Worry not, anime fans. This Switch adaptation is one of the good ones.
While I don’t consider myself a fan of sports, I do consider myself a fan of two things: arcade sports video games and sports anime. Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions fits the bill for both, being an arcade sports game based on a manga that’s been in production since 1981. Being based on soccer AKA association football (the version of the game I’m playing calls it soccer, so I will too for the purposes of this review), the various Captain Tsubasa anime and manga series have gained great popularity around the world, though I must admit I hadn’t heard much about them before this game was announced. What initially drew me to the game was its over-the-top anime shots and cool art style, and after playing it, I’m happy to say that the gameplay is rock-solid to match.
The core gameplay of Captain Tsubasa is arcade soccer, which means that while the game (roughly) follows the rules of the sport, everything is fast and snappy. The ball is constantly switching sides, and stealing, tackling, and out-maneuvering is the name of the game here. On both offense and defense, you’re mostly relying on the R and ZR buttons to do these things. R is your general running, stealing, and bypassing-the-opposition button, and ZR is reserved for timing-based super-maneuvers to get past opponents running at you on offense and making desperate slides into your opponent on defense. Both buttons are tied to a Spirit meter that sits above every player on the field and drains as you use R and ZR. If your meter empties, you won’t be able to run and it will be easy to steal the ball from you.
The game features short and long passing, more technical moves for pro players like passing a ball into the air and kicking it into a goal, face-offs where players run into each other and you have to mash face buttons to beat the opponent, and of course, shooting. The shooting is fairly simple; you hold down the Y button when you get close to the goal (unless you’re playing as Tsubasa who can literally shoot from midfield), and if you fill the meter all the way up without getting the ball stolen, you can do a super flashy shot depending on the player. Tsubasa’s flies over the players’ heads in an arch before aiming directly for the goal (again, even from midfield), while Hyuga’s summons the image of a tiger and slams at full force into the goal. There are a bunch of different shots, and many are even more extravagant than those described.
The goalie has a unique meter over their head that drains as more shots are blocked. At full power, most special shots will be blocked unless it’s part of a story moment, but if you drain the meter all the way over the half (each 30-minute half is about 5 minutes real-time generally), even a weaker shot (one that doesn’t charge the full meter) should be enough to score. I particularly enjoy the cutscenes that show a goalie going up against a special shot that is so powerful that it throws the goalie into the net with the ball.
At first, it feels like there are too many mechanics to get used to, which is to say that I didn’t even list them all here. There’s a team boosting mode called V-Zone, for instance, that activates when a meter fills at the bottom of the screen. When activated, this temporary mode allows Spirit to recover faster and the Kick Gauge to fill faster, among other boosts. That said, the game becomes very intuitive, and after a few hours of play, everything feels natural. I had a lot of fun with the high-speed gameplay, and even though it can get ridiculous at times (which I consider a feature), I would call the game far more serious and restrained than, say, Inazuma Eleven, a series that I also enjoy, which makes a point of going full-anime at times. Only the shots and goals are especially flashy; the rest of it is just fast soccer.
The main mode here is The Journey, which features two different campaigns. Episode: Tsubasa is a 3-5 hour story that follows Tsubasa through the middle school nationals with very little to nothing in the way of agency or team management, but lots of flashy anime soccer cutscenes. It really acts as a soft tutorial to the other, main mode called Episode: New Hero.
In New Hero, you pick an initial team out of three, customize your character, and play through a story much larger than Tsubasa’s. As a fan of sports anime and manga like Hajime no Ippo, I was very disappointed with the storytelling outside of matches. In these segments, all characters do is stand around at different locations and talk at length about what’s going on in the story, with character models moving very little outside of the rare anime cutscene. In New Hero, you can choose a dialogue option from time to time, but these exchanges feel mostly pointless to the story other than being an excuse to participate in a conversation.
On the gameplay side is where New Hero shines. Your character and team are constantly leveling up based on how you play during matches, and you can customize your character down to their skill and move sets (and beyond) with lots of unlockables. However, with a story that’s not-very-compelling at best, I found it tough to care. For being the main mode of the game, that’s not a good thing.
Other modes featured in the game include a standard versus mode (yes, you can play against CPUs), a huge gallery with lots of unlockable movies and songs, and the rank-based online mode where you build a team (which can feature your fully-leveled-up player in New Hero) and level up through divisions. In the early divisions, the game relies on CPU opponents either partially or entirely depending on your level, and you only play solely human opponents after ranking up far enough (I do not like this). There are lobbies to play outside of this competition, though it should be noted that every time I looked there was no more than one (locked) lobby set up at any given time.
I was worried pre-launch that the game wouldn’t run well on Switch, but the performance is actually quite smooth. I haven’t seen any slowdown whatsoever during play, which is a relief. Visually, character models look good in their anime style, but everything outside of the character models, be it fields or crowds, look phoned in and not as impressive.
Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions is a good game with strong arcade soccer gameplay and a good deal of content to sink your teeth into. While the story modes didn’t click with me too much (which is no small problem), the core game could keep me picking up Captain Tsubasa for some time to come.