Mario's sporting titles have never faired too well compared to his more popular spin-off releases, and though Mario Smash Football was a nice enough game on the GameCube, Mario Strikers wouldn't normally cause too much excitement. However, when it is the first ever European Wii game to offer online play, it not only becomes a curious debut but a chance to see how well Nintendo's Marmite console handles multiplayer online action.
Doing to football games what Mario Kart did to the driving genre, Charged Football fills a typically staid sports game with character, colour and carnage, and in general it does a very nice job of it. Essentially offering 5-a-side soccer in a FIFA Street style, Mario Strikers is in many ways a combat sports game, and certainly bares comparison to Speedball Deluxe and Brutal Sports Football, though its true ancestor is without a doubt Soccer on the NES.
There are no referees or fouls, and many of the intricacies of the beautiful game, such as the offside rule or corner kick are tossed to the wind. However, this does not mean that Mario Strikers is another Wii lifestyle game that will have your grandmother and girlfriend eagerly begging for another go. Instead, by dropping all but the core concepts of football, the latest Mario sport title can throw in a whole new set of anarchic rules of its own.
Again, think Mario Kart. Shells and banana skins and all the great bonuses from Nintendo's hugely successful kart racer appear here in some form or another, usually being dropped from above onto the pitch. While most are exaggerated in size and quantity, they are not as core to the central game mechanic as in Mario Kart, instead offering just a little more carnage to one of the most hectic Wii titles yet.
The play areas themselves are fairly small pitches, perfectly scaled for the chaotic style of play. While some offer basic arenas in glowing Nintendo colours, others are darker in theme, and feature additional elements to negotiate, such as high winds that randomly blow objects across the pitch, or vicious electronic flooring that occasionally crackles with shocking pulses.
The game itself is controlled with the Nunchuck and remote arrangement, and thankfully works as a fairly decent sit-down interface, that doesn't see you leaping about or accidentally kicking your telly. The analogue stick controls player movement, while the 'A' button passes, the 'B' trigger shoots, and a jolt of the remote activates a reliable tackle. There are other buttons to launch shells, slide tackle, dummy, and chip the ball, but the most interesting mechanic is the Megastrike function.
When you create your team, using a very basic squad select screen, you choose a captain from the likes of Mario, Luigi, Wario, Yoshi and Bowser. Each captain has a special Megastrike power shot, specially activated by holding down the B trigger for a few seconds. When you do manage to trigger the strike without being tackled, a golf game style swing meter appears. Precise button presses set the accuracy and number of balls to be used before a cutscene is triggered. Most involve the chosen captain launching high in the air before unleashing a volley of flaming metallic footballs. The camera quickly cuts to the perspective of the unfortunate goalkeeper, who must defend the back of his net using the remote as a Duck Hunt-style pointer.
All sidekick characters, such as Boo the ghost, also have their own smaller special strikes, that generally blast the keeper out of the way, opening the goal for their shot or clearing the penalty area for a rebound strike at the onion bag.
All this sounds very hectic and somewhat bewildering, and as explosions and power-ups scatter about the pitch, at first it is. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Mario Strikers is a game many of us will be playing late into the night after the pub, or for long afternoons with our younger relatives. Despite initial concerns that the Megastrikes might dominate the game - they can add up to six goals to your score in one blast - they are just tricky enough to activate to only happen a handful of times per game. Nevertheless, scores of 18 or 22 were not uncommon at the hands-on preview day.
So what of the online games? Happily, they were fantastic. Each was quick to load and free from slowdown, and anyone who has ever enjoyed a typically thrilling Wi-Fi game of Mario Kart on the DS will already have some idea of how hilarious multiplayer Mario Strikers can be on the internet.The game itself allowed up to four-players to compete simultaneously in teams of two, and featured a ranked mode alongside the standard friendly match setting.
Setting up an online game involved inviting players from a 'friend list' that displayed cards detailing adversaries' total wins, losses and draws, along with an Xbox LIVE style profile. It was not clear how you will invite new friends to your list, but I managed to confirm that the 12 digit 'friend code' that identifies you is not the same as your Wii's own code. That means friend codes could well be different for each game, as with the DS, though details are yet to be released on future Wii online games.
On the whole both Mario Strikers and the Wii as an online gaming platform impressed, offering accessibility and the potential for hilarious fun. Finally, an entire generation of consoles is online, and quickly the past is feeling like a very different world indeed.