We can't imagine there's a huge overlap on the Venn diagram for football fans and anime and manga and enthusiasts, but here we are. Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions is aiming squarely for the demographic of people that have both a Sky Sports and a Crunchyroll subscription, and good luck to it, we say.
If you're not familiar with the manga or the anime, Captain Tsubasa, then you're in good company. We'd never heard of it either, probably because our anime knowledge is largely based around owning a copy of Akira on VHS and still not having a clue what happened in it thirty years later. Still, no prior introduction is really required here since the game explains it all in cutscenes and unlockable flashbacks.
The TL;DR version is that there's a kid called Tsubasa who was saved by a football as a child when it cushioned the blow as he was hit by a truck and he's had a love for the beautiful game ever since. That might sound like the origin story for the crummiest Marvel superhero ever, but honestly, we laughed so hard that we gave it a pass. Football literally saved this kid's life and now he just wants to give something back. It's heartwarming, okay?
And so Tsubasa – who is a teenager in the present day story of the game – sets about to win at lots of football.
The game features two campaigns. The first tells the story of Tsubasa and his team entering a football tournament and going up against weird and wonderful teams from across Japan. Each team features an amusing rival footballer for Tsubasa to try and best, specialising in different aspects of the sport. Some are attacking powerhouses while others are stalwart defenders, and it's up to you to take them down and then ultimately make friends with them because that's how Tsubasa rolls.
The story is told in poorly animated cut-scenes with glib dialogue, and there's too much talking for a narrative that rarely gets out of first gear. Also, there's something deeply unsettling about the character models. This is probably a stylistic hangover from the manga, but some of the characters barely look human.
Gripes about the ho-hum story aside there's a lot to like here, mainly down to sheer ridiculousness of what transpires on screen. There's a bit where you play against a team who specialise in "aerial soccer" which is particularly memorable.
At one point – and honestly we're not making this up or having an acid flashback – one of the players kicks his twin brother about forty feet into the air so he can head the ball, and Tsubasa uses the goalposts as a springboard to fly up there and also head the ball, and then they both head the ball and it looks like when Ken and Ryu try to Hadouken at the same time. It's things like that that you just don't see on Match of the Day.
The actual football bit of the game is a mixed bag. At times it's so audacious that you'll likely be sat smiling like a child, but at others it's frustrating and confusing. At its heart it's a fairly rudimentary arcade footy game. You've got all the usual passes, lobs, and through balls. Each player has a spirit meter, and they use up spirit by completing certain actions. Sprinting, for example, depletes the spirit bar slowly, while using a special shot technique will use a chunk of the bar all at once.
Passing is fairly unreliable, and even if there's a clear route to the player that you want to pass to you'll often find yourself passing to the opposition. There's the ability to switch control to the nearest player to the ball by tapping L1, but this seems to be more of a guideline than an actual rule, since often it just switches to another player half way down the pitch. The dribbling too is a bit of a lottery.
There's other silly AI glitches like when players will just circle around the ball rather than ever collecting it, and the throughball is essentially useless, but the biggest problem here is the way you score goals. Every time you shoot and the goalkeeper makes a save, the keeper loses a bit of their spirit meter. You have to whittle this down and then once it's low enough a shot will hit the back of the net, and only once you've scored the keeper will get their spirit meter replenished. It's possible to score without depleting the keeper's spirit, but in our entire time with the game it only happened twice.
This system robs the game of a sense of spontaneity, leaving it more like of a battle of attrition than a game of football. You take a shot and you know that you're not going to score – you're just doing it to leave the goalie more vulnerable later. This is a big problem if you go two or three nil down as once it gets to a certain point you'll know that you physically don't have enough time to break down the keeper three times to get back into the game.
But for all of the annoying gripes we have with how the football works in Rise of New Champions, there are times when it's genuinely fun if you can look past the flaws. The outlandish moments of anime silliness really spice things up, and besting a troublesome opponent with a last minute Tiger Shot – a shot in which a magic tiger guides the ball into the net because why not? – is wonderful.
As we previously mentioned, there's also a second campaign in which you make your own hideous anime character to play as and you earn points in matches to level them up and improve various skills. Again, it's a throwaway narrative, but the extra customisation options are welcome. There's also an online versus mode if you want to play with other people for some reason. It's fairly robust, with a levelling up system and a shop to unlock more atrocious haircuts and stuff using an in-game currency.
Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions is a bit like when you fancy watching a game of footy but there's only the Scottish league on the telly. Sure, it looks like football to the untrained eye, and yes, occasionally it's entertaining just like real football, but you're mainly there hoping that someone is going to get chinned.