The original Super Mario Strikers was a solid if not essential entry into the GameCube sports catalogue, offering a lighthearted alternative to the seriousness of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer. It wasn't released that long ago either; its late-2005 arrival gave GameCube owners one more reason to dust off their consoles. It's a very different case for the follow-up, which has arrived so early in the Wii's life in Europe that it's the first game on the system to carry "Mario" in its title. European gamers also have another reason to rejoice because aside from getting Mario Strikers: Charged Football (Mario Strikers Charged in the US) ahead of the rest of the world, it's also the console's first online game. With the US release not set until July and Nintendo's region-locking preventing importers from playing it, we thought that we should take a look at the game to report on Nintendo's online service, as well as the multiplayer part of the game itself.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Mario Strikers: Charged Football, make sure you have a look at our previous coverage of the game. As with other Mario sports games, Strikers takes the basics of a sport and applies a wacky Nintendo spin on the proceedings. In this case, players can be smashed into electrified fences, red, green and blue shells can be unleashed across the pitch, and six goals can be scored in one go. It's far removed from the real-life rules of football, but it's a good arcade interpretation of the sport nonetheless. You can read more about the single-player game in one of our other previews, so check them out to find out more about the gameplay.
If you've ever used the Nintendo DS online, you should have a good idea of what to expect when it comes to using the Wii in a similar way. Nintendo has decided to more or less take its successful handheld online service and transplant it to the Wii. This means that the Wii service doesn't offer a mountain of features or options, but Nintendo has created a safe, closed environment for its users.
If you have any experience with other online gaming services, then you're likely to find the Wii system restrictive. But it will hopefully introduce a whole new audience to the service given that it's simple and, crucially, free to use. For example, those used to Xbox Live are likely to be infuriated by not being able to add people you play online to your friends list. Instead, you must each swap 12-digit codes, either physically or electronically. In theory, this is supposed to limit the possibility of children interacting with strangers, but given the proliferation of online forums, it's still easy for people to swap codes with unknowns. A more pressing constraint is that there's no way of communicating with other people in Mario Strikers, so you can't talk to or text them even if they are on your friends list. Perhaps distant acquaintances can devise a system of communication that incorporates an intricate combination of passes, tackles, and shots.
Voice communication will hopefully be incorporated in future Wii releases because the DS supports the feature in such games as Metroid Prime Hunters. A Wii microphone doesn't exist yet, but there's always the possibility that the much-rumoured built-in Wii Remote mic could be put to use. However, that isn't the only restriction of the Wii online service. European residents cannot play people from other territories unless they're on their friends list because of the supposed lag issues this would entail. It's a moot point given that Mario Strikers is only available in Europe right now, but it's a shame to see another feature of the DS service not carried over to the Wii.
While the Nintendo Wi-Fi service may not be technically advanced, at least it's simple to use. If you've already set your Wii up to use the Weather Channel or download games on the Virtual Console, then you're ready to play online in Mario Strikers. Player matches allow friends who've swapped codes to see if they're online, and as long as they're both available, they can play a match over the Internet as if they were seated next to each other. But most people are likely to opt for the ranked mode, which automatically pairs you with people of a similar skill level based on your number of wins and losses. Thankfully, this process only usually takes about 20 to 30 seconds, and most of our tests matches were almost completely lag-free. True, we encountered a couple of matches that were so slow they were unplayable, but the game allocates scores to your opponent's connection speed, so you can choose to play with an opponent or not; we found that three-and-four star connections played fine, but any less and you're likely to find yourself frustrated.
We've complained about the lack of features in this first online Wii offering, but there are also things it does right. First of all, up to four players can compete online if two people buddy up per console, which is a really nice feature. Winning points to earn a place on the leaderboard is also based on two out of three games, so even if you lose the first game, you can still be in with a chance of coming out on top overall. The game also promotes the best player of the day so far when you log in, meaning that players who perhaps haven't played the game for weeks on end are still in with a chance of featuring on Wii's all over Europe.
Mario Strikers: Charged Football is a fun game in both single-player and multiplayer. Given the limitations of online communication, the only incentive to play online is the challenge of human opponents who are much more devious than their artificial intelligence counterparts. Although it's free and easy to jump online with the game, it has an impersonal feeling that makes us doubt its long-term longevity. Mario Strikers: Charged Football is an energetic addition to the sports genre, but as the first example of an online Wii title, it leaves plenty to be done.