I’ve been a Captain Tsubasa fan ever since I first came across the anime on the Italia 1 channel when I was 10… It’s a manga and anime series about young Japanese football/soccer players, with the main character Tsubasa being a rising Japanese football star. I’m a big fan of the sport, and I like anime quite a bit – you can see why the combination captivated me easily. A great part of it is the matches themselves, with so much drama in the close ones, with special shots and acrobatic goalkeepers. But the relationships between the players on and off the pitch are also nicely depicted.
Needless to say, coming across my first Captain Tsubasa game – the second installment of Tecmo’s Captain Tsubasa series on the NES, brought me much delight. Especially considering it was not a mere football simulation game – it was a football RPG, one worthy of the flashiness and the emphasised importance of a team’s best player in the anime. The closest mainstream gaming has come to Tecmo’s Captain Tsubasa series’ unique style is the Blitzball mini-game in Final Fantasy X – and believe me, Blitzball is a really watered-down version of the Captain Tsubasa games. Anyway, Captain Tsubasa II is still my favourite game of all time, one I could play at any time and never get bored, despite having beaten it so many times I’ve lost count and having done all kinds of special runs. Unfortunately, the game I will review here is just not in the same league…
Game: Captain Tsubasa: New Kick Off
Original release: 2010
Territories: Japan, Europe
Captain Tsubasa: New Kick Off (Gekitou no Kiseki in Japan) is Konami’s first attempt at returning the Tsubasa games to the genre that proved to suit them best – RPG. The license over the franchise has changed hands multiple times – first it was Tecmo’s, then Bandai’s, now Konami’s. Only Tecmo did it right, the other two simply failed to match the quality of the Tecmo Tsubasa games. A big reason for that was that Tecmo’s games were RPGs with very particular gameplay – you hold the ball and move through the field, at any time you can stop and take your time to choose what to do next – shoot, pass, or go on forward. Similarly, in defence, you pick a player to chase the opponent with, if you get close, you choose whether to tackle, try to intercept a pass or block a shot. If you manage to predict the opponent’s action, you have a higher chance of taking the ball away. That just worked great for a franchise like Tsubasa because it’s all about the tactics, the special shots and conserving your energy to do them at the right time. Trying more action-y games just never worked out very well. And the RPG approach is the one Konami took here. When I learned that to be the case, I was overjoyed, I had waited a long time to play a new Tsubasa RPG…
The reality was much harsher than what I had hoped for, however. Konami did borrow some basic concepts from what made the Tsubasa games on the NES and SNES so great, but failed to get the most substantial part right – the flow of the gameplay, and especially the difficulty curve. Also, because the game celebrates the 30th anniversary of the manga, you are encouraged to replicate events present in the manga and anime in your matches – if you do so, you’re rewarded with more experience/stats improvements for your players, you can unlock special moves, etc. This really takes away from the experience. If I wanted the matches to go exactly as in the manga/anime, I’d read the manga or watch the anime, not play a game. I play a game because I want to determine the outcome myself. The difficulty is also very unbalanced, with relatively tough matches at the end of the first part (Japanese middle school tournament), especially the final, and then complete breeze once you get a hold of the national team, until the very last match that only poses a semblance of a challenge. You can also replay matches as many times as you want (and try to get all the manga/anime events) instead of the game flowing continuously.
The in-game screenshots have been taken by me.
WIN THE SCHOOL TOURNAMENT, THEN CONQUER THE WORLD
The story of Captain Tsubasa: New Kick Off is very well-known to fans of the series. It covers what’s seen in the second season of the original anime (the Japanese middle school tournament) and in Shin Captain Tsubasa (the World Junior Youth tournament in France). In the first part, you play as Nankatsu, trying to win the third Japanese championship in a row for the school. With a rising star like Tsubasa as the captain and the wins in the previous two tournaments, Nankatsu are the heavy favourites. But will they manage to overcome the tough opposition, now even more eager to dethrone them? The team of Toho Academy, led by his captain and big Tsubasa rival for years now, Kojiro Hyuga, will not accept yet another defeat. With the super goalkeeper Wakabayashi gone to Germany to further develop his abilities and Tsubasa’s great friend Misaki following his painter dad around in various parts of the world, Nankatsu have come to rely on Tsubasa more than ever before – maybe too much.
