Games with manga and anime licenses can generally be judged on two elements: the deep appeal of interacting with beloved characters and recreating iconic moments, and the broad appeal of making a fun experience for even the uninitiated. Many go purely for fanservice. Many throw a thin veneer of theme over an existing game design. Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions falls somewhere in the middle, offering a beginner-friendly experience on both counts and relying on the fun of arcade soccer to carry it through.
Over the years, we’ve seen how effective an approachable, fun-first soccer experience can be. Mario Strikers. Sega Soccer Slam. Nintendo World Cup. Even this game’s close gameplay relative, Inazuma Eleven Strikers, if you’ve managed to play that Wii game in a region it was released. In America too but especially in the rest of the world, the basics of soccer are easy enough to understand, and stripping away a lot of technicalities and structure leaves you with something engaging to a wide audience.
Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions is less over-the-top than some of these, but it’s more about recreating the feel of a soccer match than the actual play. It has a standard set of passes and shots, sure, but most interactions boil down to one-on-one challenges, smartly conserving energy meters and playing mind games with your foes. Most shots end in saves, even if you use charged-up power shots.
This means games have low scores! Which… is soccer, and is regularly a challenge for these sorts of games. How Rise of New Champions handles it works quite effectively: a goalkeeper stamina meter. This meter starts full, and refills when you score. Between then, though, strong kicks will chip away at the keeper’s effectiveness, making you more and more likely to get by. In this small way, each attack feels like progress instead of failure.
There are lots of options, like team customization and online play, that you’d expect from a sports-sports game. It’s not FIFA, but there’s some stuff to explore. Still, the game’s built around its two story modes. The first centers around the titular Tsubasa Ozora, and is both a tour through his middle school opponents and a tutorial of sorts. It’s designed to get you comfortable with everything, and serves to introduce characters to newbies while giving longtime fans a little face time with their pals. While the difficulty here is a little easier, it also often centers around Tsubasa in a way that makes things harder. He’s basically your only good player!
The second allows you to create a new character and join one of Tsubasa’s rivals for a chance to compete on the international stage. This is a much more challenging mode, and you’ll often repeat matches before you succeed and move on. This is aided by a system of cards and items you can use to increase player friendships and enhance your capabilities. It’s a mode designed to play multiple times, with different teams and different player builds, and each playthrough generates a custom character you can use in other modes. You choose their aesthetics, but it’s your on-field performance that determines their stats.
Speaking of aesthetics: Rise of New Champions has some solid art direction and visual polish that holds it together nicely. The game clearly didn’t have a huge budget; it’s about on par with other Tamsoft-developed games. But it uses what it has well. It’s a bit hamstrung by the choices of the source material: a lot of players’ hair and general build are similar, which makes them tough to distinguish in the mostly top-down view of the pitch. Some teams’ kits are very similar: are you the team with the white jerseys, blue trim and white shorts, or are you the team with the white jerseys, blue trim and *blue* shorts? That’s not much fun to discern on the fly. Still, most of the time, the game presents itself well.
If you want to play some multiplayer, Rise of New Champions has you covered. You can join three others locally, or match up online in either unranked room play or a ranked matchmaking ladder. In our testing, this worked fine even at launch. You bring custom teams into the ranked ladder, but you’re limited by a certain “cost” total, making sure teams are balanced in strength. (Our handy tip to you: fill your bench with the worst available players to save more cost points for starters. This could be situationally bad, but most of the time, you’ll be better off.)
Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions, out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and PC, is certainly still for fans of the characters. But as some of its arcade soccer peers keep getting delayed, there’s a very real possibility that it could appeal to some outside of the fan base just looking for a fun time.