Multiplayer Unplugged

In my history as a gamer, one of the biggest draws to consoles was the ability to grab a gamepad and play against friends. You couldn’t do that so easily on computers, making the PC a solitary place for me. Looking at yesterday’s number seven title, I think that’s just one more reason that game succeeds. It plays to the strength of the PC platform’s solo gaming experience.

Today’s number six title swings entirely in the other direction. It’s exactly what consoles do best, and it makes me wonder if the headlong rush into online gaming on consoles isn’t helping to alienate the larger audience from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It’s no secret that the Wii is the hot console to own right now, and it’s built around putting the whole family into the game–at the same time. I don’t think anyone in the industry should take that last bit lightly. When gaming becomes a social event in the living room, it expands by word of mouth into other living rooms. You don’t need to be a part of the online club to enjoy it.

That’s entirely counter to what we’ve been told is the way videogames are supposed to go, with everyone online in some kind of cyberspace world that looks nothing like our own and where you have a different vocabulary and interaction from what you know in your meatspace. For the people who want only to escape from their real life, that’s appealing. But for the vast majority of folks, I don’t think that’s the case. It seems to me that the wider majority play videogames as a diversion, a competition or a way to just hang out with friends doing something instead of watching something.

With all that said, I’m definitely in both camps. I enjoy the online space as much as I do the face to face events. I play PC games with my buddies from Philly and around the globe while I also duke it out in the living room with my wife and kids. Best of all, I bring the online world together with the real one when I visit my Philly friends for some gaming time. And strangely enough, that leads right into today’s number six game, because that’s where I first played it, and it quickly became one of my favorite titles of 2007…

Mario Strikers Charged

6. Mario Strikers Charged

Do you remember the halcyon days of arcades and 16-bit consoles and those sports games that went beyond? Names like Mutant League, Baseball Stars, Arch Rivals… these games had goals, but they also had action! Mario Strkers Charged is a an awesome throwback to those titles. It’s a soccer game, but just barely. Your team of Mario characters play through tournament-style cups in the single player game, or you can have your friends join in either co-operative or competitive play. You could say there are no rules except for one, put the ball in the opposing team’s net, but that would be overlooking the superb balance in the game’s design.

Each field you play on has different environmental challenges. Thwomps smash the sands from above, high winds blow players right off the field, crystals take out two of your players to start the game turning it into a 2v2 match before it even gets started–it’s always bedlam playing for the Mario Cups. The controls are easy to learn but take time to master, just like in any great arcade-style game. Using the nunchuk’s analog stick to move, you pass and shoot with the Wii Remote, the d-pad and the two buttons on the nunchuk execute slide tackles, chip passes and unleash powerups. Motion control isn’t to be denied–a quick back and forth motion of the Wii remote results in a crippling hip check. All these actions turn soccer into something more closely related to hockey–with mushrooms, chain chomps and turtle shells.

It’s excellent fun to play the game on your own, but becomes one of the best games of the year when you play with friends. It’s especially cool that you can play single matches or entire Cups cooperatively. It makes all skill levels happy when the best player in the room is helping your team win rather than trouncing yours repeatedly. We played this for hours when we first broke it open, passing the controllers around and becoming Luigi-worshippers in the process. There was so much awesome that no one wanted to stop! I had to wait until Christmas Day for Santa to stop by in order to get back to it again, and I’m still as enamored of the game now as I was when it first came out.

This game is all the proof you need that multiplayer in the same room with friends should never go away and in fact is still maybe the best focus for console games. The crazy action makes everyone laugh out loud and makes for riotous entertainment. The game is deep, though. There are all kinds of skills you can learn to make goals easier to come by and knowing the abilities of each of your team members is very important to success. It’s well-balanced, so there’s not really one perfect team. Each of the captains (one of the major Mario characters) has a different super shot and a different major powerup, making playing each important to figuring out both how to win with them but also defend them. When you get two competent players on either side of the ball, it’s like a chess match on speed. There’s all sorts of tactics playing out at a lightning pace and when that culminates in a goal, it’s an exhilarating feeling.

If you have a Wii, this game should be in your collection, sports fan or not. It’s a superb way to get the family playing together and even if they’re not around, you can get a match online via Nintendo Wi-Fi connection. Playing online though, really points out just how much better it is to play at home with your family or friends. As good as it is, nothing compares to the human interaction that comes out of a great goal or a last-second save.

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