Never be too quick to judge - that's our motto in life. In the case of Mario Strikers Charged Football it would be a particularly apt adage, simply because a quick glance at the game would suggest little has changed since its predecessor, Mario Smash Football. And yet that couldn't be further from the truth. Well, kind of. If you need something for comparison, it's like buying two different models of the same car a couple of years apart. They might look relatively similar, but it's under the bonnet amongst all the cogs and pistons that the changes have taken place. The same principle goes for Next Level Games' latest effort.
Granted, the fact that Strikers (as we'll call it for the sake of space) is based on a sport with fixed concepts that can't be changed without distorting it utterly doesn't help to give the impression of improvement. Keeping the game recognisable as 'football' in the loosest possible sense requires the obvious: two goals, two keepers, and a ball chased by a number of players trying to get their hands, or rather feet, on it.
Having realised that it's never going to change the fundamentals of football, Next Level Games has spent all its time reworking, revamping and, most importantly, revitalising many ideas from the last Mario soccer title. The result? A game that, while familiar and easy to pick up, has so much intricacy that you'll be discovering new tricks for months to come.
Of course, how quickly you spot all of the improvements depends on how hard you choose to look. Take the considerably enhanced visuals, for instance, that actually take some effort to notice because they're all rather subtle. At a distance, it looks as though little has changed but once you start picking up on the increased animation for each character, the enhanced player detail and the various lighting effects, there's plenty to drool over. The stadiums have been polished substantially, and whether you're playing one of the 'classic' pitches from the last game or any of the new (and highly dangerous) arenas, everything looks better than it did last time out.
Other changes, not surprisingly, are easier to notice. You want a refreshed line-up of team captains to play as? Consider it done, with 12 characters available for selection, including the new choice of Bowser and three unlockable captains: Diddy Kong, Bowser Jr and the rather bizarre option of Petey Piranha.
Perhaps more important, however, are the improvements made to the sidekicks. Not only are there twice as many of them as before (with the new faces including Dry Bones, Boo, Monty Mole and Shy Guy), but you can now pick which three sidekicks you have on your team. As each has their own stats and abilities, the opportunity to tailor your team's skills to your own style of play is a huge bonus.
Power To The Players
On the pitch, the refinement of the sidekick system continues with each one having their own unique special moves, similar to the almighty Mega Strike that the captains can use. Adding some much needed strategy to the action, as well as many more goal-scoring opportunities, this system works really well. Whether you like taking out the goalkeeper then smashing the ball into the net on the rebound, breaking into space before hammering the ball home or sneaking shots in when your opponent least expects it, there's something for you.
Some moves feel slightly overpowered (Birdo's Egg Blast shot was hideously abused when we played online) but they're all as stoppable as they are powerful - if you know what you're doing, that is.