Mario has been quite busy this year. In addition to franchise sequels of both Mario Kart and Mario Party, he’s also found time to dance and play tennis and baseball. Now he’s adding soccer to his list of extra-curricular activities. Super Mario Strikers, developed for Nintendo by Next Level Games (NHL Hitz Pro), infuses the game of soccer with classic Nintendo charm in addition to pumping it full of pure chaos.
The basic rules of soccer apply. Teams are comprised of five members, including a captain and four sidekicks (all of which are the same). Captains include Nintendo mascots such as Mario, Wario, Peach, and Yoshi, while sidekicks are small-time Mario characters including toads, koopa troopas, Birdos, and hammer bros. Each team also has a goalie, played by an alligator (who doesn’t seem to be from any Mario game that this reviewer can recollect). Each captain has his or her own strengths. Some are more aggressive while others focus more on technique.
Control is fairly simple. On offense you can pass, shoot, deke, and use items. Defense can switch players, slide-tackle, check, and also use items. It’s a simple control set, and works in favor of the game’s fast-paced action. The R button can be used as a turbo, though it’ll lessen your control over the ball, and the L button can be used to convert normal passes and shots to lobs. Picking up the controls doesn’t take much time at all, and most players will quickly out-play the computer on the “rookie” difficulty level. The game puts up quite a fight on higher levels of difficulty, though, and requires a complete mastery of all gameplay mechanics to beat.
The game is, quite simply, chaotic. The field is rather small. Possession constantly switches back and forth between players, as they use every weapon and tactic at their disposal to take control of the ball. Getting a clean shot at the goal is challenging and requires teamwork. Lots of goals are made on one-timers, where one player passes the ball to the other, and the receiving player shoots the ball immediately. Shots can also be charged up to increase their effectiveness and produce items.
Captains, also known as strikers, have the biggest opportunity to make goals. After charging their shots up to the normal max, their power can be further increased. Once a full charge is reached, a meter (similar to the one used for punts and kickoffs in American football games) appears on screen. The closer you hit to the marks on the meter, the better the chance a shot will go in. If both marks are hit in their target areas, the shot is guaranteed to go in; even if it’s snagged by the goalie, the power of the shot will drag him and the ball into the net. This mechanic is incredibly important to master, as any goals scored with these “super-striker” shots are worth two points.
On the defensive side of things, there are numerous ways to take out your opponent. Slide tackles will steal the ball away from your opponent (though you’ll be tripped up if you tackle from behind). You can also check your opponents to get the ball away from them. This move is very powerful, but there is a drawback. Checking an opponent without the ball will give the opposing team an item, which could come back to haunt you later on in the game. Your goalie is controlled automatically, and he does a very good job keeping the goal free of balls. The only time you’ll control him is after he catches a ball, when he needs to release it.
Items range from wimpy to incredibly powerful. There seems to be some amount of rubber-band AI in the game, in that a team that is way behind will gain access to amazingly powerful items such as the Chain Chomp and the Invincibility Star. Other items include bananas, which will trip up anybody who steps on them, and shells. As in Mario Kart, green shells bounce all over the place while red ones home-in on targets. There’s also a blue shell that freezes players in a block of ice. All the shells come in two variations: three-shot and one large shot. Items can really turn the tide of the match. There’s nothing more satisfying than slamming an opponent just as he's about to unleash a super-striker shot. Offensively, items are fantastic for clearing out the down-field to make way for a super-striker.
On top of all this, there’s Bowser. He’ll show up (very) randomly and wreak all kinds of havoc. When he slams down on the field, the entire field tilts in that direction. He’ll also breathe fire all over the place.
Games only last five minutes, but this time can be adjusted along with other various options. It feels like a good amount of time, however, considering how fast-paced the game is. The single player cup mode is serviceable, but not fantastic. It feels like a bit of a chore going through it all, especially on the “rookie” difficulty. Higher difficulties improve the experience, but it’s still rather boring. Multiplayer, on the other hand, is fantastic. The level of tension in a close game against friends is thrilling, and the amount of smack-talk delivered is almost as obscene as the smack-talk itself.
If you’ve got the friends to play it with, Super Mario Strikers delivers in spades. Most players will only go through the single player once in order to get the extra arenas and other unlockables. With friends, the action is fierce and the competition is intense. The single player isn’t worth it on its own, but multiplayer is definitely worth the investment.