a review of Inazuma Eleven
a videogame developed by level5
and published by level5
for the nintendo DS
text by tim rogers
Inazuma Eleven is Pokemon with people instead of monsters.
In Pokemon, the player catches monsters by commanding other monsters to beat them senselessly. When the monsters are near death, the player throws a magic ball at the monster, trapping it inside.
In Inazuma Eleven, the player catches people by finding out who their friends are, talking to them at the right time after school, being nice to them, and eventually becoming their friend.
In Pokemon, the monsters captured by the player are used to senselessly attack other monsters in turn-based battles, in the hopes of being able to capture more monsters.
In Inazuma Eleven, the people befriended by the main character join his soccer team, where they can be assigned a position and participate in real-time action-based soccer matches.
Pokemon‘s story is about a young boy or girl with no voice or personality attempting to become the greatest beater, slave-driver, and commander of captured kitten-like monsters in the whole of his or her continent.
Inazuma Eleven‘s story is about a young boy whose grandfather was a great soccer player, who wants to be a great soccer player himself, who has a plucky enough personality, a few really good friends who like soccer though unfortunately can’t play it very well, and a principal who is considering shutting the soccer team down for good because of their years-long losing streak. One day, he meets a much more mature-looking boy of his age, who transfers to Inazuma Middle School. The new student is known as the greatest young soccer talent in Japan. However, he is unwilling to join the team, depressed about something for hidden reasons. The goal of Inazuma Eleven, at first, is to find out what’s wrong with this new kid, and how you can become his friend. At first, it’s because you want to build a great soccer team and you know he would help. Soon enough, it’s because you genuinely start to care about him as a person.
The game plays out in mostly the same way as Pokemon, with the focus narrowed to a pencil point: the “world” is a school, and the small town around it. In the context of regularly scheduled soccer games, the rival teams come to you. The other would-be soccer players in your school miraculously become living characters: there’s the crew-cut kid with Kool-Aid-red hair, best friend of the hero, who senses how much better than himself this newcomer is, who decides to buckle down and do something with his life, starting with perfecting a super-powered soccer shot.
If the producers of the “Double Dragon” movie were released from cryogenic sleep and asked to make a movie about Pokemon, Inazuma Eleven is a reasonable facsimile of the videogame adaptation of that movie.
It’s hard to say if Inazuma Eleven is “bigger” or “better” than Pokemon, because they’re clearly trying to do different things. We can conclude, however, that it is certainly heavier: scenes of voiced dialog are frequently punctuated with cut scenes hand-animated by none other than the studio responsible for the “Pokemon” cartoons, and these cut scenes often find their way into the actual course of the game’s flow. Early on, there’s a soccer match at which your team is being beaten viciously, beyond the player’s control. This is a common device in a role-playing game: “the boss battle that cannot be won”. Its purpose is often to impress upon the player how important it’s going to be to level up in the future. Watch how Inazuma Eleven plays with this concept: in the cut-in scene, we see the enemy team performing spectacular moves and racking up tens of goals in a montage. When we cut back to in-game play, the number of goals the team just scored in the cut-scene is reflected on the scoreboard. This is only a simple example: the inventiveness gushes forth from there.
There has been much talk lately about Level5 being the rebirth of the spirit of the Squaresoft from the mid-1990s — you know, the Squaresoft who encouraged its game planners to come up with hulking, elaborate pop-culture mishmashes like Final Fantasy VII, not the Square-Enix of today, which clings religiously and fearfully to characters who appeared in Final Fantasy VII. Inazuma Eleven is, if nothing else, a brilliant proof of concept: it’s one reasonably small developer throwing a Chrono Trigger-level of love at a small project: there have been other action-adventure or even role-playing games based around sports before, though none of them have possessed nearly this level of artistic conscience: the soccer is as refined as a soccer game, the fetch-questing is as cute as in Animal Crossing, the atmosphere and world view is as finely detailed as a Zelda game, the story is an entire season’s worth of a triple-A animated series. That the game didn’t immediately sell millions hardly means anything: it’s merely a gesture, and a brilliant one.
We could, on another day, groan at Level5 for announcing a sequel — and for calling it “Inazuma Eleven 2” — not two weeks after the release of the first game. Today we’ll stay optimistic. Level5 are devoted to subverting the market from the inside out; if they’re going to play dumb for a bit, we’ll go along with it. Their next half-dozen projects all look perversely interesting, and Inazuma Eleven is a curious cornerstone of the developer’s game plan: this is their Game For Kids, Which Adults Can Enjoy As Well.
In Pokemon, which the Pope saw fit to compliment as teaching the children of the world critical thinking skills, the player will only ever be inspired to collect and lord over small objects, which he will store in death-defying alphabetical order. Inazuma Eleven might perhaps inspire a child to make friends and play soccer, which is something Square-Enix would never be able to pull off — how could they continue to sell these kids videogames? And that Pope who praised Pokemon, were he still alive today, would no doubt shoo Inazuma Eleven away with a fruity little backhand slap, because it’s obviously set in Japan, where the people are godless witch doctors who occasionally leave perfectly good grapefruit to rot in front of a bird house that supposedly houses an “ancient spirit”.
