A small synopsis of our early encounters with Mario Smash Football, accurately, phonetically transcribed from the source tape.
"GOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAL! GOOoooooaAAAALLLL! Goooooaaaaaal! GUHGUHGUHGUHGUHGOOAAAAWOooooAAAaaaaLLL-AH!" [snip]
Several hours later:
"GOAL. Goal. Goal. GOAL. Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal. Gol. Gl. G-" Final score after five minutes: 11-4.
Mario Smash Football is about as far away from the defensive war of attrition you get in some modern footy games as you could imagine, and it's utterly berserk. We kinda love it for it.
This idea is hardly new, of course. Over the years we've seen the likes of Red Card Soccer, SEGA Soccer Slam and even FIFA Street carve themselves a slice of the crazy five-a-side market with varying degrees of success. All dispense with the notion of anything as old fashioned as 'rules', and every one focuses firmly on the fun factor. The joys of one-touch passing, bicycle kicks, power-ups, trailblazing power shots, crunching tackles, improbable scorelines, even more unlikely 'shots on goal' stats and the kind of joyous shirt-over-the-head silliness that goes down well between drab goalless draws in FIFA.
Such is the way of things with Mario Smash Football, but you can't help but fall hopelessly in love with it from the first time you chip the ball up to your man and see it promptly dispatched by like an Exocet missile blazing into the top corner. But when you realise it's developed by the same team that brought us the bizarrely unloved SEGA Soccer Slam, none of this disarming brilliance comes as any surprise at all. From the word go, you'll recognise the control similarities and many of the same gameplay principles that made it such an instantly playable game, and is every bit as crazily addictive as that particular lost gem.
The usual suspects
As is standard issue for any Mario-related sports title, the full multi-talented ensemble make their appearance, complete with their own specific set of strengths and weaknesses. In this case, the usual suspects (Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Yoshi, Wario, Waluigi and Donkey Kong) make an appearance, and each game gets underway by choosing one of them to be your team's captain, as well as one of four 'sidekicks' (comprised of lesser lights Toad, Hammer Bros, Birdo and Koopa) to make up the numbers. Rather vaguely, it's not explicitly clear what their respective strengths and weaknesses are. There are no MK-style stat bars to find out who's best in defence or attack, or who's fast or best in the air. Instead you're told merely, for example, that Mario's a 'balanced' captain. Peach is fast, Luigi is best at passing, and so on. We still don't really know who's best. To make things even more uncertain, your sidekicks have various attack and defensive plusses or minuses. Mainly you'll choose them for entirely irrational reasons. No matter: it's just fun watching this lot strut their stuff on a footy pitch.
To begin with, you'll probably haplessly ping the ball around and wonder why the keeper's capable of saving almost all of your shots, no matter whether you've charged them up first or not. If you're playing against the CPU, you'll probably ship plenty of goals into the bargain, even on Novice, but then it starts to come together. Soon enough, you're learning how to effectively dispossess your opponent and engaging in unstoppable scoring orgies yourself.
Initially you might be content with politely sliding in to gain possession with a few hopeful stabs of the B button. Later you'll decide to resort to crunching violence by hitting the Y button to perform a gigantic 'Big Hit' last ditch shove, but sometimes only a Power Up will do. Performed with the X button, the game gradually rewards positive play with a Mario Kart-esque array of disrupting weapons. You know the type; banana skins, green, red and blue shells, explosive attacks, you name it. Anything to stop the opposition charging in on goal and unleashing one of those dreaded Super Strikes.
The Mario Smash Football equivalent of a finishing move comes in the form of a deadly, charged-up shot on goal that gains the successful shooter two goals if performed correctly. The catch is that only your team's 'captain' can pull off these deadly manoeuvres (your sidekicks merely shoot slightly harder than usual) and after a second or so of charging, a gauge flashes up, tasking you to stop the needle in the green zone of its two extremities. Fluff your timing and you'll blast the shot straight at the keeper, but hit either green zone and you'll clock up two goals for the price of one.
Needless to say, getting the timing right is even harder than activating the Super Strike in the first place, with the needle rapidly swinging left and back over to the right before you've really had a chance to react. But with practice, it can often make the difference between a win and a defeat as you turn over one goal defeats right at the death.
Finding clear space to pull of these all-powerful shots is no mean feat, either, with so many ways of being stopped. Soon, you'll be pinging pin-point passes, lofting Beckham-esque long balls on a sixpence and trying to sprint clear away from the defenders, trying to thread perfect passes through the eye of a needle (and succeeding) and hitting shots from all angles. With shots generally hitting the target almost every time, each and every game turns into a blizzard of pass-and-move as attack turns into defence in a blink of an eye. It's frantic stuff.
Happiness is a warm gun
Something you learn very quickly is to shoot on sight and stop trying to craft quite so much, usually lofting the ball in (holding down the left trigger and A), anticipating the run and hitting the shot on the volley. Certainly, the overly-forgiving early difficulty levels make it possible to rack up extraordinary scorelines in no-time, and clearing the game's four main cup competitions holds no fear within hours. But then it's game on.
The previously locked Super Cup competitions provide an altogether sterner challenge that would have even Beckham himself crying home to Posh for solace. Even at the lowest of the three Super Cup skill levels (Professional), the CPU takes no prisoners, laying waste to your defence with a hugely aggressive approach that robs you of not only possession in a flash, but probably your dignity into the bargain. Power-ups come at you thick and fast, previously wayward opposition shots become increasingly unerring in their accuracy, and even getting scoring opportunities to call your own feel like a victory. But despite the tears, Mario Smash Football sucks you in, regardless of whether you've got anyone to play against. With another, even tougher round of cup matches to unlock, with an ever-increasing number of matches to play, there's a ton of single-player encounters to wade through in true Nintendo fashion.
It goes without saying that as a multiplayer game it provides almost limitless entertainment, either in two player head-to-head, or two on two multiplayer. It's truly one of those games that you could (and we did) hand to a five-year-old and expect to enjoy a few decent battles, such is the fluid intuitiveness that lay at the heart of the design. By virtue of this inherent simplicity, there's a slight downside, in as much that you'll have sussed out much of the game's depth within a matter of hours.
As quickly as you'll get into it, you'll also run the risk of tiring of the endless succession of goals. By feeding the player with endless scoring opportunities, it has more in common with Basketball, such is frenzied end-to-end gameplay. Still, it's definitely a deeper experience than you might initially credit it with. Mastery over the ability to 'fake' when on the ball, for example is still a skill that eludes us, as is knowing the best times to unleash power-ups. Like any good footy game, the real test of its true worth won't become apparent to players in hours and days, but weeks and months. The important thing, though, is that there's certainly enough top-notch entertainment on offer to make it well worth owning - and given the dearth of GameCube titles at this stage it's nigh-on essential for anyone with a passing interest in fun.
Mario Smash Football neatly distils the entire 'fun for everyone' ethos that permeates so many of Nintendo's titles. It's charmingly designed from the ground up to be as fun and accessible as possible, yet despite its astonishing simplicity, it still managed to hold our interest well beyond our expectations. With polished visuals, amusing audio and impressive technical touches adding the final gloss to this excellent, addictive package, it's yet another fine example of why the GameCube shouldn't be written off just yet.