One extreme, mean, Mario machine.

From the opening scene, you are thrust into Mario's soccer world, a world that is much more engaging than our own. Mario Strikers Charged is a truly a testament of how a sequel should be done. It builds on everything that Super Mario Strikers introduced so effectively, I feel like I am playing a game from an entirely different developer. Unlike other sports titles, which pump out yearly iterations and find little to improve, Next Level Games took the original game, dissected it, kept the spine and rebuilt it, going as far as to add online capabilities. There is not one area of the game that lacks depth, but there are parts that lack polish.

Mario Strikers Charged is billed as a soccer game with an extreme twist. Players can pummel opponents, use super-sized items, and soccer multiple points at once. Teammates no longer fall under a general "species" category, allowing players to freely choose from the eight characters available. Much like the Mario Kart series, the winner of a match can be influenced by character selection. Unlike Mario Kart, Mario Strikers Charged relies too heavily on that idea, since some characters have deke moves that allow them not only to avoid the players on the field, but also the goalie. For example, Toad has the amazing ability to jump, meaning that if the move is timed correctly, he can jump over the goalie and walk in for an easy point. Another example is Dry Bones, who can disappear instantly and reappear inside the goal.

It's these types of moves that will turn off casual and novice gamers; by the same token, they're also the types of moves that will ignite the curiosity of traditional gamers to try and figure out how to best squeeze out an easy point. Fortunately, the execution of these moves much more difficult than they read. Players will need to pass the ball between teammates in order to charge the ball before the given examples will work effectively, meaning opponents will still have a chance to defend against the ball.

Unlike in Super Mario Strikers where smacking the opposing team was performed by pressing a button, the Wii's motion-sensitive abilities are put to use. Players can attack their opponents by motioning the Wii remote left or right. With these jolting attacks, hits are more satisfying, but feel less natural to perform. Weapon cycling is also handled in this manner, with players motioning the Nunchuk to cycle through items. These new controls at times can cause problems, especially during an intense match, where moving your controller is the last thing that you're concentrating on. In these situations, I found myself just pressing the 'B' button until it launched the weapon I was looking for.

While Next Level vastly improved the characters, the weapons weren't given any improvements at all. They still feel cheap and ineffective, especially when compared to how powerful the characters were made. Each team captain has a special ability item tailored to that specific character, along with a signature MegaStrike animation. Mario and Luigi can turn "Super" and stomp across the field, while Wario can get "gas" and fart around the field, stunning other players (even his own). The problem with special items is that some characters have abilities that are clearly more useful than others. I won't spoil which, but one character can actually transport players off the field, meaning that they can pull off a MegaStrike unopposed.

A MegaStrike is a powerful move that can performed by holding down the shoot button. When performed, players shoot multiple balls at the goalie, potentially scoring multiple points. Thankfully, MegaStrikes aren't guaranteed like Super Strikes were in the first game. If players fail to reach an opponent who is trying to power-up their MegaStrike, they can shake the Wii remote, making it more difficult for the opponent to nail a powerful Megastrike. In addition, the new "goalie control" puts the player in a first person view as the goalie where they can attempt to block the shots, which come at a pace that depends on the offensive player's button timing. The animated sequence that accompanies each captain's MegaStrike is interesting, augmenting the impressive art direction that the developer took.

One just needs to glance at Super Mario Strikers to appreciate the work Next Level has done with graphical interface of Mario Strikers Charged. The character animations are more involved and entertaining, making the replays more of a reward than an uncoordinated mess. The fans are fully-realized polygons, which give a better atmosphere than before, and are complimented by beautifully detailed levels full of Mario references. The developer also gave the levels from Super Mario Strikers a much-needed facelift and included them in the game, though you'll rarely find yourself on those fields. The newer ones not only look better, but most have special hazards that make them more engaging and also are more in line with the Mario universe. The only portion of the game that's not overwhelmingly improved is the music. It seems like Next Level was too busy focusing on everything else to give this area a makeover, but I personally have no problems with that -- it's much easier to put on an iPod than it is to ignore lackluster graphics or gameplay. Voiceovers are also much better, simply because they stay at a minimum.

So how does all of this translate online? Overall, the online play is good, and essentially the same as a traditional vs. match, with some minor tweaks. The biggest change is, regardless of how far you've progressed in the game, all levels and characters are unlocked online, leaving players' skills as the only possible source of advantage. There are two modes available for online play: Ranked Matches (which works like a sports "Season" mode) and Friend Matches. The Ranked Matches mode ranks players based on the points they've accrued, and everyone is reset to zero at the end of each week. Points are earned by completing a full match, and even if you lose, you'll get a point for each goal that you made as well as an additional sympathy point. This encourages players to play through the entire series, rather than reset their system when faced with a loss.

The other mode, Friend Matches, which do not contribute to point totals, let players register their friends and invite them to a match. This mode allows players to set game preferences, such as level and length, but restricts players to registering only friends in their country. This restriction applies to both modes, but isn't a big issue; players will be able to find someone to play a majority of the time, though the skill level of their opponents may vary.

Finally, there are a few extra modes available, such as the "Strikers 101" tutorial mode, but they add little to the game itself. I don't feel that Charged needs a full mini-game section, but these extras do pale in comparison to the side activities added in games such as Mario Power Tennis. In addition, unless you want to unlock unnecessary items and game cheats, there's no real reason to bother with the "Striker Challenges" mode.

In the end, the entire package is one complete game and well worth its price, something I could not say Super Mario Strikers. There is only one appropriate way to describe this sequel compared to that title: Super Mario Strikers was the demo, and Mario Strikers Charged is the finished game.

Pros & cons
  + Mario sports the way it should be: Deep, online, and fun to play right out of the box.
  - Semi-steep learning curve. Too many "cheap" moves that take kicking the soccer ball out of the equation.

Ratings (scale: 0.0 - 10.0)
Graphics:8.5Simply impressive when comparing them to the GameCube iteration. Aptly named, Next Level has taken the crowds, character animations, and even the menu graphics to the next level.
Play control:8.0Overall good. Formerly simple to perform attacks are now assigned to unnatural movements of the Wii remote, but the goalie control (what little there is) works well using the remote's pointer.
Gameplay:9.0Despite the fact that they can be used against you, the unique strategies that can be used with each character results in a pretty even playing field. The action is engaging, exciting, and quite excellent.
Replay value:9.0Once you go through the cups, there are still plenty of matches to be found online, and the season resets weekly, giving you more incentive to keep coming back for more.
Sound:7.0Not too impressive, but the voice acting is kept to a minimum and never feels forced. The music provides little atmosphere. Where's my custom soundtrack option?!
Final score:8.3Mario Strikers Charged is indeed a proper sequel to a game many deemed incomplete and broken. There is little wrong with this title, and what is wrong isn't exactly wrong, just too extreme or overshadowed (such as the music) by the more fanatical aspects. Fortunately, unlike its predecessor, this title takes a lot of cues from Mario's other sports outings and makes a perfect complement to those titles.

Review by Super-Jesse, 8/27/2007