It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since the last entry in the popular Mario Strikers series, Mario Strikers: Battle League Football catching many off guard when it was announced back in February’s Nintendo Direct. As exciting as it was to see Mario and co. donning the Mad Max-esque outfits once again, smiles replaced with scowls and cocky glares it did beg the question, could the series still deliver after such a long hiatus?
Mario Strikers: Battle League Football despite Nintendo’s insistence that it isn’t actually football but rather a sport called ‘Strike’, is essentially… a game of football with the expected Mario twist of items and a complete absence of any sort of rules or fouls. In typical Mario sports fashion, the game opts for an arcadey take, the best way of describing it as football meets hockey, players kicking (or in some cases throwing) a ball around trying to score goals whilst being given free reign over how they can steal the ball from opponents be that lobbing red shells, laying out banana peels or simply giving them a good shoulder check into the surrounding electric fence.
Mario Strikers Battle… you know what, I’m just going to call this Battle League Football is perhaps the series most complex entry so far introducing a number of new layers to its existing gameplay. Along with the usual passing and shooting, players are now able to play through balls and dash for short periods. Tackles can now be charged up, longer waits yielding more powerful results. Not only that but these can be used on teammates in order to give them an extra shove in speed be that to reach a far-off opponent, or send them ahead with the ball giving them ample chance at getting a shot off.
Orbs meanwhile occasionally appear on the pitch offering the team who grabs it 20 seconds to pull off a Hyper Strike with one of their players. Hyper Strikes not only create unique effects like a tornado sucking in any nearby players or a spiralling trail of fire but even have the chance to score two goals instead of just the one. Of course, with such a powerful strike, this requires extra time to charge up making creating space for yourself key. If successful a golf swing-style bar will appear, better-timed button presses improving the chances of a conversion. The Hyper Strikes are a great addition that really add some real tension to the mix, players with the orb trying desperately to make some space and use their power time ticking away whilst those defending fearful and doing all they can to prevent it from happening. Concerns that they may take over the game were also squashed after a single match, the rate of orbs dropping at just the right rate.
All this means that from a gameplay perspective, Battle League Football is every bit as engaging as its previous two entries, accessible but packing more than enough depth for those that seek it and want to master it. When you have players of equal skill, matches are frantic, tense affairs that have that ‘just one more game’ power pulling you back in over and over.
New to the series is the introduction of wearable gear, your choice in attire affecting the stats of your character that include strength, speed, shooting, passing and technique. This allows players to experiment and build a team around certain stats. For example, what if Mario didn’t have to be the all-rounder he’s constantly forced to be and you could instead focus him as a speedy character? What if Rosalina was a real powerhouse, making it tougher to take her out with a tackle? It’s an interesting idea and one made all the more enjoyable thanks to the mix of helmets, chest plates and boots and their unique looks and styles.
While the game nails it from a gameplay perspective, it sadly falls short when it comes to the amount of content supporting it. The line-up of characters for example, whilst covering (most) expected heroes and villains from the Mario universe, feels incredibly light in quantity especially when lined up with Charged, that game offering twice the number (12 captains and 8 sidekicks). Sure, the gear helps give the illusion of having more variety with near-endless variations of each character, however, at the end of the day, Luigi is still Luigi however you dress him. Thus, matches tend to lack variation in team combinations from one to another, characters popping up repeatedly and oftentimes doubling up on your own. For such a wide and varied cast it’s a real disappointment being limited to the predictable line-up we have here. More characters have been promised in future updates thankfully.
Sadly Mario Strikers: Charged Football’s stadium gimmicks have also not made the return this time around, instead different environments merely offering cosmetic changes to matches. As neat as it is to see two different worlds collide forming half the pitch each, the added chaos of lightning strikes, falling Thwomps and tractors being blown across the stadium will certainly be missed. This limitation in variation and options spreads beyond just the stadiums too with Charged’s modifiers also a no-show. The reason these options worked so well in the previous game is it allowed players to add a little extra flavour to their matches keeping things feeling fresh and varied. Playing on pitches that only differ in environment is fine but leaves you wishing for a chance to mix things up every now and again.
When it comes to local modes, these too are rather sparse. Cup Battles is your single-player mode (although can also be played with four teaming up) offering six different tournaments each one featuring teams focused in one attribute like speed or playing strong passing games. Three wins and the trophy is yours. It’s a fairly straightforward mode and one let down by a lack of challenge, computers posing little threat once you’ve found your footing reflected in the clean sheet I would hold for most of my matches played. Unsurprisingly, Battle League Football truly excels as a multiplayer experience, the action fast, tense and the perfect sum of chaos to make any session a loud and taunt-filled one. Online matches have also been overall smooth during the playtests and I can’t wait to dive in more once the game’s out.
Strikers Club poses the strongest potential for those lone players seeking something a little meatier although unfortunately limited during my time playing pre-launch. Whether you create your own or join someone else’s club of up to twenty players, you’ll go up against a shortlist of opposing groups and participate in matches during week-long seasons every game awarding points based on your performance. At the end of the week, the club with the highest points gets promoted and lowest potentially relegated. It’s a neat concept and one sure to keep competition heated. As of the time of writing this review, the first season has not kicked off however the promise of seasons even having their own special rules is certainly a promising one. Between seasons, clubs are still free to participate however these are more exhibition matches.
Strikers Club allows players to customise their club name, badge and kit as well as the stadium they play in. Sounds great, however, this is where things get confusing. Matches played as part of a club earn currency toward the club itself where the owner (and only the owner) is then able to spend on upgrading the look of the stadium. This includes everything from the goal to the electric fence. That means unless you own that club you can’t edit anything. Strangely, should you leave the club, you then lose the use of its decked-out stadium. What’s even weirder is how these customisable stadiums are mainly limited to this mode, altering anything only doable through Strikers Club. This makes it feel as though the club owner is the one who stands to benefit most. It’s a confusing setup and one that’s surprising doesn’t offer an option to access offline since the gear system already does.
Much like Luigi’s Mansion 3 before it, Next Level Games continue to prove its excellence when it comes to animation. Never before has Mario and the gang radiated so much personality, their movements full of energy whilst looking silky smooth and facial expressions fun and emotive. It makes watching every goal celebration a true delight whether it’s Luigi’s little dance routine or Wario stuffing his face with a huge garlic before breathing all over the camera (gross). A shout out also has to go the Hyper Strikes, every one temporarily transforming the visuals into the jagged artwork the series has been known for. The music in the game is very heavy on the electric guitar, complimenting the edgy attitude well. Remixes of past Strikers tunes and even songs from other Mario titles are an unexpected surprise however I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the varying genres seen in Mario Strikers Charged.
Mario Strikers: Battle League Football plays a mean game of soccer, proving to be just as much fun, chaotic and satisfying as its predecessors. Unfortunately, what surrounds it is a package that feels light on content and options limiting it from reaching the dizzying heights of the series’ best. As a result, Mario’s latest sports outing is a solid goal rather than a full-blown hattrick.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo