Bend It Like Bowser

Soccer gets a surreal twist in Mario Strikers Charged.

Raging flames put the fun back in soccer.
Raging flames put the fun back in soccer.
The first worthwhile online-compatible game for the Wii has finally arrived. And in at least one way, Mario Strikers Charged is just like real soccer: Sometimes it scores, and sometimes it's just a kick in the balls.

The sequel to Super Mario Strikers, Mario Strikers Charged continues the Nintendo tradition of releasing nearly identical follow-ups for new systems (see also Metroid Prime, Super Smash Bros., Super Mario Kart, etc.). But Strikers Charged improves on the original with faster action, new moves, better graphics, and an online multiplayer mode. Sadly, though, it features no toothless soccer hooligans swigging Guinness and overturning cars.

In fact, though Strikers Charged is packaged as a soccer game, its similarities to real soccer are few. With four players per team (a cast of Mario staples like Bowser, Luigi, Princess Peach, and more) and no referees, it's penalty-free chaos: Trip your opponents, throw weapons, and -- in the case of Wario -- "butt slam" anyone in your way. Picture a soccer match played in a prison yard, and you've pretty much got the vibe here.

Like other pseudo-sports titles such as NFL Blitz and NBA Jam, the cartoonish action trumps rules and reality. Even outside forces can affect play -- say, a windstorm that causes a cow to fly across the field and topple you. All this anarchy can make Strikers much too busy at times (especially since the onscreen characters are incredibly small), but it's a minor gripe. If real soccer were this nuts, maybe we'd actually give a damn about David Beckham.

A tedious and daunting tutorial introduces the game's control scheme and concepts, but it's all much simpler than you might think. The Wii motion controls are practically ditched altogether in favor of old-school analog stick-and-button-pressing, making game play feel like second nature.

"Mega Strikes" -- the game's signature power move, allowing you to score up to six points at once -- are as easy as holding down the trigger and yelling GOOOOOAAALLL, BIITTTTCHHHESS!

One of the rare moments the Wii's motion controls are put to use is during a Mega Strike assault. Once a Mega Strike is triggered, a first-person goalie mini-game begins: As ball after ball hurtles toward you, you must point and click at the screen to knock them away. It's alternately fun and frustrating, but a welcome addition to the series.

Wii owners with a Wi-Fi connection will get the full Strikers Charged experience. For the first time, you can log on for quick pickup matches and get your ass kicked by complete strangers. Yes, this function would be improved with the addition of a microphone to fire trash talk at Little Jimmy from Sandusky, but it's a million times better than squaring off against the ridiculously easy computer characters in single-player mode.

You can play friends online as well, but the cumbersome 16-digit Wii code (which should be banished to the land of Crystal Pepsi and Jason Biggs movies) makes it an irritating task. And if you find a stranger you enjoy playing against, he'll just disappear into the ether after the game, making rematches impossible. ("Party_Guy 2" will never feel the wrath of my revenge.)

Strikers is by no means perfect, but its pick-up-and-play, Shaolin Soccer-style action makes it a must-have for any Wii player in need of a multiplayer fix.