When it launched on the GameCube, Super Mario Strikers provided a much-needed alternative to the po-faced seriousness of the FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer franchises. True, it had so many wacky features and power-ups that it had virtually nothing to do with the real sport. However, Super Mario Strikers was fast-paced, challenging, and ultimately quite charming. Mario Strikers: Charged Football for the Wii is set to expand on this success with brand-new motion-sensitive controls and the first use of Wi-Fi multiplayer on the console. With the game set for release in Europe on May 25, we were able to play on finished code at Nintendo's "Wii flat" in the heart of London's Soho district.
While Mario Strikers: Charged Football is making the leap to an innovative new platform, it certainly isn't going to mess with the arcade formula of its older brother. The basics of passing, shooting, and tackling are all present and correct, but they're still complemented by familiar Mario bonuses, power-ups, and special moves. You'll be able to fling turtle shells across the pitch, unleash chain chomps to chase down the opposition, and push players into electrified fences--all of which have yet to be employed by David Beckham and company. The control system uses both the Wii Remote and the Nunchuck, employing the analogue stick for player control; the A button for passing and the B button for shooting. The Wii Remote's D pad performs evasive tricks that are designed to fool the opposition, while the motion-sensitive nature of the controller is employed to perform ice hockey-style takedowns.
While occasional swipes of the Wii Remote are all well and good, the real innovation for Mario Strikers comes in the form of the all-new mega strike move. Standard shots on goal rarely make it past the keeper, so the mega strike shot allows you to notch up as many as six goals in one go. They can be unleashed only by your team captain, and you'll have to hold down the B button for a couple of seconds for it to work. If your player isn't tackled by the opposition, a marker appears to determine the number of balls you can kick and how powerfully you can strike them. If you hit the orange sections displayed by pressing B at the right moment, you'll unleash a powerful torrent of six balls down on the unsuspecting goalkeeper. If the opposing team uses a mega strike, you'll have to move the goalkeeper's hands by using the Wii Remote to quickly catch each of the balls as they come down. While the risk/reward strategy of the mega strike means that they're often tricky to pull off, the huge advantage that they offer means that they're often the preferred method of scoring in Mario Strikers Charged.
Because this is a Mario game, Strikers also features a full cast of familiar characters. Team captains include Mario, Peach, Donkey Kong, Waluigi, Luigi, Wario, Bowser, Yoshi, Daisy, and Bowser Jr., Petey Piranha, and Diddy Kong are also included as unlockable bonuses. Each player is rated on movement, passing, shooting, and defence ability, so Luigi is a good all-round player while Daisy has great movement but poor defence. Each player has his or her own super skill too. For example, Mario can grow in size and literally trample the opposition. Alongside your star striker are three sidekicks; while they can't pull off mega strikes, they make good midfielders for passing and attack. Characters available for these positions include Koopa Troopa, Toad, Dry Bones, Boo, Birdo, Hammer Bro, Shy Guy, and Monty Mole. Each character also has individual goal celebration routines. The goalkeepers are computer controlled and can save the majority of shots. The exception to this occurs when you need to defend against a mega strike and move their hands with the Wii Remote.
The game's main menu presents you with five different game modes, as well as a hall of fame that tracks your progress through each of them. The first port of call is the strikers ABC, a series of 10 small challenges that help you get accustomed to the game, from basic movement right up to using power-ups and skill shots. From there, it's a case of dipping into a proper game. The domination mode in Mario Strikers lets you set up the parameters, such as game length, opponent skill level, and whether you want the game length to be measured by time or the number of goals scored. In addition to this, Striker challenge mode presents matches from Mario Smash Football history, in which artificial circumstances have been set up to put you behind on goals or missing members of your team. The Wi-Fi mode pairs you either with people from your friends list or a random player from around the world if friends are unavailable.
The meat of the game is the road to the striker cup, where you'll take a team of your choice through the qualifying stages to the Mario equivalent of the World Cup. The fire and crystal cups precede the big event, and at each game, the teams become progressively difficult. While playing through the game and beating your rivals is incentive enough, the game also offers up collectable cards and cheats in the form of unlockables. The brick wall award goes to the player in each cup with the least number of conceded goals at group stage, while the golden foot award goes to the player who scores the most. Mario's character card is awarded for playing the game in the "classic" style, which means you do not use any of the available special skills or mega shots.
Although our time with Mario Strikers was spent with finished code, the timing meant that there was nobody using the Wi-Fi service to play against. However, from dipping into the game mode, we were able to see just how the system will work. Anyone who has used the DS online service should have a good idea of what to expect. Each Wii owner has a unique numerical code that can be swapped among friends, and those that pair up can play each other over the Internet. The friendly mode allows you to see which of your friends are online and lets you play with them in one-on-one, two-on-two, or three-on-one matches. The ranked mode, on the other hand, automatically pairs you with other people in either one-on-one or two-on-two matches. Much like on Xbox Live, this mode's leaderboards will keep track of the world's best players, but unlike Microsoft's service, Nintendo won't let you communicate with others vocally or via text messaging. Nintendo's service is geared more toward online safety; this means no trash-talking, but at least it's easy, safe, and free.
While it's undoubtedly a fun game to play, Mario Strikers: Charged Football has changed very little since the last version was released on the GameCube. Like many recent Wii releases, it's a solid update of an existing Nintendo license, but one which makes relatively little use of the console's innovative control system. While that issue is perhaps worthy of wider discussion, Mario and genre fans can at least look forward to a game that's just as charming and enjoyable as its forebear. What's more, it's setting the standard for the Wii's online gaming service, and from what we've seen so far, that looks set to become one of the best ways to enjoy the game. Mario Strikers: Charged Football will be released exclusively on the Wii in Europe on May 25, while the US will see it slightly later on July 2. Check back with GameSpot in due course shortly for our full review.