Bandai Namco announced last week that Captain Tsubasa would be returning to PlayStation for the first time since 2006. While unlikely to garner much notice in North America, it's cool news on a number of levels. In addition to being one of the world's most popular sports franchises, it has a rich video game history extending all the way back to the Famicom.
In fact, if you owned an NES back in the day, you may have played Captain Tsubasa without even realizing it. The original Famicom game was developed by Tecmo, the same studio behind the very popular Tecmo Bowl series. It was localized in the U.S. as "Tecmo Cup Soccer," with the familiar visage of Tsubasa being replaced by a generic white guy with curly yellow hair named "Robin Field." Though obscured by the loss of Yoichi Takahashi's great artwork, Tsubasa's unique gameplay nevertheless managed to shine through. In contrast to other sports games of the era, Tecmo Cup Soccer was a kind of "soccer RPG," with menu-based commands and cutscenes standing in for arcade gameplay.
The result was a strikingly attractive game for its era; one that fit well with the "cinematic" approach Tecmo took with Ninja Gaiden. There would be no more Tecmo Cup Soccer games, but Captain Tsubasa would continue on to the Super Nintendo, its gameplay slowly growing to resemble that of FIFA and other traditional soccer sims, though it retained the super moves and menu commands of older games. Its last appearance on a traditional console was in 2010 with Konami's Captain Tsubasa: Gekito no Kiseki on Nintendo DS.
In the 30 some years since Captain Tsubasa's debut on home consoles, the series has remained relatively obscure in North America—a product of soccer's lack of popularity in the U.S. and Canada. But in Latin America, where soccer rules supreme, it has continued to flourish. Indeed, Bandai Namco director of brand marketing Dennis Lee tells USgamer that the new Captain Tsubasa for PS4 was developed mainly with Latin America in mind, mostly owing to the popularity of the anime in that region. The decision to release it in North America was made after the fact.
Lee explains, "When we evaluated the game, we realized that it was a really fun game. So even if they don't know Tsubasa and the characters, soccer fans and fans of arcade-style sports games can have a really good time playing it. Because of that, we decided that we couldn't just release it in Latin America."
The new game appears to be based on the style of the new anime released in 2018, which itself is a throwback to the original look and feel of the show that debuted in 1983 (it even features a reprise of the famous opening song "Moete Hero"). On the face of it, it looks more like FIFA than the Famicom games of old. It begins with the familiar aerial shot of a stadium, followed by the opposite teams lining up against one another. After kickoff, you dribble and pass the ball like you would in EA's soccer sim, with menu commands being limited to a handful of vague tactics like "attack" and "overlap."
If you're used to the way FIFA moves and plays, it can be difficult to adapt at first. The dribble animations are extremely simple, and for the most part the best you can do is sort of skate around the pitch as Tsubasa's legs motor without him moving very much. Opposing players fly in with sliding tackles, and if you hit R1 to dash, Tsubasa or one of his teammates will automatically zip through them and continue toward the goal.
The RPG elements, such are they are, revolve around passive abilities and special shots. Some players do better when on the pitch together, others are good at dribbling or blocking shots. Get close enough to the goal, and you can charge up a special shot resulting in a cinematic cutscene in which the ball is blasted at the net and the keeper makes the save (or not). It's in these moments that the new Captain Tsubasa most resembles the old.
Outside of that though, it's a relatively simple arcade sports game in which the main tactic boils down to "get the ball to Tsubasa cause he's probably going to score." Its movement is clunky; the camera is too close to the pitch to make effective passes, and actual tactics are almost non-existent. I grew to like it more as I got the hang of the timing and the general gameplay, but even as someone squarely within Tsubasa's target audience—a soccer nut who also happens to like anime—I found it a bit tedious.
So why not go back to the tried-and-true RPG approach pioneered in the Famicom game? As usual it comes down to appealing to mainstream audience.
"While there are tactics games that do really well in Japan, and especially in countries where the strategy of the sport is something they really want to focus on, the development team wanted to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible," Lee explains. "So being able to play the game and not just be purely into the strategy of it."
I will grant that there are reasons to be optimistic for the full release later this year. Among other things, it will include multiple storylines, giving it more of a narrative bent than your average sports game. It also boasts some very nice cel-shaded cutscenes, so hopefully the final product lives up to those polished standards.
In the meantime, Captain Tsubasa has done its job in one respect: its made me curious enough to start watching the anime on YouTube. Not the 2018 one, though; the one from 1983. Sometimes it's best not to mess with the original.