Soccer fans are hard to come by here in the States, but it's a different story worldwide. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Next Level Games and Nintendo created a follow-up to the moderately successful GameCube title Super Mario Strikers. Follow-up titles can be tricky. Sometimes developers take the best parts of the first title, throw them all out, and then elaborate on the crap that is left behind, which results in a steaming pile of...well, you get the idea. Fortunately, such is not the case for Mario Strikers Charged (called Mario Strikers Charged Football in the Europes).
Before I break it down, let me say that I am not what you would call a "sports person." I do not watch football or baseball or any of those other sports that end in "ball," and the same goes for soccer, of which I have little-to-no understanding. I am always willing to give a Mario title a try, though, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that you do not need to know what an "inside forward" does or is to play this game. The players have been culled down from ten outfield players (thanks, Wikipedia) to four to make things more simplistic. However, with 12 captains and eight sidekicks to choose from—each with their own special moves—things get interesting real quick. Add to that some challenge modes for unlockables, and you have a solid foundation.
The graphics are a marked improvement from those of the original, but they are standard for this generation of consoles. The meat of the game looks pretty good, though the characters on the field seem a little small, and, based on your TV size, may be hard to see. All the prerendered clips are cool to watch, done very well, and short enough that it's not a chore when you see them for the 100th time. The intro movie for each character looks great and is fun to watch once or twice (Why the hell are they skydiving!), but you can easily skip them and get right to the game.
The sound quality and music are also very good, with music clips themed to fit each of the 12 team captains. As with most Mario titles, the voice acting is done to a minimum, so the characters do not talk often; but, when they do, they say the same things you've already heard, and it's surprisingly not annoying. Only one music clip in the selection menu is so short that the extended looping will annoy you, so you probably should not do what I did and leave the game on the selection menu while you go eat dinner.
The AI is unbelievably trying on your patience if you are playing the single player modes. I spent more than a few hours swearing at the "miracle shots" that average computer characters make, whereas you could not make the same shot to save your life. The AI is almost too perfect on the harder levels; it's aggressive to a fault and barely leaves you any time to posses the ball, let alone take it to your opponent's side of the field. Depending on your point of view, this can make for a great challenge or an exercise in bottling up your violent tendencies.
There is a pretty steep learning curve on the controls, though the controls themselves are easy to understand. Gameplay makes use of both nunchuck buttons, A, B, and the control pad on top of the Wiimote as well as button combinations and shaking the two controllers. Using any one button at a time is easy, but, with the frantic and fast-paced gameplay, mastering when to use which buttons quickly and effortlessly takes a lot of practice and patience while the merciless AI pounds your goal like a convict in heat. Ultimately, this makes the experience very challenging, but it also means that you may never unlock Petey Piranha. Why you would ever want to is beyond me, but the difficulty could mean that some of the stadiums remain locked as well, which may disappoint.
The best feature of Mario Strikers Charged is clearly its multiplayer gameplay, which you can do in two ways. You can either play with two or three of your friends while they are sitting next to you, which is a lot of fun when you are all shouting and jumping around, or even when you are with just one other person. You will not find a lot of play variety once your fourple gets into a rut, but changing up the stadiums is a good way to keep up the interest and keep the game entertaining.
If you do not live in a college dorm, it may not be as easy to get four people in front of the Wii for a pick-up game*, but there is still hope for you friendless wonders out there. Mario Strikers Charged has the best online multiplayer options of any Wii title to-date. Sure, the Xbox has mastered this market for nearly five years now, but late to the game is still better than not showing up at all, and this title brings a reasonably well-thought-out interface. If you've exchanged codes with your friends, you can play against them, but I imagine that's not as common as playing against random strangers. Although you are limited to your region, there are plenty of players stateside looking to hit the field. You cannot communicate with the other player—Nintendo's way of protecting the chitlins from offensive language— so all you see is the Miis they have chosen to use as their avatars.
The online multiplayer is a good way to vary the level of difficulty, so, if you are getting trounced one minute, you can play someone else the next and be the trouncer yourself. It's also a good way to pick up new techniques to use against your friends. Be cautious, though; it sucks to get wasted by what appears to be a 12-year-old kid (I'll pimp slap you if I meet you IRL, SuiteLifeFan.).
Overall, Mario Strikers Charged is a very enjoyable game, but it really emphasizes multiplayer over single player. I guess if you are a Wii owner and a soccer fan, you are already playing this game, so it probably doesn't' matter what I say. For the other 99% of us out there, it's a well-done and entertaining addition to the Wii library that's worthy of being picked up used or new.
*Getting four people in front of a TV in a college dorm is easy. Finding a dime among them for a Wii, the game, four Wii-motes, and four nunchucks is, however, next to impossible.