[originally posted at ScrewAttack.com]
Sports games back in the 8-bit era have always been relatively simple. There was no need for buttons for special types of shots and passes. No need for complex strategies and formations. All you needed was a d-pad and two buttons. As a result, gameplay was simple and easy to pick up. Then, you have other games, like Tecmo Cup Soccer Game. Released in 1992 in North America for the NES, Tecmo Cup Soccer Game is unlike any other sports game of its time, combining elements of role-playing games and sports to deliver a worthwhile experience.
One thing I want to get out of the way first is that Tecmo Cup Soccer Game is essentially re-skinning of another Japanese game at the time, a video game based on the popular manga series Captain Tsubasa. Captain Tsubasais possibly one of the most influential series ever in Japan, following the plights of the Japanese youth soccer team and its main character/captain Oozora Tsubasa. It has inspired multiple soccer stars, such as Fernando Torres and Zinedine Zidane, to take up the sport professionally ,and it has quite possibly led to the development of the first fully professional soccer league in Japan. I could go on about this series, but today’s focus will be about this game.
The game follows the story of Robin Field, one of the best players of his generation, as he leads his team, the Razors, in the national tournament for the first half of the game. Each team In the second half, the best players from the national tournament form the team called Tops Jr. to complete in the Tecmo World Cup against the best international youths teams. The game doesn’t specify what nation the player team is from, but I can assume that the team is from the United States because well, we are playing this game in the United States. Still, calling the team the Tops Jr. rather than an international team is weird, considering this is an international tournament, but I can only assume you just fill in the country yourself.
The gameplay for Tecmo Cup is different from other sports games at the time. In other sports games, the play is in real-time where pressing a button for a pass or shot will immediately perform the action on screen. However,Tecmo Cup provides a more methodical approach to playing the game by having a menu to choose your actions. The modern-day equivalent would be the blitzball mini-game from Final Fantasy X. Before each match, you have to chance to look at the ratings of your players, get the password for future plays, and learn more about the next opponent. Once you have finished, you can start the game.
Each player has ratings for specific actions. Offense ratings include dribble, pass, and shoot while defense ratings include mark, cut, and tackle. Goalkeepers can also punch or catch the ball when a shot is headed their way. After each match, the coach announces which players have leveled up and given a boost to their ratings. The ratings of these players influence how certain events can turn out. Each encounter is like a chess match with certain actions having higher success rates when used in certain situations (tackle works better against dribbles while cut works better against passes). Special players, such as Robin, have access to special moves, which boosts your chances of success. Each special move is accompanied with a cut scene, showing the trajectory of the ball as it travels towards goal. Robin’s Hyper Shot, for example, is a high-arcing shot with lots of top spin, such that the ball dips hard after it reaches its apex. My favorite is the Marko’s and Paolo’s special combination shot where they do some acrobatics in the air before taking their shot. Each move takes away guts (the term used for stamina in this game), and certain moves cannot be performed without a certain amount of guts, so keeping track of it is of utmost importance, especially in the later parts of the game.
One gripe I have about the gameplay is the lack of control and you can have at times. The game shoehorns your team into a 4-3-3 formation (4 defenders, 3 midfielders, and 3 forwards for those unfamiliar with these terms). You can’t change it to suit your own personal style. Because of this, the game is very simplified from a rules standpoint. There are no fouls, offsides, throw-ins, corner kicks, and free kicks that you would associate with a game of soccer.
Of course, that doesn’t really matter because the AI tells the non-controlling players to close down the person currently with the ball, regardless of how good the player is. You then have instances where one player has to take on 3 to 4 defenders in a single encounter, thus pulling the formation out of shape. This happens with the computer teams more often than your team, which can lead to exploits and taking advantage of the open space. Passing can be a pain because they can be intercepted by the other team even when there is no defender near the target.
Another part of this lack of control comes from playing in the defensive phase. When the other team has the ball, you have no control over the position of your players. All you can do is wait until an encounter happens before you can input any commands. Thus, parts of this defensive phase come down to chance as the computer player can dribble through your formation without experiencing any encounter. Hopefully, luck can be on your side as the computer team can misplace a pass and you can intercept without having to do anything at all.
The interface is pretty straightforward. The top half of the screen shows an animation of the player with the ball dribbling while the bottom half shows the score, a small map of the field, and the player’s current guts and ratings. An inconvenient part about the map in this particular interface is that it doesn’t show all of the players on the field, only the current location of the ball. You have to bring up the menu and select in order to see a more detailed view of the map with the positions of the opposing players. Even in this mode, it’s hard to make the pass you want because it only allows you to pass to four options, and most of the time, the options are not optimal. You have to back out of the menu and select pass again in order to recycle the options. This slows the pace of the game down as you go through the options until you get the right one.
One of the drawing points I have for this game has to be the music. The various tracks associated with the teams range from upbeat anthems to solo guitar riffs. A couple tracks did change from the Japanese version, but the overall quality is superb. My favorite has to be the theme of the Seals, the team you face in the final of the national tournament.
The difficulty of this game is indicative of its era. It’s a hard and challenging game. Defenders and goalkeepers, especially in the later stages, can stop even any of the special moves, causing you to waste your guts. The opposing attacking players can be really challenging to stop as their special moves are on par and even better than yours. This is especially evident in the later parts of the national tournament where your goalkeeper John has trouble even stopping the basic shots from the generic players. The game does throw you a bone as losing any match does not mean an immediate game over. Rather, it either starts you with a rematch or pushes you back a single round while maintaining the level ups after each match. This aspect of this game is exploitable as you can lose on purpose and grind out experience points in order to reach a higher level, though grinding in this case feels counter-productive as losing helps you become stronger.
Tecmo Cup Soccer Game is probably not for everyone. If you are looking for a more arcade-style sports game, then Tecmo Cup is not for you. However, combining a sports game with RPG elements results in a good and fun game to play. There are some issues with the pacing at times and some aspects seem to be simplified too much. However, if you’re the type of person who enjoys both sports and RPGs, then I have to say that this is the game for you.
Rating: 8/10 (Great)