Once that challenge is overcome, the Japanese Junior Youth team with all the stars from the Japanese tournament that just finished is assembled. They have the biggest challenge in their careers so far ahead of them – going to Europe and playing against the best in the world. Tsubasa may be a phenomenon in Japan, but on a world scale, there are numerous other talented stars rising quickly. Even though Brazil are not participating, Italy’s goalkeeper Hernandez, Argentina’s little genius Juan Diaz, Uruguay’s Victorino, France’s Pierre and Napoleon, and, of course, Germany’s aces – goalkeeper Muller and captain Karl-Heinz Schneider, are powerful challengers for Tsubasa and his teammates. The matches against them are going to be very tough… Or they would be, but not in this game.
After you beat the game, you unlock a few more scenarios – a “I’m the Captain” one where you create a character and play through the matches you just completed with him, as well as Toho, Furano and Musashi alternate storylines where you play as those teams instead of Nankatsu and you try to win the Japanese tournament. But, knowing how broken the game is, those are hardly worth bothering with, even when you’re a Captain Tsubasa fan like I am.
DOESN’T DO JUSTICE TO THE MANGA/ANIME CAST
In this game, most of the “character development” is seen if you actively try to replicate the pre-programmed manga/anime events. Now, unless you know the manga/anime by heart, that’s impossible to do without a guide, so you’ll only come across those sporadically. And you won’t even lose that much – what’s seen in the game doesn’t really do much justice to the cast. Yes, some conversations are there and all, but there’s absolutely nothing OFF the pitch. You don’t get to know much backstory at all – if you’re new to the Tsubasa series, you’ll just know these are good football players and pretty much nothing more. I guess some of the special moves (like Hyuga and Jito’s dribbles) may give you a hint as to who’s more aggressive, etc., but it’s just not nearly as much as this game could have given the player.
Pre-match, half-time and post-match conversation are also rather weak. Your coach will usually just tell your players to “play their hearts out,” which may be a general Captain Tsubasa weakness, I guess, as coaches (aside from Tsubasa’s mentor Roberto) are not as important as the players themselves. But the tactics and everything are left for the player to think on and decide. Not that they’re very necessary, aside from in the few more difficult matches. Either way, the cast and their matches can be reduced to “battles of spirit,” with the overall feel being of battles between fine footballers decided by small details and advantages. At least story-wise, as the in-game results can get very ridiculous.
RPG GAMEPLAY… BUT JUST SO BROKEN
Konami does attempt to follow in Tecmo’s footsteps with the gameplay, but it falls flat. Sometimes, the game makes you wonder if there was much playtesting at all. Especially in the latter half. The biggest problem is the difficulty curve. I’ve rarely seen such a broken difficulty curve in a game… Which is a shame, as, in the first part, it’s completely fine! If the game had ended there, I would have given the difficulty curve an A+. The first couple of matches are easy, then the difficulty gradually increases, and the final match of the Japanese middle school tournament is VERY tough. I even had to go back and unlock a few events to increase my team’s stats enough to pass it. So, until then, despite the other problems, the game was looking up.
But then, once you take control of the national team, it’s a joke. It starts with an unwinnable “story” match, and then the difficulty drops drastically. You beat everyone until the final with great ease, and even the final is not nearly as tough as the Japanese one. Yes, in the national team, pretty much all your players have special moves (like Tsubasa’s Drive Shot), while the opponents have much less players with specialties. But, in the Tecmo games, that was balanced with better stats for the opposition. It made for fine challenges, sometimes even frustratingly difficult (Captain Tsubasa II can be an exercise in frustration at times, but maybe that’s one reason why I like it so much :)). Here, the opponents just stand no chance. If you bother to try, results like 10-0 can be common. That really plays a great part in ruining this game.
Some words of the gameplay itself. Before the match, you determine your team’s tactics, formation, set pieces takers (not that set pieces are common…), what to focus on (shooting, dribbling, etc. ), and such. As the match starts, there are two main types of gameplay – attack and defence. As you attack, you control the player with the ball, while the AI moves your teammates and the opponents through the pitch. You can stop at any time (by pressing Y), and choose an action – shoot, pass, dribble. If you pass to a nearby ally, you pass to his feet. If you pass to an ally further away, the ball is high and he can hit a volley shot. If that ally is in the penalty area of the opposing team, he can hit a header. This is already a bit poor design, as it’s ridiculous that you can hit volleys or overhead kicks even from your own half, and have a decent chance to score. In the Tecmo games, you could only do that in the penalty area, which made much more sense. Outside of it, you could only shoot from the ground.
If one or more opponents get close to you, you’re “trapped,” and you are forced to choose an action. You can try to dribble past them, pass or shoot, while they try to anticipate your move. Here, picking a special move pretty much always wins the encounter, unless both attacker and defender pick special moves. This was much different in the Tecmo games, where the stats differences could mean a normal tackle easily stops your special dribble. There are also aerial encounters, which work similarly, except you obviously can’t dribble there, the analogous choice being to trap the ball and go forward.
