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Mario Strikers Charged

Mario's sports games continue to enchant.
The Game:
For several years now, Nintendo has been releasing a line of Mario-branded sports games, to mostly great reception. Game like Mario Golf and Mario Tennis pleased both sports fans and newcomers alike with a pleasing mix of elegant controls and a group of familiar Mario characters. One of Mario's more recent sports forays was soccer, in a game called Mario Strikers for the Gamecube. Many hailed it as one of the most fresh and enjoyable soccer games in years, and thus excitement mounted when Nintendo announced a sequel, Charged, for the Wii, especially after Nintendo confirmed it was going to have online multiplayer.

The first thing you'll notice about Charged is that it appears to take place in the universe of Metroid Prime. Everything and everyone appears to be encased in metal, almost like the developers were using Robocop as a basis. The ball is made of metal, the arenas are surrounded by metal cages, and every character is wearing a suit that would look more at home on Samus Aran than Mario and Luigi. But once you get past this bizarre choice, you'll find your way into a game pretty quickly.

The game differs from Strikers almost immediately. After you choose a team captain (ranging from popular favorites like Mario and Bowser to less successful spin-offs like Waluigi), you get to choose three separate individual support characters, each with their own unique special moves. And, of course, each captain gets their own mega-move. By holding down the B button long enough, your team captain launches himself high into the air, and unloads a volley of shots that are nigh impossible to block. The trick is to not get tackled while you hold down B, as it takes some time to set up the shot.

In case you were wondering, Charged is designed to take advantage of the Wiimote and nunchuck. The analog stick on the nunchuck moves your chosen character. The A button on the remote passes the ball from player to player. The B button makes the character take a shot, and holding it down long enough lets the character do a special move that makes it more difficult for the goalie to block. Shaking the remote makes your character tackle the nearest opponent. When you're playing against the AI, you might get away with being able to get off some megashots without getting checked. But on higher difficulty levels, or against human opponents, the tackle will be your most-used move, and the move that lays waste to your best laid plans.

That isn't to say checking is the only way of taking someone down. Far from it. Just like in games like Mario Kart, you can get power-ups and items that can change the face of the game dramatically. From turning your captain into an unstoppable behemoth to chucking a whirling turtle shell across the screen, nothing stands still in Charged. This makes for a hectic game at the best of times, and if I have any problem with the way the game is setup, it's that sometimes things can move so fast that you literally cannot keep up with it, and suddenly find yourself trying to block an impossible shot. To make things even crazier, the arenas themselves can, at times, change various aspects of their topography to shake up the game.

But you may have noticed that I mentioned playing against other humans. Yes, Charged lets you play with up to four people either on one system or - are you ready? - online! Yes, this is one of the first Wii games to take advantage of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service. As always, you do have to have friend codes to play with people you know (in fact, you need two codes per person: one code for the system itself, and then a separate code for the game), but you can also play random opponents in ranked matches. Supposedly the game looks at your stats and hooks you up with players of similar ranking, but I didn't find that to be the case. That aside, the online play was lag-free and had no frame rate issues. If I didn't know it was online, I would think I was playing against someone right next to me.

In all, there's a lot to love about Mario Strikers Charged. The gameplay is smooth, the action is frenetic, and playing with other people is so god damned much fun that the game is worth buying even if you never touch any of the single player modes. Go on, give it your best shot.

The Graphics:
As I mentioned above, the game design in Charged is just bizarre. I suppose Nintendo wanted to differentiate this outing from previous Mario sports titles, but I still can't help feeling like it's a poor fit. Despite this, I thought the graphics were a good update from the original Strikers. The character models are more detailed and animated, and there's definitely plenty of details to be found in the arenas. The frame rate is rock solid online or offline, which counts for a lot when so much is going on at once. This is probably the best looking Wii title I've seen to date.

The Audio:
Soccer fans may bemoan the lack of any kind of announcer, but for my money I'm glad we don't have to hear some guy spouting the same five phrases over and over. What I do like is the sound of the crowd responding as events unfold, the satisfying thwacks when someone kicks a ball with all their might, and, of course, the whoosh of the megashots. The sound adds another level of immersion into the game. Nicely done.

The Conclusion:
Mario Strikers Charged is everything fans of the original could want and then some. The gameplay has been kicked up a notch, and the graphics and sound have been upgraded to match. The inclusion of four person offline and online multiplayer makes this game an easy buy. Highly Recommended.