Captain Tsubasa Rise of New Champions

Most of this year has come and gone, and it’s unanimous: 2020 is a wonderful year because the game we’ve all been waiting for is finally out.

First, it was Dragon Ball fans. Now, it’s Captain Tsubasa fans who get to rejoice in technology finally mature enough for a proper transposition of their favorite manga with…(drum roll)…Rise of New Champions.

For newcomers to this franchise, the game introduces you to the world of Japanese wonderkid Tsubasa Ozora, who, after being discovered by a Brazilian pro ace, pursues the ambition of becoming the best player in the world and leading Japan to a World Cup victory.

The initial part of the single-player campaign covers the Middle School act, during which Tsubasa joins the Nankatsu team and has to compete with players from other schools for entry into the National Championship. The Championship finals in Japan are played in front of 63,700 spectators at the Saitama Stadium built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

It’s your typical Japanese storyline, saturated with opinionated rivalries that give way to mutual respect, lessons in friendship and clichés about hard work leading to success. It takes five matches to get comfortable with the gameplay. Despite whether you skip the practice from the main menu, on a number of occasions, the game will offer you the same tutorials. One such tutorial touches on the controls’ layout, which clearly shows the developers’ admiration for Pro Evolution Soccer.

In the tournament, Tsubasa finds friendship in Nitta, Soda, Matsuyama, Hyuga, Wakabayashi…? Okay, thanks. And this other one here… How do you…? Wakash…Wakashimatsu… Oh, thanks. I got it.

The group has only just started off toward bigger adventures when they’re called to represent the Youth National Team. The real essence of the single-player experience lies in taking on the narrative from a different point of view: you create a fictional teenager, join one of Nankatsu’s three main rival schools and then select your role on the pitch.

Attacker and midfielder are the most attractive; defender is also an option, though the nature of the game and the position itself make it potentially the most difficult to develop. In this game, offense is king. In order to engage a defender and compel him to tackle, you either have to leave possession to the opponent, preventing you from scoring goals and getting higher ratings, or you have to cross the field and get a goal with a character whose main skills are for sure not conducive to attacking.

The attributes that define players are disappointing. In this review, you’ll hear references and comparisons to other Captain Tsubasa games. In its best iterations, from older ones to the more recent Dream Team, players have typically been categorized as Intercept, Block and Tackle in defensive positions and Shoot, Dribble and Pass in offensive positions. This is a standard that’s senseless to reinvent. Anything else is a downgrade.

Here, they’ve been embedded or hidden in major labels, and there’s no trace of or reference to them. Skills are gained by building relationships via off-pitch interactions with other characters. And these are not the only consequences of your choices: some of the international teams you face are determined by your time spent amongst them.

The creation of up to 20 new heroes available to be exported and used in your online team, cards to activate challenges, super moves earned through specific conditions, teams and players you can unlock in all gaming modes – these are the keys implemented by Tamsoft to keep you engaged off and online and to provide replay value. With some stretches, it works. At least, it does on paper.

If you’ve ever played J: Get in the Tomorrow for the PS1, in terms of gameplay, that’s the template Tamsoft decided to start from. You could consider Rise of New Champions a modern version of it – a much more modern version. With 30 minutes per half, this game is all about the Spirit Gauge. Simply moving your player around while keeping your distance from an opponent can be loosely defined as chickening out. Proper dribbling can be performed with two commands, Dash Dribble and Dribble Move, using two separate buttons.

Push the Dash Dribble button within close proximity to a defender and you’ll try sprinting past him. If he performs a Tackle Move, he’ll stop you. If he dashes at you, you’ll win the challenge. Words like Dribble and Tackle might make combinations seem more complicated, but it’s actually quite simple. When attacking, an offensive Dash beats a defensive Move and an offensive Move beats a defensive Dash. Conversely, when defending, a defensive Dash beats an offensive Dash and a defensive Move beats an offensive Move.

You can use Dash to run faster when not being confronted by a player of the opposing side. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it to use your Spirit Gauge in this way or keep it for some other skill. The one you’ll want to give more priority to, for sure, is your Special Shot. Achieving this can be time-consuming since you’ll need to charge one full bar. And the most powerful shots, which need two bars, take even longer.

Luckily, if somebody gets in the way, you’re given the appreciated – but not explained – ability to abandon charging up when necessary, as it renders you extremely exposed to defender interference: don’t forget, your player slows down his own run too. Defenders can get in the way of your trajectory, blocking or softening your attempt to score.

Even if you don’t score, spamming special shots is a strategy required to weaken heavily armored goalkeepers. Don’t be misled by any comment about needing to completely exhaust their Spirit Gauge in order to score. Doing so will leave them vulnerable to even normal shots, but there are other modifiers and variables that will enable you to beat them even with some or much of their gauge still available. The balance needs some tweaking, but it’s a starting point.

Points of critique can instead be directed to a wide range of different matters; and unfortunately, they “matter” a lot. Goalies are a good first example of how this game has some apparent holes, and not just in terms of their on-pitch animations. It’s true that the game is not event-based or founded strictly upon the rock-paper-scissors mechanic of previous Nintendo chapters, where every encounter stopped the clock and put you in a face-to-face clash. But here, the challenge between strikers and goalkeepers is completely absent.

