myself won’t really get.
Fortunately, the team has included several little videos that recap the story for you. They don’t unlock until you’ve beaten some of the story modes. Still, it’s a nice addition if you want to get caught up.
Outside of the two stories, you can play off- or online versus. Both of these are fine, but I’m not sure if Tsubasa has the legs in gameplay to sustain much of an audience. So much of my enjoyment came from the story. Matching up against opponents from around the world might work for you. It’s just not my cup of tea.
In short, Captain Tsubasa is a simple tactics-adjacent sports game with characters you’ll quickly grow to love. Nothing here is particularly groundbreaking, but it is so much fun seeing Japan’s Golden Generation grow into tomorrow’s stars. The game probably doesn’t have much of a competitive future. That said, it did make me go out and pick up the manga. So, it’s a win-win for creator Yoichi Takahashi. If you’re looking for a game that’s easy to get into and hard to put down, Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions is as good as any.