Of all the GameCube titles we were hoping to see resurrected on Wii, Mario Strikers was never one that really showed up on our radar. After all, the original wasn’t hugely impressive, being an exhausting and largely skill-free exercise in button-mashing attrition. If it was an arcade sports game its simplicity might have worked in its favor, but who would pay $50 for something so frantic and random?
But it’s back, polished up and given a few new Wii controls though essentially unchanged in terms of core gameplay, and with all the stadiums from the previous version returning with the word “classic” tacked on to them. So were we just completely wrong about it in the first place?
Mario Strikers is a fast and furious five-a-side game of soccer, stashed with power-ups and completely devoid of referees. The ball can never go out of play, as the pitch is surrounded by a force field, and the goalkeepers seem practically unbeatable, capable of saving any shot.
Well, almost any shot. You can pass the ball around for an entire match, working perfect scoring angles and peppering the goal with seemingly unstoppable drives that fizz through the air at ridiculous speeds. The goalie will save 99 out of 100 of them. The only way to beat them is to charge up a special move, which means holding the shoot button until the player automatically unleashes something completely unsporting. If you’re close enough to the goal, you score every time.
So a match of Mario Strikers is a non-stop fight to buy enough time and space to charge up one of those special moves, while the opposition punches, kicks and red-shells like crazy to knock down the shooter and regain possession; which essentially makes Strikers a Smash Bros. with balls.
The only time Strikers so much as pauses for breath is when the invincible goalie has possession. As soon as he throws it back into play, the explosions begin afresh, the power-ups start flying, players get zapped on the force field like flies and the attritional struggle for shooting opportunities resumes.
Of the four outfield players, three are “sidekicks” - lesser characters chosen from a selection of Shy Guy, Koopa, Dry Bones, Toad, Boo, Birdo, Hammer Bro and Monty Mole. Each one has an evasive move, activated by pressing the D-pad, and a particular type of special shot. For example, Birdo’s evasive move makes her spin on the spot, knocking down nearby rivals and buying almost enough time to charge a special shot that blasts a keeper-flattening giant egg towards the goal. The Hammer Bros. can chuck concussive hammers at the goalie which can get the ball into an empty net.
You can choose any combination of sidekicks. They all have different attributes for speed, shooting, tackling and so on, and you can have three the same if you’re particularly fond of one special move. That’s an instant and massive improvement over the GameCube original, which forced you to play with a team of identical nonentities.
As useful as the sidekicks are, their main function is to set up chances for the team captain. Instead of a basic charged shot, each of the 12 available main characters can perform a mega strike - a shot that sends multiple balls flying towards the opposition’s net.
It’s done by holding the shoot button until a golf-style swing meter appears. Stopping the meter in the left-hand orange zone unleashes the maximum quota of six balls, and nailing it a second time in the right-hand orange zone launches them at maximum power. Characters with better shooting stats have bigger orange zones but tend to be a lot slower around the pitch.
If you didn’t get crunched while trying to activate the swing meter, a game-interrupting, unskippable cutscene commences, in which the team captain soars into the air, transforms into something scary and launches the balls. The player on the receiving end gets a minigame chance to save the shots by moving a pair of hands over the balls and pressing A to burst them. Afterwards, the resulting saves and goals are shown back in the main game.
It takes ages and is accompanied by some very un-Mario guitar music. Decent human players should be able to make plenty of saves, but fatigue takes its toll and mistakes will creep in when the balls start flying faster and faster. Against the computer, the number of goals scored depends on how perfectly you hit those orange zones.
With such a powerful move at your disposal, ordinary goals seem of little importance. Never mind that the rarity value of beating the keeper without fully charging any kind of special move makes an “open play” goal something to treasure. You could score four or five of them in a game, if you’re highly skilled, and still lose to an opponent who managed to wind up one or two mega strikes. It’s totally unbalanced. If anything, ordinary goals should count double, and special moves only half.
Power-ups are awarded for being fouled when not in possession of the ball, which happens all the time - especially in a four-player game. Shells, turbo mushrooms, invincibility and numerous others can be used by any player on the pitch. Special captain moves can only be used by the main character, and have a specific effect on each one. Mario grows big, Yoshi rolls a giant egg, and Wario farts out clouds of toxic gas that leave the opposition gagging and cursing his name.
There are 12 one-off challenges that require victory while fulfilling certain conditions. Beat these and you earn cheats that turn off the more outrageous moves, although you won’t have too many 25-24 thrillers without them. It’s definitely more enjoyable with the specials left on, but the relentless nature of the power-up-riddled matches, coupled with environmental hazards that electrify the fields and generally make smooth progress even tougher than it is, mean Mario Strikers is best played in short doses. It doesn’t take long for it to outstay its welcome - we found we needed regular cooling-off periods.