All that aside, on paper, this is a four-star game. In execution, it’s more of a three and a half star game.
Inazuma Eleven didn’t sell nearly as well as the latest Pokemon upgrade, released three weeks later, and the way the game plays is probably the reason. For one thing, you’ve got the action-based soccer battles. These play like a hybrid of Pokemon, Winning Eleven, and any given real-time strategy game. Use the d-pad to scroll your view of the playing field on the bottom screen; tap one of your players with the stylus and then draw a line to tell him where to go or what to do. If one of your players has the ball, tap another player to make the player with the ball pass to (roughly) the precise location that the player you tapped was standing (or running by) when you tapped him.
If one of your players has the ball and he comes into contact with an opposing player, or if one of your players without the ball comes into contact with an opposing player who has the ball, a menu pops up. At any given encounter, any player can choose one of two things to do. Each action has a different success rate, and a different effect if successful or failed. Likewise, know that, at any encounter, the opposing player is picking one of two actions. The gracefully brief in-game tutorials tell you that one of the two actions for the ball carrier has a better chance of keeping the ball, though the other one has a better chance of winning the game. Sometimes, when you attempt a shot on the goal, if your character has enough technique points stocked up, and if he has any shooting-related techniques, you’ll be able to choose a super-move, which the goalie can then counter with a super-move of his own.
Crucial: when a player carrying the ball comes in contact with a player on the other team, the player is actually able to issue orders to any of his players anywhere on the field before choosing how to deal with the encounter.
It might all sound mysterious. It is kind of mysterious. When we first heard about this game, we were shivering from our heads to our toes with hopes that Level5 would be taking the sport of soccer and turning it into a small-scale action videogame for use in their battle system. Like, imagine an RPG where Nintendo’s NES Ice Hockey were the battle system. That’d be awesome!
Instead, we get Inazuma Eleven‘ cutely confused yet somewhat elegantly, finely, delicately balanced system. It’s an acquired taste; then again, so is real soccer.
When you first hear that your characters in Inazuma Eleven raise levels with experience points, you may be flattened briefly, as we were. When you hear that the best way to gain experience points is by getting into random-battles with soccer-crazed ruffians loitering around the schoolyard or your pretty little town, you might be like “WTF is this stuff?” Remember your first day at middle school, when your long-held dreams of having a locker to put books in and walking through the halls between classes were revealed to actual be painfully tedious? You didn’t know how you’d deal with it; by the end of the week, you were making friends (note the use of “you” here instead of “we”). Inazuma Eleven is kind of like that, only when we say “making friends”, we’re referring to the sometimes-thoughtful, sometimes-preciously-hammy story and the lovingly crafted environments. Level5 originally touted this game as having more than 1,000 characters to recruit to your soccer team, and is holding to that promise by regularly releasing new characters via their online service, though ultimately, when none of them have a fraction of the personality of incidental characters like the principal’s jerk-off of a daughter, and when Level5 has already announced a sequel where an alien team comes from outer space to play space soccer with your earthling team, who really cares?
This one-sentence paragraph is us capitalizing on the opportunity to say that the idea of a space soccer team clearly hearkens back to the NES days of Super Dodgeball.
This one-sentence paragraph is us pondering the possibility that the 1,000 characters will all carry over to the sequel.
In closing, the music: Yasunori Mitsuda is on hand for his best score since Xenogears. Try listening to the school yard theme without weeping. In all of his recent work, Mitsuda has made plentiful use of little bells and chimes; at any given moment in Inazuma Eleven, you half expect an Italian woman to begin singing about the state of her wanting a pony circa 1950, though to say the soundtrack leaves you wanting this would be a stretch: it leaves you wanting nothing. It’s just good music. And then a battle starts, and the Chrono-Trigger-era synthetic cheese rains down, with chugging midi guitars and bass lines only men surnamed “Korg” could play. Perhaps the real star of Inazuma Eleven, however, is the sound of the cursor moving through the menu. Over the years, sound designers have struggled to find the perfect sound. With Inazuma Eleven, we daresay it has been located. Recently, we met Yasunori Mitsuda in person, and when the formalities were out of the way, we asked him about the menu cursor sound in Inazuma Eleven, and he blushed like a little girl: “I didn’t think anyone would ever ask me about that”. If we had to guess, we would say that it is the sound of a pinhead-sized drop of organic boysenberry jam hitting the floor of a hermetically sealed racquetball court after dropping thirty meters. We asked what brand of microphone Mitsuda used to capture this amazing sound, and he said he could not dare divulge his secrets, that he would have to leave something for the sequel.
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