In defence, you play the other role, trying to stop the opponent. Again, you can only control a single player, but you can switch the player you control with L/R, trying to get the one closest to the opponent. Once you “trap” him, you can choose to tackle, intercept a pass or block a shot. There’s also the monumental “do nothing” option, which lets your opponent just auto-win the encounter. Since here the equivalent of “Guts” from the Tecmo games (energy points), called “AP” (at least in the German version that I played), is only used up when executing special moves, otherwise it’s recharged slowly (even if you’ve got the ball and/or do normal moves), “do nothing” is even more pointless than in the Tecmo games where it at least conserved your energy.
If a shot reaches your goal, it’s time for the goalkeeper to act. Weirdly, instead of actually looking at where the ball is going, you just choose a corner (top-left, bottom-left, top-centre, bottom-centre, top-right, bottom-right). The corner you pick is not necessarily reflected by the goalie jumping animation (he does go after the ball, after all), but I guess picking the right corner increases your chances. Still, it’s a rather silly guessing game that I guess is only there because you get the same selection when you shoot (well, then it makes sense), so they wanted to have a reverse equivalent of that somehow. Anyway, you can try to punch or catch the ball. Rather stupidly, if you catch it, you can then shoot with your goalkeeper at the opponents’ goal, and even score a goal that way. As if the gameplay wasn’t already ridiculous. And if some player blocks your shot, your goal is empty and they can score easily.
The players have got stats that greatly influence whether an encounter will be won or not, except in that Japanese tournament final where the opposition is strong enough to occasionally get the ball even with the wrong move (or the opposite position seen in the many easy matches you’ll play). So, as you can see, stats don’t influence the gameplay enough. Players’ positioning is a major flaw. For some reason, midfielders usually really like to stick to the middle of the pitch, even if you’re attacking or defending deeply within one of the halves. It’s very shitty and you often have to score with ridiculous aerial moves from the centre of the pitch. Especially since you usually can’t change your key players’ pre-determined positions on the pitch (biggest problem being that you can’t play Tsubasa as a forward).
Oh, by the way, the game is not available in English. The Japanese release is in Japanese, the European one is in 4 languages – German, French, Italian and Spanish. Knowing German on a decent level, I was able to play through the game without any trouble, but do consider the language options when you decide whether to invest in this game.
PASSABLE GRAPHICS, THE MUSIC SHINES
For a DS game, the graphics are not bad at all. There are some pretty animations showing the players, especially for the special moves. They’re just a bit blocky, but that’s what polygon graphics on the DS are destined to be. And I’ve gotta say the ball movement after special shots leaves much to be desired, it’s not different enough between the variety of shots seen in the game. Aside from that, the side view of the pitch is alright, even a bit ugly, and the cutscenes show the anime style character drawings, which are okay, I guess. But cutscenes are just very static, like reading a manga, more or less. You scroll to some dialogue, with the static shots of the characters talking changing occasionally.
The music is the one rather high point of the game. Certainly not on the level of the Tecmo games as a whole (again), mostly just due to not having as many themes, but some of the tunes are very catchy and awesome. The composer deserves much praise for his work here – it reminds of the “good old days” very much. If only the rest of the game could follow suit… There are also voices! But only in the Japanese version… The song I’ve chosen is the menu theme played while you set up your team tactics.
JUST PLAY THE TECMO GAMES
Overall, Captain Tsubasa: New Kick Off is sadly not worth playing. Especially not if you’ve played the Tecmo games before. It just does not compare in any way. As far as Tsubasa RPGs go, even the first Tecmo game that was, at the end, just a stepping stone for the Captain Tsubasa II masterpiece and was missing many great concepts we saw later, was miles above this one. With rudimentary features like the difficulty curve, the player positioning, and the effectiveness of special moves being the biggest flaws, you know this game is a failure. Add to that the game rewarding you for playing matches in a pre-determined way and the numerous other, smaller problems. Music is really the only strong point in this game.
If you have played the Tecmo games before, avoid this one – you’ll be sorely disappointed and your hopes that this may come close to those gems will be dashed (that’s sadly what happened to me). If you’re new to the Tsubasa series and the concept interests you (I sure hope so!), just try the Tecmo games, and I suggest you start at Captain Tsubasa II for the NES (it even has an English translation available online!).
FINAL SCORE: 4.5/10