There are no referees in Mario Strikers: Battle League Football, thank God. Within minutes I had performed a flying kick on every single opponent in the face, and in learning about the Hyper Strike, set fire to an entire team of Blue Yoshi’s who ran around screaming while their Boom-Boom goalkeeper tried to steadfastly hold his ground and keep the ball out of the net. Like me when it came to the multiplayer, he failed. As did Luigi when I caned him into an electric fence that surrounds the arena. I didn’t know, Luigi… I didn’t know.
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This is football in name only, really. Nintendo’s third attempt at bringing this particular sport into Mario’s world takes as many liberties as possible while still making it recognisable as actual football, and it’s all the better for it. Over the years Nintendo has seemingly relaxed when it comes to putting its character into more adult situations (see: Mario’s nipples in Super Mario Odyssey, but also, don’t) but I have to confess that the sheer violence on show in Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is next level.
Fans of a certain age will remember the famous “Cantona” kick being replicated in another game, but here that’s just a standard charged tackle. You will slide on a tap of the “Y” button, but hold it down and you’ll unleash a full-on karate kick at the player you’re facing, whether they’re friend or foe. You can knock them shitless, or you can boot your own teammate in the back to do a sort of supercharged “tackle” that gives you extra reach: essentially kicking your own friend up the arse to gain an advantage.
Players will use all of their Mario-ness and break the rules to win the game at all costs. Donkey Kong doesn’t even use his feet, he just throws the ball wherever you tell him to. Comic effect aside, the supercharged tackle is actually an important tactical element that, even based on a few hours of play, left me wondering about the longer term future of Battle League Football. There are lots of smaller ideas here that casual players won’t touch (and won’t need to), but there’s depth that took me by surprise.
For example, you can manually pass the ball. That sounds like a small thing, but in a ferociously fast-paced arcade version of football that encourages you to ping the ball around with a combination of ground and lobbed passes, resulting in a powerful shot on goal, it’s interesting to be able to manually commit to a “through-ball” and take your opponent by surprise. It’s a little fiddly, asking you to hold a button and select a location with a cursor while still maintaining possession of the ball, but speaks of a competitive depth for those willing to master it.
The combination passing performs better if you time it well. There are charged shots, sprints, off-the-ball dodges, and everything else you’d expect from this type of experience, but reflecting on playing it I keep coming back to how intricate and deep it could turn out to be, with some skills being akin to a fighting game parry. Again, master it and you’re going to dominate; so let’s hope there’s solid matchmaking for the online components.
Then there’s the Hyper Strikes. At random moments, glowing orbs will appear on the field of play. Grab one and your entire team will be powered up. Then, holding the shoot button in your opponent’s half will charge a shot and bring up a mini-game that swings a meter from left to right. Nail it well enough and you’ll perform a Hyper Strike. The keeper can stop it if you don’t manage perfect timing, but it’ll require the opposing player to hammer a button to fill a bar to keep the ball out of the net.
Before that, however, is the animation for the shot, and this is how my Mario ended up burning the entire team of Blue Yoshis. They had all gotten back in the penalty area to try and defend, you see, and the fallout of Mario’s Hyper Strike left a pool of fire which, well, you know the rest. The keeper (always Boom Boom) actually saved the day, but I feel Mario’s message was clear: you play with fire; you’re gonna get burned.
In case the message isn’t coming across loud and clear: Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is seriously enjoyable. It’s fast and exciting, violent and funny, and when paired up with friends it suddenly matters, and if the noise from the rest of the room was anything to go by, my opponent and I certainly weren’t the only ones who felt this way.
If there’s an early criticism to level at Mario Strikers: Battle League Football, it’s with the Hyper Strikes. Against CPU controlled oppositions, it’s not really an issue, but this move can be interrupted when you’re pulling it off. I’m not sure I have the solution other than to say it needs to be able to happen quicker, because in multiple matches against a real person, neither one of us were able to pull it off; each time being tackled before we could get the mini-game completed.
If scored, these count as two goals, so it’s important they aren’t too easy to execute, but they currently feel like you need more time and space than the pitch actually allows for. The frantic nature of the overall experience is doubled when you’re “powered-up” as it doesn’t last long, so it’s a rush to find the time and space to try and get a Hyper Strike away.
It also remains to be seen if it becomes too chaotic when there are eight people all playing at once. With power-ups involved (red and green shells, bob-ombs, banana skins, mushrooms) there can be a lot going on at once. And of course there’s also the all-important netcode to dig into, because if this doesn’t run well online, it’ll be a travesty.
How feature-packed Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is upon launch is another question that needs answering. There’s a gear system that lets you spend coins (earned through play) to unlock new equipment for whichever characters you want. Toad and Donkey Kong have some spectacularly stupid looks, and I’m absolutely here for it. Especially Toad’s helmet. You have to see it to believe it.
These gear items adjust the stats of the characters. DK and Bowser are the heavies, with speed characters, all-rounders: the usual Mario Sports or Kart-fare, really. It’ll be interesting to see how much customisation there is in the finished game, but again, early impressions are that it could add more depth to an arcade sports title that already seems to be flaunting how many ways there are to play.
It’s early days for Mario Strikers: Battle League Football, but when you come away from a few hours of play wanting more, it’s usually a positive sign. We’ll know soon enough, but this is already shaping up to be one of the best sports titles Nintendo and developer Next Level has turned its hands to. Fingers crossed it’s not just an opening day smash and grab, and is here for the long haul.
Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is out exclusively for Nintendo Switch on June 10, 2022.