Mario Strikers Charged

Mario Strikers Charged
Mario Strikers Charged Cover
Platforms Wii
Genre Surprisingly Mean-Spirited Soccer
Score 8  Clock score of 8
Buy from Amazon

Professional athletes who excel at multiple sports are understandably rare. The ideal body proportions of an offensive lineman and a power forward are basically inverse. The abilities and skills required by a closing pitcher and a starting goaltender are worlds apart. And who could possibly have enough time to devote their training and competitive passion to two separate sports seasons that last six months or more each year? Ask a sports buff if any athletes have made an impact on two different sports, and they'll probably answer with Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, and possibly Michael Jordan with a sneer.

Ask a gamer, however, and the only answer will be Mario. Ever since the platforming plumber took up golf in 1991's NES Open Tournament Golf, Mario's been blazing a trail across athletic endeavors that none could possibly match, serving up scorchers with his tennis racket in one hand and palming a basketball in the other. The Italian even competes under his own personal flag in both the Summer and the Winter Olympic Games. And next year, Mario will be adding Dodgeball to his list with the launch of Mario Sports Mix, which will also feature the gaming icon's return to Volleyball, Hockey, and Basketball. Even with his talents spread so thin, critics have mostly praised Mario's spinoff sports titles for their sufficient gameplay and charming Mushroom Kingdom aesthetic.

Somebody forgot to tell Next Level Games about that Mushroom Kingdom charm, however, as the Canadian developer decided to go a drastically different route for their take on Mario playing Soccer, Mario Strikers Charged. Sure, Mario and his assortment of friends with mustaches and crowns all show up, as do the requisite mushrooms, shells, and stars, but something seems to have deeply upset the usually benevolent bunch: smiles turn to scowls, frilly dresses are traded for form-fitting battle armor, and the good-natured teasing is replaced with some outright lewd gestures. The tone may have taken a turn for the drab, but there is still plenty of fun to be had with this bizarre Mario Sports title.

If you've played the first Mario soccer title on Gamecube, Super Mario Strikers, then you know almost exactly how Strikers Charged plays. Two teams - each made up of a captain, three sidekicks, and Kritter as a goalie - compete in a full-contact version of Arena Soccer peppered with items ripped from Mario Kart. The player with the ball can pass, shoot, lob, deke, chip, and charge the ball in their effort to put the ball past the opposing goalie, while the defenders make use of body slams, slide tackles, and interceptions to steal the ball before that happens. Items can be used at any time when acquired, either to stop the opposition's offensive momentum or to clear a path for your own drive to the net.

Mario Strikers Charged WhompsEach character in the game has his or her own unique skill shot and evasive tactic, along with an allocation of skill points between Shooting, Passing, Movement, and Defense skills. Sidekicks have skill shots that incapacitate the goalie for an easy rebound goal, while captains all have a special attack item and a Mega Strike, which can launch up to six shots at the goalie at the same time, allowing for an instantaneous scoreboard swing. These arena soccer matches take place in a variety of locales, half of which are loaded with obstacles or gimmicks that change the way the game is played, whether it's slippery mud causing slide tackles to travel halfway across the field or volcanic meteors that temporarily create craters of magma.

Perhaps the game's greatest feat is combining the wacky feel of a Mario Kart title with a gameplay balance that one could never expect to see play out on Luigi Circuit. Every aspect of the game has a surprisingly fair feel once players get a grasp of its rhythm and options. Character balance is attained through an equal number of skill points doled out to each player, ensuring that Wario's crisp passes and scorching shots will be evened out with his waddling pace and poor tackles. Sidekick skill shots require strategic placement and a second of charging to pull off, and even then a defender can keep the ball out of their net with smart play. Captains' Mega Strikes require even more charge time, as well as use of a swing-meter that anyone who has punted a virtual football or accompanied virtual Tiger Woods down the fairway will recognize; the goalie is also given a chance to defend the multi-ball assault by using the Wii remote's pointer. The mind games and timing involved with the deke-and-tackle duels between the ball carrier and a defender will take some time to figure out, but the encounter feels fair to both sides, with the defender trying to find the right moment to pounce while the ball carrier tries to outrun or counter the incoming tackle.

Mario Strikers Charged Chainchomp

Even the items in Mario Strikers Charged feel just right: a player is given a random item when he or she either shoots a fully-charged non-skill shot or is tackled by an opponent when not carrying the ball, and can hold two items at once. Standard weapons include the mainstay banana peels, shell variations, and speed boosting mushrooms. The strength of the item is often determined by rubberbanding, as in Mario Kart: if a player is trailing by three or more goals, they'll acquire more powerful items, including larger shells or banana peels, invincibility stars, or specific captain abilities. These super items may feel overwhelming at first, but unlike the dreaded Blue Shell that seems to grow more devastating and unavoidable every time it hits the track, the weapons in Strikers take some skill to wield and are never a sure thing: the defender-seeking Chain Chomp can incapacitate the entire opposing team and will seek them out, but it's large and fast enough that it's a danger to your players as well. It's actually not uncommon to finish an entire game without seeing a single item, depending on the players' tendencies on offense and defense. After some quality time spent with Mario Strikers Charged, you can tell that Next Level Games put plenty of care into making it a game that has some respectable depth.

