Games journalists are often accused of championing silly little semi-mediocre games because they want to sound clever. Well, I have long since given up on sounding clever, so I'm quite content to say whatever the hell I like. For example: SEGA Soccer Slam was brilliant fun, and its reception on GameCube and latterly PS2 and Xbox was downright maddening. Not least because I'd dig it out of a Friday night and my assembled chums would start, "Woah, woah... I heard that was awful." This angers me. You... wouldn't... like... the feeble joke I thought of wheeling out there. But, if you played it, you probably would like Soccer Slam.
The same is about to be true of Super Mario Strikers. I can see it happening. Barring a catastrophe, this is going to be brilliant fun - especially in multiplayer. And I bet it gets ripped apart by bored reviewers. And you know what would be really annoying? If they ripped into it because it's basically the same as SEGA Soccer Slam. Because it is. It really is worryingly close. But you know what? I don't care. Do you know how many copies Soccer Slam sold in the UK? It was actually less than the number of games I own in total.
Anyway. All this anger has two goals: 1) to illustrate that Super Mario Strikers is pretty similar to SEGA Soccer Slam, a game with which it shared some dev team members as far as I can work out, and which was brilliant fun and underrated, and 2) to call bored reviewers' bluffs whenever it comes out. Hopefully they'll decide to mark it up to show me up. Well, if this continues heading in the direction it currently is, then it deserves to be bought by those of you who don't own Soccer Slam, which is the vast majority of you, so I'm not that bothered. [Editor's note: Tom is genuinely ill at the moment, and, um, this might be influencing the tone of his copy. A little bit.]
Moving on to the game, then, it basically works like this: you have about five players a side, one of whom's a goalkeeper who can't leave his area, and one of whom's a familiar Mario series type. In the case of my demo we had Mario on one side and Donkey Kong on the other. The rest are Koopa Troopas or Toad types. The pitch is quite small and the ball can't go off it thanks to electrified boundaries. The physics and collision detection are extremely impressive. The object is to score goals, amazingly. And, as far as rules go, that's about it; you can clobber the hell out of people to win the ball and that, my friends, is where the frenzied fun is most acute.
Controls are basic. You hold the left trigger to run, which exposes you to easier tackling, you press A to pass and press or hold B to shoot. You can of course tackle and, using the C-stick, perform little spinny flair moves in a manner that's sure to have Electronic Arts reaching for their Big Book of Stupid Sports Trademarks in search of some random infringement.
The joy of it is that scoring isn't piss-easy. The goalie is capable of clubbing things away and fending off the brutality of your front-men, and although you can send some impressive arcing shots goalward, they won't always go in. The surprising complexity of the engine means it's possible to have the ball rolling across the goal-line, flying off at unusual angles, hitting posts and bouncing back to the keeper, and generally behaving with the degree of randomness we all want to see from the sport of football, and with the added mash-their-legs tackling system you can upset just about anybody's preparations to shoot.
As you move toward goal, there seem to be a couple of ways of setting yourself up in a manner most likely to result in a goal. First, you can lay the ball off to a team-mate, basically doing the old "A and then B" routine. This gives the ball a fair old thwack, but it isn't going to work most of the time, despite the handy slow motion routine that accompanies it. The better and more spectacular option is similar to Soccer Slam's, whereby you hold down the B button and a meter pops up. In Soccer Slam you'd try and position a player on a glowing star having teed the ball up. Here you have to hold the button and then, as a ticker moves from one side of the meter to the other, hit the B button to try and land it on two thin green strips. Think of it like the service meter in a tennis game. And try not to get clobbered during your preparations, because it takes a while, and the defenders really will go for you at this stage.
If you do manage to pull it off, most of the time it's going to pummel its way into the back of the net. Assuming you're cunning enough to aim it at an unguarded area - and the game doesn't give the opposition player any visual indicator of where it's going this time, unlike Soccer Slam. Best of all, if you can give the ball to your star player to score, he'll net two points rather than just one - and lay on a gorgeous CG animation to boot, rather like the power shots in Mario Tennis. Yes, it's an aberration. Yes, it's not something FIFA would approve of. (Well, Sepp Blatter might, but he's a bit eccentric.) And yes, it's going to rankle the average "real football" fan. But if you ask me, working in concert with the excellent ball physics and well-balanced panic on both sides, it makes for a multiplayer game that rarely lets up. It's like the principles of end-to-end basketball applied to football - and of course in football we care so much more about the individual points.
There's mania on both sides. As a final example, the other day I played it against a chap I'd never met. Before long we were quite chatty, giggling along to our on-screen antics, and despite the fact I had never met this guy before, we had one of those gaming moments. With seconds left and me a goal behind, I scampered forward and blasted a shot goalwards. Save. Rebound! Save. Second rebound! It just scrambles in. Cue a bit of leaping and mutual exclamations - and the realisation it was worth two points. And I'd won. We'd both been hammering the pad with a reasonable chance of success on both sides, and had an absolute blast. So much so that I decided to use the expression "absolute blast", despite hating it. That's what you want from an arcade footy game, surely?
So then. Super Mario Strikers gets a big thumbs-up for now. Presumably it won't whenever it comes out, but if - and this is a serious "if" - it manages to provoke this kind of reaction when it's done, I'll definitely be playing it.
Super Mario Strikers is due out exclusively on GameCube. We're currently awaiting news of a release date.