One of the first things you’re bound to notice about Charged is that its attitude is quite different for a Mario sports title. Gone is the usual colorful, cutesy presentation in favor of a gritty, futuristic feel that is nonetheless suitably laced with various elements from the Mario universe. Mario and friends appear determined and competitive, with a self-assured smirk lining their faces and positioned in a fighting stance. Even the soundtrack is considerably different from what we’ve come to expect; rather than the usual peppy Mario-inspired MIDI themes, here we have everything from (generally generic) jazz to rock, often recorded with real live instruments. It’s a definite departure from the gumdrops-and-lollipops style of the rest of the Mario sports games, and it gives Mario Strikers: Charged a personality all its own.
That having been said, the new “attitude” of the game does seem a bit over-the-top to say the least; Mario and friends aren’t supposed to be mean-spirited, and the idea of them dueling to the death via soccer match isn’t really all that compelling. The unskippable intro to every match, which resembles something from an anime action flick, never changes and seems quite out-of-place. And the soundtrack, while instrumentally better than previous Mario sports titles, is compositionally inferior. Many of the songs are short and repetitive, and for the most part, they convey a sense of seriousness rather than the playful atmosphere of other Mario titles. The lighthearted magic of previous Mario sports games is lost on Charged, for better or for worse.
The Basics of Charged
Gameplay-wise, the game is considerably more interesting. Arguably, Charged is less soccer and more pandemonium, but for the most part it’s at least fun to play. It harbors a deceptive amount of depth, so much so that the first few times you log online to play a live opponent (yes, I said online—more on that later), you’re almost certain to get your keester kicked. If you’re just now jumping into the fray, it’s a good idea to stay away from the online play until you’ve gotten accustomed to the different characters and each of their unique abilities. You can do that by playing through some of the game’s single-player offerings.
Those offerings include a short tutorial, a small selection of preset challenges, and the “Road to the Striker Cup,” a campaign-type mode where you try to battle your way to victory through a number of increasingly-difficult tournaments. Or, if you’re just looking for some action, you can simply play a match in the game’s basic versus mode.
In a typical match, you’ll first select your team captain from one of twelve different characters from the Mario universe. Each captain has a unique set of attributes (speed, shooting, etc.), as well as his or her own special move. Next, you’ll select three different sidekicks from a different, smaller set of eight characters for use as teammates. Like the team captain, each sidekick also has their own strengths and weaknesses. After enduring a lengthy wait through one of the game’s overly abundant load times, the match will begin.
The biggest threat to your opponent is your team captain, thanks primarily to the fact that they’re able to execute game-altering Megastrikes. A Megastrike is initiated by holding down the shoot button while your team captain has possession of the ball. If you’re able to successfully pull it off without your opponent body-checking you in the process, you’ll then see a Mario Golf-style shot meter appear on the screen. Here, you must properly time two button presses to determine the number of balls (up to six) that you will fire at the goal, as well as the speed of your shots. If you’re playing against a human opponent, they’ll have to point their Wii remote at the screen and move it to block each shot as quickly as possible. It might sound silly, but it’s actually not a bad approach to making goalie play more interactive.
Each of your sidekicks has his or her own “super shot” as well, but it’s generally nothing compared to the potentially devastating Megastrike. Even still, the sidekicks can score some handy goals here and there with their special abilities, and they’re particularly helpful in online play, where it’s considerably more difficult to pull off a Megastrike without ending up the target of a slide tackle. Even if you don’t take advantage of the special shots, though, you can still reap the benefits of charging the ball. Passing the ball repeatedly between your teammates results in an increasingly charged soccer ball, indicated by a more and more intense glow around the ball that eventually turns white. If you shoot while the ball is charged, your shot will have a much greater chance of making it into the back of the net.
Chaos and Confusion
Making life more chaotic are the various items you’ll run across. If one of your players is tackled while they do not have the ball, you’ll receive an item for it. You’ll also get one if you fire a charged shot at your opponent’s goal. The item you receive might be something like a giant turtle shell (which bowls over anything in its path—there are a few different types) or a set of Bob-ombs (which rain destruction from the sky). Or, you might be blessed with your Captain’s special ability, which allows you to execute a generally very useful maneuver that only your captain can pull off (for instance, Mario and Luigi both become Super, increasing their size and allowing them to run people over; another example is Wario’s gas passing technique, where a cloud of foul odor is produced that disorients passing players).
If you’re playing alone, it goes without saying that you’ll have to control all four of your characters at once. While on offense, this is easy, since the player with the ball is always under your control. Defense, on the other hand, is a bit trickier; while pressing the A button always commands control of the player closest to the ball, in such a cramped arena it’s difficult having to constantly switch between players to keep up with the offense’s action. Likewise, while the game emphasizes and rewards rapid-fire passing amongst your teammates, it’s tough to govern the actual path of the ball with your players always moving around on their own. This isn’t a limitation of the game so much as it is the fact that you’re the only one controlling your entire team. In other soccer games, the field is larger, and the action is less frantic, making team control less of a challenge.
Compounding the single-player woes is the fact that the AI is mostly unremarkable; its skill in any given situation seems to classify as either really bad or really cheap. This isn’t so noticeable until you reach the later matches of the harder cups, where the CPU-controlled opponents are supposed to be more skilled. In reality, they just seem to have increasingly common surges of supernatural athletic ability, leading to some goals that come off as virtually unavoidable.
So, the moral of the story is to make sure you have some friends handy (whether locally or remotely) before picking up Charged. That way, you’ll be able to improve your game against a similarly-skilled player without having to put up with the CPU’s BS. By the time you’ve played several dozen matches—and no fewer—you should be ready to take on the rest of the world in the game’s Wi-Fi Connection mode.
Bring Your Friends
Which brings me to my next point… Online play is smooth with very few hiccups or any hint of lag (connection quality is clearly spelled out before you begin a match so that you can determine whether you wish to continue), but it isn’t perfect. For one thing, there’s no way to communicate with your opponents or teammates, which limits the depth of the online experience (it’s not like it’s kid-friendly as is anyway; you should see some of the names people have given their Miis). More importantly, though, as I’ve said previously, if you pick up this game now, you won’t be having much fun online until you get to be very good at it. There is no matching system implemented to choose players that are on the same skill level as yourself, so chances are you will be playing against someone who is much more seasoned than you are. And that’s not fun—it’s frustrating. I can say so from experience, since my review for this game was written months after its release.
Once you get the hang of things, of course, it becomes considerably more entertaining—but not until then. That’s why I emphasize the importance of having some friends to play against who are close to your experience level when you commit to buying Mario Strikers Charged. If only the matching system were better, it might be more fun to log on and learn how to play while challenging another random live opponent… but as it stands, the only way you’re going to get dynamic, realistic competition that keeps you on your toes throughout the learning process is by having some buddies who are willing to sit down and share a game with you.
The reason this is an issue to begin with is the sheer complexity of Charged. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that this game is a shallow button-mashing party-fest; it’s not. Instead, it’s a deep, engaging game that might not seem like it belongs in the library of Mario sports titles, thanks to its sometimes excessive complexity. It’s more chaotic and fast-paced than probably any of the other sports games bearing the Mario name, and that puts it in a dangerous position. If you’re buying this game expecting a pick-up-and-play party sports title, the experts prowling the online matches and the unrelenting single-player AI will promptly put you in your place. Expect to commit some time to practicing before really enjoying Mario Strikers Charged—its learning curve might just throw you for a loop.