Whenever a Nintendo sports game comes out, I perk up. No, they’re not all winners. But in the modern era of “solved design” (I’m using quotes liberally here) and roster-update-centric sports games, and the extreme homogenization of the genre, a silly soccer game with Mario characters in it is going to at least spark some interest on my end. Mario Strikers: Battle League ended up delivering, but there’s a proviso. Make sure you have some people to play with, or be open to going online.
Mario Strikers: Battle League (Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Next Level Games, Nintendo EPD
Released: June 10, 2022
Mario Strikers: Battle League provides the option to play a comprehensive tutorial session with the ultra-cute Futbot mascot — and I highly suggest you do so. This game has depth.
Moving around is as simple as flicking the analog stick, and you can dash with ZR (like in most sports games such as Madden), governed by a gauge that tires you out. Shots are triggered by hitting A when you’re in the opponent’s half of the field, with an option to hold the button down and nail a perfectly timed charge shot (as a little meter fills in around a circle around your character). You can tilt the analog stick to aim, and things are forgiving enough where you can generally shoot at your own pace. When controlling an entire team you can manually swap characters with L.
Passing is done with the B button (lob passes are tied to Y), and there’s a lot of nuance to this entire system. You can opt for a quick combo pass (timed perfectly will get you faster passes), then combo shot off of a pass with a perfect button press. Offensively, you can combo an entire chain all the way into the goal. Nearly everything in Strikers has an extra layer to it, but it also works from a more streamlined casual perspective, where some players can completely ignore said layer.
When on defense (or without the ball, really) you can press or hold Y to tackle; with a charged tackle amounting to a cartoonishly glorious flying kick (or smack) to the face. Charges can be canceled, and there’s a perfect tackle timing trigger (of course). With directional dodging (R) in the mix, it’s a risk-reward system, as whiffing a tackle could leave your opponent a clear path to an open shot. Team tackles (where you can smack a teammate into another person) and character weights/resilience ratings add more wrinkles. Of course, there’s a perfect dodge that grants a small boost after nailing it: I know! The plot thickens.
I should point out that it’s worth going over everything above so you know what to expect, whether you’re a hardcore or casual sports game fan. The question is: is it fun? Absolutely! When you’re in the moment, the action itself is often nail-biting (especially when the opposing team knocks your goalie down and smacks a completely open shot against a post, then you return it, solo, and kick one in). There’s a lot of potential for “hero moves” from single players, like power-tackling an opposing player into the electric fence, then taking it to the goal on your own.
It’s super arcade-oriented, and reminds me of the golden years of NFL Blitz and its ilk. As I mentioned, you can smack Toad square in the face and slam him into a wall while he writhes in pain. Some characters just palm the ball and don’t even actually adhere to the rules of the sport. There’s items, and they’re fairly tempered in practice, with color-specific blocks for each team and rainbow blocks up for grabs by everyone (mushrooms make you faster, bombs take people out, that kind of stuff). They take skill to aim and don’t dominate the outcome of the match.
Then there’s the Hyper Strike: a two-goal-scoring super that you pick up on the field sparingly similar to a Smash Ball in Smash Bros. It takes a bit of legwork to execute (you need to do a charged shot, then line up two meters, while not getting hit in the process, then actually score the goal). It’s accompanied by an over-the-top Dragon Ball cinematic, then a dramatic in-game scene as the goalie tries to stop it from going in. Watching the same single scenes for each individual character can get repetitive, but Hyper Strikes aren’t carried out frequently enough in my games for it to really grate on me (your mileage may vary).
As far as modes and content go, Mario Strikers is a little light, depending on how many people you have at your disposal. As a party game, Strikers is ready to go out of the gate. There’s a quick battle option for up to eight players locally on a single console, as well as local wireless and online play (which supports up to two players online on the same console). All of those modes are going to offer a similar arcade experience of a single one-and-done match.
Beyond that there’s cup battles (with five to start), which is the main progression mode. There’s no real story here, and you’ll take the 10 included characters through each micro-tournament in a bid to earn coins to buy more customizable gear (which provides menial stat changes). “10 more characters are coming for free” at some point, but I really wanted a bigger roster upfront. The remaining mode is “Striker’s Club Online,” which is kind of like a league that you can participate in, well, online.
That’s really everything there is to Mario Strikers. In the modern era of bells and whistles and season passes and hyper-progression, it’ll feel light to a lot of prospective players, and refreshingly simple/non-exploitative to others. But it transcends that discussion. Even in the context of “old school arcade action,” the general lack of unlockables (especially early on) is notable. Similar to Switch Sports, you really need to be in the mindset that Strikers is a multiplayer game first, whether that’s done locally or online.
In any case, I would have liked to have seen a league mode, with a light story, to propel myself through the above “cups,” with more substantial unlocks, and the aforementioned 10 characters included in the base game. The core loop is great, but confirmed solo players should keep an eye on post-launch content and keep this in mind before picking up the game early.
For anyone who lives in a dorm, or is in a position to wrangle up a lot of friends and/or family members, Mario Strikers: Battle League is a no-brainer. Eight-player local play is a blast, especially when you consider that nearly everything is online-only these days. I was shocked that Battle League had this much going on under the surface, and the gameplay itself is enough to carry me through for quite some time.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]