Developer: Parity Bit
Release Date: 18/05/06
The Japanese often have a habit of incorporating management scenarios into their football games as a superfluous diversion, with the likes of the Virtua Striker and Winning Eleven series being examples. In Calcio Bit (pronounced "kahl-choh bit" - a portmanteau of the words "calcio" (the Italian word for soccer) and "chobitto [asobu]" - "[to play] for a little bit"), all and any interactive gameplay is shunned in favour of pure strategy and tactical man-management.
Whereas it's often fair to say many western-developed football management games such as Championship Manager look dull and uninspiring, in this game it's clear that plenty of care has gone into the visual style, character designs and packaging. The pixellated graphics are angular and bright, and each player is a represented by a tiny twee sprite with two dots for eyes. These little guys (though in the interests of equal opportunity, Calcio Bit contains both men and women footballers) share a curious resemblance to Sensible Software's own pig bladder-hoofing 'ballers and they all move and dive around in a similar fashion too.
You begin the game as the newly appointed manager of a struggling bottom-of-the-league side and your unenviable task is to take them into the top-flight, cup-winning tournaments and basically create an all-conquering club team. It's possible to change anything from the name of the club to its badge and team colours at any point during the campaign and it all conspires to make you feel attached to your team and their equally pocket-sized set of excitable fans. As boss, you need to keep up to date with all the latest transfers, league tables and goal scorers through your personal computer. Keeping track of fan approval is important too, which can rise to a "Jose Mourinho" high or sink to a "Mick McCarthy" low depending on successes. You can arrange exhibition matches to help your team become stronger; form tactics and formations on the training ground and compete in all the home and away games throughout the season. Essentially that's all the options that are available: train, buy, play, repeat.
Save dipping your greedy hands into the transfer market, the only way to improve the skills and attitude of your players is through regular training. Each player has statistics ranging from shot power, speed, strength and even "mental image" (ego). The more games they play, the more skills they will acquire and learn to perfect on the training ground. Selecting a squad player and assigning him or her to concentrate on certain skills or set-plays will level them up in an RPG-style card system, and there are many card combinations to learn that will upgrade player skills quicker. Getting to grips with the training and tactics will be difficult for non-Japanese readers (there's plenty of text), but as with most aspects of the game, there are universal icons which represent most of these options, so it's worth persevering with.
The real meat of the game, of course, takes place out on the pitch where the match unfolds. Some will be familiar with how this works: you watch the game develop in real-time - a much more exciting means than watching text-updates that the rest of us were used to back in the Championship Manager days. Eventually you'll begin to see the benefits of the preparations and training sessions: a stronger player will run faster, kick harder and throw themselves into spinning bicycle kicks whenever a cross is whipped into the box.
It's entertaining for the first few games, but after realising each match lasts for a good 15 minutes, it's sometimes tempting to just skip the match and hope for the best result (though more often than not, this results in a loss). It's also not possible to make any tactical changes during play other than simple substitutions until half-time. As such, each match feels like a gamble, as you wait nervously for the final whistle when a goal up or curse helplessly when your team just doesn't seem to be trying and cheaply concedes in the last minute.
It is interesting to note, however, that these games actually seem completely legitimate, as opposed to being a flashy, but ultimately spurious animation for you to stare at; balls ricochet off posts and other players' heads and defenders make the odd mistake and even score own goals. They all appear to have their own AI and it affects the result of every game, but there's no option allowing you to take control of any member of the team. And that's the real problem: there isn't really enough to keep the player busy and engaged between matches. You can't help wishing it was possible to take part in the matches and it always feels like there should be a greater selection of tactics at your disposal. Short of altering a formation here, or a changing a free-kick taker there, there's little else as manager you can do. The addition of a 2-player mode is actually quite enjoyable, allowing two teams to compete in league and cup competitions, but it's still the same formula as before and will require both players to have the game cartridge. ISS Advance is still more entertaining though.
Calico Bit doesn't seem to want to take advantage of the GBA's capabilities either, and is essentially an 8-bit game on 32-bit hardware. In fact, everything could benefit greatly from a Nintendo DS sequel with touch screen controls. Commands such as substitutions, set plays or formations could all be issued with the swipe of your stylus, and with the addition of some extra modes and mini-games the whole thing could come to life. Indeed, there's still the dispiriting feeling with this game that there could have been much more to it.
Importers may find it hard-going due to its text-heavy nature, but it shouldn't be too hard to memorise the options after a few hours' play. Calico Bit is fun for a while, and is nicely suited for short bursts of play on the bus or train, but it isn't likely to appeal for much longer than a few days, no matter how cute those little pixels try to look.