I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Kunio-kun’s Nekketsu Soccer League. After all, Nekketsu High School Dodgeball Club – Soccer Story was already a pretty solid arcade-style soccer game, and thus I was curious — and a little skeptical — as to exactly what might be different in a second Kunio-kun soccer game.
Not a huge amount, as it happens — though Kunio-kun’s Nekketsu Soccer League is undoubtedly the more interesting game, particularly in single-player, for the additional bits and pieces it brings to the formula. The core gameplay will be immediately familiar to those who played Nekketsu High School Dodgeball Club – Soccer Story, but the new elements add an interesting bit of depth and variety to the mix that makes the whole thing just a little bit more enjoyable to play than its predecessor.
This time around, the narrative setup is that Kunio-kun and the Nekketsu High School soccer team are playing football on the international stage: for some inexplicable reason, they’ve been selected to represent Japan in the Technos World Cup.
Unfortunately, the Nekketsu soccer team manager Misako isn’t able to join the team and spur them on with promises of four-hearting the lot of them if they win, though she is only a long-distance phone call away — and it seems Kunio-kun in particular is rather taken with her. (If you were curious, she doesn’t actually appear as Kunio’s girlfriend for the first time until Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka, soon to be localised as River City Girls Zero — but it’s abundantly clear he already has the hots for her in this game.)
The single-player mode adopts a rather freeform structure where you can compete against any of the opposing teams at any time, up to three times in total, and your eventual goal is simply to score enough wins and tournament points to secure victory for Japan — that’s 16 wins and 70 points altogether. This is, as you might expect, a fairly lengthy process — so a password system allows you to pick up where you left off at any time or, if you’re playing in an emulator or the Double Dragon and Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Collection, you can simply save your game and start again later.
Prior to each match and at the half-time point, you can review various pieces of information about the team and the upcoming match. You can swap players around according to your preferences and their particular strengths, and you can also give each member of the team a pep talk and helpful items to encourage them.
This latter aspect is not something which is particularly easy to understand, but as you experiment with different items and approaches you’ll doubtless notice that various characters like various items more than others, and will appreciate you presenting them to them when they’re in various different moods. Some characters can also be affected by other actions you take — Kunio, for example, often feels better after you make a long-distance call to let Misako know how you’re getting on.
As in other Kunio-kun games, each team member has their own statistics and special abilities that they’re able to make use of in matches, and this information can be reviewed at your leisure during team meetings. There’s no actual character customisation as such, though the position you put different players in on the field can make a big difference.
A noteworthy addition to Nekketsu Soccer League is a weather system. This not only affects the overall condition of the pitch on which you’re playing your next match, it also causes various things to occur at random as the match proceeds. If you’re playing in the middle of a thunderstorm, for example, it’s quite likely that you, your opponent and/or the ball will be struck by lightning at various points; in the case of the latter, it will remain electrified for a while, causing anyone hit by it to be briefly stunned.
The pitch conditions are quite amusing. A particularly muddy pitch can see players sinking right up to their neck in sludge, which, as you might expect, causes their mobility to plummet somewhat. A wet pitch makes it harder to control both your players and the ball. A sunny pitch, by comparison, is blessed relief.
Like in Nekketsu High School Dodgeball Club – Soccer Story, you only control a single player on your team — Kunio-kun as the captain in the case of the single-player mode. In the pre-match and half-time strategy meetings, you can set your overall team’s behaviour with regard to passing, dribbling, shooting and attacking other players, and as in the previous game you can also press buttons while off the ball to call orders to your teammates. They might not always obey or agree, but at least you always feel like you’re doing something.
The AI of your teammates is impressively good. They’ll pass the ball around, tackle for possession and make shots on goal independently of your input — indeed, scoring goals is often as much a matter of setting things up optimally for one of your computer-controlled allies as it is hoofing it in yourself. This provides a great feeling of virtual teamwork, and considerably adds to the game’s sense of personality. There still aren’t all that many football games out there where the main experience involves you playing just a single player on the team, so Nekketsu Soccer League continues to stand out in this regard.
The core gameplay of Nekketsu Soccer League, as previously noted, feels very true to its predecessor, so veterans of that game will be able to pick it up with no problem whatsoever. Indeed, it maintains the very arcadey, minimal-rules experience of the first game — so that means plenty of barging, shoving, kicking people in the face and fun rather than stopping for boring things like fouls and free kicks.
The whole experience is a little more slick and polished — though the English translation in the Double Dragon and Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Bundle is a little questionable, with each of the players “greeting” the items you present them between matches, even if that item is a plate of plums — and it feels like a more complete product all round.
Would you ever want to go back to Nekketsu High School Dodgeball Club – Soccer Story after playing this, then? Well, perhaps; the unpredictable aspect that the weather system brings to the table might not always be what you’re in the mood for, so when you’re feeling that way and still fancy a kickabout, the previous game still has value. For the most part, though, Nekketsu Soccer League is the superior game in almost every regard — and, like its predecessor, is once again appealing and playable even to those of us who aren’t fans of the real-life “beautiful game”!
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