It’s obvious that the game embraces a modern real-time approach; and that would be okay if there were no special animations or anything in general to complain about, but dribbling is basically impossible in even the most favorable conditions you can imagine. The goalkeeper automatically jumps toward the ball when in range with a snap move and grabs it right out from under your feet.

If it just so happens that you ever make it past him, you can chalk it up to a series of unbelievable conditions – one of the many instances in which the game reveals how broken it is. Dribbling could have been offered as an alternative to just shooting, or they could have given more characterization to players like Diaz who have this specialty in the manga.

Speaking of unfavorable conditions for the game, it doesn’t start off with the best first impression, as the opening goal on screen is an own goal performed on a free kick close to the goal following an offside play. Ignoring this amusing gaff – things happen – the not-so-reliable implementation of offside is the only manifestation of a foul in this game. Regardless of what action you choose, which player executes it, the angle used or the timing of your play, there’s no way to perform a foul. Though good for the flow of an arcade game, it eliminates expected variations.

Not adding certain modifiers to move sets – like character traits, personalities or dirtiness – and failing to generate opportunities to perform fouls are additional missed opportunities, especially since other games in this franchise already allow for occasional fouls. It’s probably one of those things that tends to get cut for opening too big a can of worms in development.

Considering how rudimentary corner and penalty kicks really are – describing them just makes an even worse impression – free kicks would have been too much of a hassle to make decent. And while we’re on the topic of corners, the game’s interpretation of long high passes is a counterproductive flaw that totally compromises Rise of New Champions and many of its gameplay features.

These passes are glaringly nerfed by how long it takes to fill the charge bar, a thing even harder to do when being put under constant pressure by an opponent. Rare are the occasions when you can unleash them as a logical, useful weapon for applying counterattack strategies or special aerial moves: it even happens that high normal passes are preferred to link with special moves that can’t be performed with low special passes.

With poor off-the-ball AI movements, tough requirements for special air moves amid real-time gameplay, and an actual inability to select whom to pass to within the intended system – whether playing in an opposition-free practice mode or not – getting the ball to the desired player is simply not gonna happen.

Even without any oppositional defense, it’s impossible to have both of the Tachi…Taki…oh okay…in the area in order to get the ball to one of them. And performing the Skylab Hurricane in a real match is equally as impossible if they’re not both forwards. If you’re developing your action on the other sideline, don’t assume you’ll be able to keep track of the players on the pitch since the camera’s behavior makes it challenging.

The problem with certain ground combos is less evident. Learning to use tactical patterns is a must for specific combo moves. What’s troublesome is that at the highest difficulty, the AI always manages to throw somebody at you as you start charging a shot, making it quite tricky to execute.

It feels like the game is somehow cheating when an inexplicable Sase nullifies your best superstar throughout an entire game, and that’s not to exclude when, in Critical Challenges, the AI fills the bar no matter how fast you work. Turning again to goalkeepers, they are a big disappointment.

It’s a staple in Captain Tsubasa games for goalkeepers to be able to catch or punch the ball. Previously, you could choose how to react based on your goalie’s stats and the shot they had to save. All of this is now hugely absent.

The only thing you can do is activate a Super Save action at the expense of a full V-Zone bar. If you don’t use it for a Super Save, it provides a temporary boost to a player or to the team according to who’s acting as captain and what his special skill is. Though, there’s an oversight in this feature, too, in that the ability is a defensive one but can only be activated when your team is in possession of the ball.

A loose ball on the pitch is a pain to deal with. More often than not, you want to anticipate everybody’s movements and take possession, but as soon as the ball is under foot in your catch animation, you can expect an aggressive move from the opponent closest to you that will push you out of the way. It’s a race to come in last place, not first.

Switching players and moving them while defending can be more awkward then you’d expect, and there is a reason for it. After a few matches, you’ll definitely feel like something’s missing, with no indicator showing who you’re controlling and where he is when off screen. There’s a pointer on the map, but that’s far from being intuitive to use.

There’s no triangle, no cursor on the side showing what latitude your defender is at – quite an oversight for a game of this era. In the last 30 meters of the pitch, the mechanics give life to comical logic: the attacker runs around like a headless chicken to avoid being too close to the goalie or activating a Dribble Move that will automatically put him within his range.

Meanwhile, the defender will avoid any kind of tackle or contact as the system doesn’t give him any reason to do so, only disadvantages: he just has to coast until someone begins charging a shot and then steal the ball with a button.

When a localization proves far from impeccable, it gives the core product a low-resource, amateur appearance. The most recognizable players have their full names displayed, while in the same instances, other minor players have surnames only.

Various situations where the wrong text appears, inconsistencies, misspellings (even in the final credits!), superficial or unhelpful descriptions for players attempting to complete objectives, not to mention wrong player names on challenges? This translation lends unnecessary mystery to a game that already, by design, provides depth through informational obscurity.

