Of his many vocations and achievements, I’d argue that one of Mario’s most successful careers has always been in football. Though he hasn’t had as many outings onto the soccer pitch as he has onto the golf course or tennis court, his track record there is unimpeachable, two for two with undeniable bangers. Today, after a fifteen-year hiatus from football, we can make that three.
To be completely honest, there isn’t an enormous amount to Mario Strikers: Battle League. It’s about as simple as a game comes, in fact, the sort of release that isn’t very common these days because publishers and developers feel like all modern games need to be stuffed to bursting. This is a more simple affair: you get a unique, fun, and twisted version of five-on-five football action starring Mario characters. It can be played against AI or other humans, online or offline, in a few different formats. Characters can be mildly customized. But that’s it.
When you first boot the game and peruse its menus, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a little thin on the ground. But what becomes quickly apparent is that all that really matters is how the game plays - because in soccer, you’re always going to be doing roughly the same thing, which in turn is accomplished through a few basic mechanics. Those mechanics have to be sharp as a tack, and that’s all that matters. Battle League nails that, just as its predecessors do.
Like the previous Mario Strikers titles, this is a faster-paced, rule-free version of the sport. Tackling is allowed regardless of if your target has the ball. A walled-in arena means there’s no need for throw-ins or corners - the ball simply bounces back into play. Power-ups augment the action with a little Mario flair - so a banana peel tossed onto the pitch can make a difficult midfield to press up through, or a Bob-omb can be tossed to explode, sending players and the ball flying to break up possession.
Most important is the glowing orange orb, a football equivalent to the Final Smash-enabling ‘Smash Ball’ over in Smash Bros. Collecting this gives your team a limited amount of time to execute a ‘Hyper Strike’, where if you can get some space from the opposing defenders on their side of the pitch you can charge and unleash a huge shot that, if successful, results in a two-point goal.
The action is frenetic and thrilling, the sort of sports game that in a local multiplayer session will inevitably result in screamed expletives and jumping up and down. It’s the sort of magic that in the age of online play isn’t as common as it should be. The previous Mario Strikers games also had this energy, the sort of thing I mostly associate with classic arcade sports games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz. It’s brilliant to see this feeling and tempo of play alive and well in a new, major release.
As people familiar with those sorts of games will know, however, none of this is to say that Mario Strikers doesn’t have complexity or depth. That’s the beauty of a game like this done well - it’s deceptively deep. You’ll soon learn about the advantage to swift, mixed passing, or even playing a through ball as an indirect pass. In your first couple of matches, it’s easy to be misled into thinking that matches will be decided by Hyper Strikes - but in no time at all, you’re sliding balls past the keeper with a FIFA-like finesse. It’s the perfect blend of pick-up-and-play action and rewarding intricacy.
There’s a number of different ways you can enjoy this action, of course. You can set up a quick match on or offline, or head into Cup mode where one or more players can take control of a single team and guide them through double elimination bracketed tournaments of various difficulty levels versus computer-controlled opponents.
The titular Battle League is an online format that allows you to form a ‘club’ with other players, then rank up leaderboards by winning online. Clubs are made up of up to 20 players, and they’re a bit like the ones found in a lot of fighting games, allowing you to stipulate a region, a club mantra/policy (ie playing for fun, playing to get better, or playing to be the best), and choose from a limited range of kits. At that point you play, and it’s back over to the real meat of the game, which is that smooth, satisfying, crunchy mascot football action.
If you don’t want to engage with the ins and outs of the club mechanic, you can still use quick play to enjoy one-shot matches online, too.
Put simply, I love it all. It’s a worthy successor to the GameCube game in particular, which I still rate as a real classic. One particularly pleasing aspect is that this game still has some of the 'edge' of the previous two games, which always felt a little harsher in animation style than your typical Mario sports games. These cute mascots quite literally have fire in their eyes as they slam the ball home - and it gives the game a neat attitude.
It's not exactly all sugar and rainbows, though. If there’s anything holding Mario Strikers Battle League back, it’s simply the amount of content. There’s ten playable characters total - that’s fewer than either of the previous two games - and a handful of stadium designs. It feels… pretty stingy.
Some clever ideas executionally can rescue some of those shortcomings. Unlockable gear for each character lets you change their look, for instance, particularly for the Club mode. You also never play in a single stadium - both teams choose their stadium, and then you get a neat half-and-half setup where the home end might be Bowser’s Castle while the away end might be Donkey Kong’s jungle - it looks cool. But all the cool looks in the world can’t quite shake the feeling that… there just isn’t much content in this game?
The costumes are neat, like the stages - but the smattering of different pieces that can be equipped for each character don’t really change the fact you’re going to see a lot of the same characters online, given that this is a four-on-four experience with only ten characters. The equipment adjusts characters’ abilities, too, but the bottom line is really that it simply ensures you can adjust the stats of your favorite character to fit the role you like to play on the pitch; it’s not particularly in-depth customization.
As a criticism of a game like this, being content-light only takes you so far given Nintendo’s track record. Recent Mario Golf and Tennis outings have been treated to multitudes of very worthwhile post-launch DLC, offering free updates and upgrades. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the roster of characters and football grounds in Mario Strikers swell after release - and if that happens, it’ll elevate this game from great to Mario’s best football outing to date. For what it’s worth, Nintendo has promised free post-launch updates that’ll include new characters, and one data-mined leak suggested the game is programmed with 20 character slots - double the current roster. That’d be a more than satisfying outcome.
I can’t review that here at launch, though. I can only talk about what’s in front of me here and now - and that’s an incredibly tight arcade sports game that’ll be an absolute multiplayer riot. The ultimate test for these games is how they feel to just slog the ball around in, and how truly competitive one feels it can get without crossing into the realm of the serious. A lack of content takes the shine off just a little - but only barely, simply by virtue of the fact that I think if you're buying this game, you're primarily doing so knowing that multiplayer action is the main draw. Plus, I do believe that updates will come. Even if they don’t, I can see myself breaking this out at parties and playing the occasional online match for years to come. For Mario Soccer and developer Next Level Games, it’s the hat trick: a third great game.