In this summer drought, many gamers are left with parched throats, thirsting for anything that will keep them occupied until the holiday rush of triple A titles hits. Mario Strikers Charged aims to alleviate the pain of boredom this summer for hardcore gamers, but many have written it off as a mediocre football game (or soccer, as we Americans call it) with Mario's face slapped on top. It has a fierce focus on playing with others, and features the first truly competitive online mode for the Wii to back it up, but is that enough?
Some were disappointed with the original Super Mario Strikers for the GameCube because it lacked true Mario charm and the arenas you played in didn't even have environmental hazards. What does Charged do to expand on the formula found in the original? For starters, team captains can now use Megastrikes that can shoot anywhere from three to six balls at varying speeds (depending on your timing), but using the Wii pointer, the player on defense can block the shots with enough skill. Individual teammates can be strategically selected this time and feature a wider breadth of creatures to choose from, each with their own unique Skillshots and talents. Furthermore, half of the arenas in the game are all new and each feature crazy obstacles you've come to expect from Mario sports games.
At its core, Charged feels more like hockey than football, focusing on hard hits and crazy fast passing. The controls are simple enough for an experienced gamer, but complex compared to most Wii titles. The tutorial mode does an adequate job of teaching players the basics, but it doesn't actually delve into more advanced tactics, instead asking players to reference the control map and figure out certain tactics by themselves. While it may seem like luck is a big factor, landing sweet shots can be done consistently with experience and a feel for how the game's mechanics work - and it looks great in replays due to details animation. Make no mistake - this game is fast, chaotic, and difficult to excel at. You may feel overwhelmed at first, but with practice, you'll be passing, lobbing, tackling, and shooting the ball all over the pitch with ease.
Hardcore gamers are in for a challenging treat if they wish to face off against fellow players online or just the AI at higher levels; though, be warned, the AI tends to either be sickeningly easy or impossibly difficult. The gameplay is sharp as nails and requires timing, quick wits, and fast reflexes to master - given its highly competitive nature, this all adds up to an addicting experience for players who really get into it.
The big factor that this game flaunts is the Wi-Fi mode, allowing you to play against friends and random players from across your region - in our case, the Americas. As one would expect, the options are very cut and dry - unless you're playing with a friend, that is, in which case, they're much more customizable. You can even select any character you want while online - even if you haven't unlocked them. You can play a basic best-of-three series in three-minute matches against random players in random stages. Play well and you'll earn points which are used to rank you on the seasonal leaderboards which get reset every week, meaning you can take a break for a month and still have a shot at the gold when you jump back in.
However, most will play online not to climb in the rankings but rather just for the sheer fun and challenge of it - being able to play another human player who matches your skill at almost any time is a delight, and a feature Nintendo needs to exercise more in the future. For the first day or two after release, the online network had its share of bugs, but these have since been resolved, resulting in what is a near lag-free play environment despite the hectic pace of the game. It's astounding how much value basic online play adds to this title - assuming you can handle the heated gameplay.
The presentation is the flaw in this game's playbook - mediocre menu screens, frame rate issues in more detailed arenas, and many expected options just plain missing all befuddle the mind. Want to play without items or Megastrikes? You have to unlock the option in the Challenge mode. Want to restart a challenge when you know you're going to lose? You have to exit the entire game and go back to the main menu. Want to unlock characters and stages for VS mode? You need to beat frustrating and repetitive single player matches. Want to do anything in this game? You need to wade through regular doses of loading times.
The gameplay is tight and addicting, but looking at any of the menus would hide this fact from you. Despite the exceedingly plain production values, the characters do sport rough personality that feels classically Mario while flashing a sharp edge at the same time. Yoshi growls, Mario scowls, and Waluigi flashes a "suck-it" hand sign when he wins. It induces a lot of laughter, but you'll quickly want to skip all of the winning animations after you've seen them enough times. The sound can be grating one moment, yet adrenaline pumping the next, and the visuals are usually slick but not outstanding (aside from the occasional framerate issues during cinematic animations). All in all, Mario Strikers Charged feels a little bland at times, but manages to capture some Mario charm while injecting some attitude into the proceedings--but watch out for Peach and her ghetto/cheerleader self, which is just disturbing.
In the end, however, this is a good game for what it is. Not amazing, but easily enjoyable. Mario Strikers Charged ekes out a pitiful and frustrating single player experience, but multiplayer is where it's at, and this title delivers what is quite possibly the most engaging multiplayer experience on the Wii thus far--throw in an adequate WiFi mode that, while lacking in options, is still entertaining and runs smooth, and you'll be able to take on human challengers whenever you want.
Final Verdict - 8/10
Mario Strikers Charged is far from perfect, but it is by no means a bad game--in fact, it has more to offer than its predecessor and all of it improves the game. The motion-sensing functionality is stripped to a bare minimum, but what's there is satisfying. The controls are tight and responsive and the multiplayer is heated and enthralling. Razor sharp gameplay is fun regardless of lax menus and options, and that's all this game is setting out to be: fun. If you're interested in a fierce and engaging multiplayer experience for your Wii to help the wait for Smash Bros. come faster, Mario Strikers Charged is a worthy game to consider. Less experienced gamers should give it a rental to see if it's too much for them to handle, but core gamers, sports fans or not, are likely to find the raw competition and subtle yet solid gameplay value enough for their money. Hopefully, gamers won't pass up this hard-hitting title without giving it a shot.