Visually, after 30 years of waiting, Rise of New Champions can give the proper experience users have always dreamt of. The ball leaves behind furrows with the most aggressive and explosive shots. And the game switches naturally and agreeably between normal gameplay and in-game animations to show the outcomes of executed moves.

One small improvement that could be done to great effect would be adding more dynamic goal celebrations that contribute greater emphasis to the moment. Instead, the game returns you immediately to kickoff, though goals are supported by a great original soundtrack. Approaching the goalkeeper from different angles and distances is, most of the time, correctly shown – a nice detail, not only for the looks but for the shooting and saving mechanics.

Granted, on a handful of occasions, the animation displayed doesn’t reflect the true angle of your shot, but that’s more characteristic of the awful penalty kick shootouts where center shot animations are missing. A simple – and strangely asymmetrical – overlay steps in during camera switches. The match rhythm is clamorous, and tensions rise as you desperately wait to see the aftermath of a shot on goal. Especially when you’re able to miraculously pull things back together at the last second after a relentless assault in the most important match of your life.

The PC release has disconcerting problems that make it impossible for users to play on higher resolutions in full screen without advanced tricks. Frame limit doesn’t seem to work properly, even though there are no smoothness or performance issues. When it comes to dialogue, this results in a countdown that’s too fast, preventing you from reading and choosing the answer you want. It may also be to blame for a guaranteed lost ball on occasional throw-ins.

As fun as the gameplay is, the game is a source of regret. At the peak of its popularity, Captain Tsubasa had official deals with Adidas, which outfitted the players in previous games. It was also leveraged as a marketing tool for the 2002 FIFA World Cup hosted by Japan. And, before inspiring an entire generation, it’s no secret that some of the most influential professional players of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, like Del Piero or Podolski, grew up with Tsubasa.

Incorporating lore elements like Wakabayashi’s ability to block any shot from outside the penalty area into effective mechanics is basic stuff already seen in the oldest games from 25 years ago. This ability features in Rise of New Champions too, even if the story mode does concede an unusual exception or two. “Oh, hey. Let me introduce myself. I’m just the best midfielder in the world. What were you saying?”

Captain Tsubasa remains an untapped franchise that still doesn’t have the video game it deserves. There are no technological constraints, as Bandai Namco demonstrates with all they put forth. The developers give players the opportunity to relive the major Middle School episodes and an original alternate All Japan Youth story, yet there’s no trace of all the content that would make for a definitive smash-hit with endless online longevity like can be said of Dream Team.

Captain Tsubasa is huge in Latin America and yet Mexico is missing. Espadas is just one of the big names omitted, but developers evidently limited references to the first Youth National experience. There is a quick mention of Saudi Arabia, which leaves you hoping to see Owairan and Vulcan. Brazil gets a new goalkeeper , neither Salinas nor Natureza is there, while the use of Bara instead of Santana as the last name for their number 10 is neat. Nine individual characters are in the pipeline as DLC. New teams like Spain are doubtful to be added.

To shed some perspective, the content for online play is barely sufficient to provide variety to team composition, and the suspicion exists that Custom Created Character builds might be exploited for online purposes if they ever become available, consequently diminishing the original roster.

For many weeks, the online mode made you play against the same default AI teams, which regularly suffer from bugs and glitches. It’s honestly a joke. And the prospect of this being put on the market as an incomplete game is confirmed by the form that appears when you input you character’s name: it’s not integrated with the game’s graphics and looks more like it’s been done in Visual Basic.

The team kits have been designed in such a way that they overlap with each other and are difficult to differentiate. In online mode, there’s even a chance for colors to get reversed so your team has your opponents’ colors and vice versa. The friend cards are a nice attempt in that they avoid microtransactions. There is no need to pay for anything. But the ability to create custom characters may have been given too much relevance in the long term. It might be boring and unnecessarily complicated to replay story mode enough times from the beginning to acquire unlockables.

With clear and pesky deficiencies after so much waiting, Rise of New Champions shows us how it could have been a gold mine for Bandai Namco with addictive gameplay and catchy graphics. But it just doesn’t deserve a full-throated recommendation given the way it’s been released, with an unavailable online mode and broken features and basic functionalities like full screen mode, which took them 17 days to patch.

It’s a game any Captain Tsubasa fan will inevitably buy. Considering the fact that it’ll probably end up being the most-played game in this house, it’s easy to give a mild recommendation to fans, especially those who have been happy to support the franchise from the very beginning. However, the final product is not something you should accept if you have real standards and a love for Takahashi’s work.

Producer Katsuaki Tsuzuki released a video statement on the 17th of September acknowledging the game’s 500,000 sales and the issues plaguing players, while offering them reassurance as to the development team’s commitment to offering long-term support with rebalancing and additional content. It’s an exciting prospect that could start to unfold (at best) in mid-October for the PC version. But, in the meantime, the game we have is just a messy teaser of how great a Captain Tsubasa could be. Who knows when and if that’ll change in this lifetime? Finally, almost the game we’ve been waiting for.