Mario  Strikers Charged ControlsOn the downside, it may take you quite a while to cut into the game's meat. The learning curve is certainly steeper than most Mario sports games, requiring players to keep track of eight unique (and tiny) characters on the crowded field, fumble with some initially intimidating controls, watch out for incoming stage hazards, and more. Possibly the biggest hurdle to overcome is the defensive game: though your CPU-controlled teammates will shadow the players that enter their zone, they won't take any action to stop the offensive. If you want to stop the opponent from walking right into the goal, you'll need to get used to constantly switching your controlled character (by hitting the A button) and taking care of business yourself. Beginners will likely feel a bit overwhelmed, but the mechanic works in deft hands, and I actually prefer the feeling of total control you have over your four character squad. And you will need total control to take on the game's AI, which ramps up considerably after the first tournament, throwing in such advanced and surprising maneuvers as using Dry Bones' teleportation deke to disappear in front of the goalie and reveal itself inside the goal. The tactics the CPU uses may feel cheap at first, but smart defensive play can counter anything the opponent throws at you.

Mario Strikers Charged Bowserfire

Things get cheap, however, when you hop online. Mario Strikers Charged was the first Wii game to feature real time head-to-head online play, and the service was admirable. It was mostly without lag, had some basic stat-tracking each week, and a wide enough variety of strategies that you could tell another human was playing. All online gaming landscapes change, however, and Strikers took a turn for the worse soon after launch. If you hop on now, three years after the game first came out, you probably won't even find a match. If you do, your opponent will probably capitalize on the dodgy goalie AI with some absolute nonsense. One of the more maddening exploits involves lobbing the ball from half-court, which somehow always ends up right behind the keeper's back and in the net. I'm sure there are counter-strategies for such a tactic, but there's a point where the style of play gets too unbelievable even for a soccer game with playable mushroom men and piranha plants. It's like snaking in Mario Kart DS all over again: either conform to the opponent's departure from the intended game strategies, or you will lose.

If you wonder why the review has gone on this long without mentioning Strikers' gameplay modes and special features, it's because there isn't much to talk about. Strikers 101 teaches the basics of the game in a non-threatening environment. Road to Strikers Cup mode is your singleplayer mainstay, consisting of short tournament ladders for one or two players to climb against the CPU, with an extra character unlocked upon completion of each tournament. Striker Challenges tasks a player with winning a match under certain conditions: it chooses your player, opponent, arena, and often starts you at a disadvantage, whether by a number of goals or even a missing player. Completing Striker Challenges results in new customizable rules in the final mode, Domination, which is the standard versus play where one to four players can play in any combination they wish with CPU filling in where necessary.

Mario Strikers Charged Crystal SmashBarebones feature set aside, the game's presentation is hard to knock. The shock of seeing your favorite Mushroom Kingdom denizens clad in armor and mud will likely turn to joy once you see just how alive they all are. Everything feels a little less sterile in the Strikers arenas than they did on the golf courses, tennis courts, and kart tracks, with a color scheme that's equal parts gritty and rich. Likewise, the two hive minds of "nice guys" and "mean guys" that seem to rule the personalities of Mario and crew in their other sports outings have splintered here, allowing every single character to have their own quirks and mannerisms thanks to some post-goal celebrations and unique musical themes. Daisy's tough girl attitude and prog rock tunes finally make her feel like more than a recolor of Princess Peach, whose pop diva stylings feel surprisingly appropriate. Even the minions of the Kingdoms Koopa and Mushroom have a bit of flavor to them, possibly for the first time ever outside of the text-heavy Mario RPG series. Further, the crowds that pack the stadiums are more lively and excited than most actual sports games...but don't look too closely because they're 2D sprites, perhaps the only way that so many characters could be put on-screen on Wii. The system's limitations don't quite end there, as even an excellent attention to detail can't hide the jaggies and low polygon counts of some characters. Even so, it's far from an ugly game.

Mario Strikers Charged Whiteshot

Final Thoughts

Video: Strikers' visuals are serviceable in tech and splendid in style. The characters animate with surprising fluidity and believability, though it may take you a while to actually recognize what's happening on the field.

Audio: Returning themes from classic games are rare in Strikers, which opts for a pretty surprising variety of musical styles, including calypso, flamenco, hip hop, bluegrass, and (predominantly) several schools of rock and roll. Sound effects are punchy and fitting, while character voiceovers are limited and enjoyable.

Gameplay: The game actually feels more like hockey than soccer with the smash mouth brutality and smaller scope, though a healthy dose of Mario-themed objects, items, and attacks keep Strikers from feeling much like any sport in existence.

Challenge: Accessibility is sacrificed for depth, requiring players to spend a little more time on the pitch in order to escape the chaos of beginner's play. Though the chaos can be enjoyable too. And the AI will show you how it's done before you can hope to win the second two championships.

Pacing: A standard match of Strikers Charged has a timer set for four or five minutes, though the rules can be changed to a goal-limit as well. Play only stops when you score a goal and the momentum of play can change in an instant, ensuring that the excitement is constant. Booting up the system and getting right into a match takes almost no time at all.

Longevity: The singleplayer offerings are meager, and online play is all but deserted. You may just find yourself sucked into the surprisingly deep gameplay, however; Mario Strikers Charged has actually become my go-to game for local multiplayer fun, and I don't think we could ever go back to Mario Kart after this. Sometimes I even just play the CPU for a few exhibition matches, just for kicks.

Fun Factor: It's got all the wild fun of Mario Kart with a fraction of the rubberbanding and more strategies to dig into. And the character themes and animations are wacky and entertaining enough to be uploaded to Youtube.

The Verdict: If you're looking for some multiplayer fun for your Wii or just want an entertaining sports game with some character, you'd be missing out if you didn't at least check out Mario Strikers Charged.

Mario Strikers Charged Launch