Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is “football adjacent”. The fundamentals are there, with passing and shooting, but when you take mechanics from Mario Kart and start throwing red shells at opponents to knock them out of the way, it’s fair to say this isn’t quite “The Beautiful Game” as you might know it.
But that’s fine, because it means a wider audience can get involved. While heavy hitters like Donkey Kong and Bowser will just pick the ball up and brutishly launch it toward the goal, there’s plenty of space for characters to be quick and jink round defences with their feet. Then of course, you’ve got all-rounders like Mario and Luigi, because this is very much the tried and tested Mario Sports setup slotted into a new Mario Strikers package.
However, Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is light on modes, characters, and frankly, feels very much designed with online as the main method of playing. For cheeky readers that like to skip to a review’s score at the bottom, take a star off if you’re planning to play solo. It really is that light on content, and once you’ve been through the “cups”, which offers a variety of speed, technical and power-oriented opponents, you are going to be pretty much done aside from playing multiplayer.
But it’s fun. Oh boy is it fun. Where modern football games like FIFA have you jockeying, poking and stealing the ball for a shot at scoring, all subtlety is out of the window here. The standard tackle is a sliding one that will launch your opponent and leave them sprawled on the ground. Hold the tackle button and you can flying kick someone, and this can be used offensively as well as defensively.
While it’s great to knock the shit out of Yoshi or Waluigi just for a laugh (even when they don’t have the ball), the charged tackle serves a purpose, and is a reminder of how deep the design is here. You can, if you want to risk it, smash your own player in the back to give them a boost, allowing them to catch a striker who has made it dangerously close to your goal. It’s hard to pull off and relies on a bit of luck when it comes to positioning, but it means there’s more to learn than Strikers‘ surface suggests.
Similarly, you can perform perfect passes and shots, all of which are based on timing. There’s a dodge that, if nailed at the right moment, feels like a parry in Street Fighter. Manual passing allows you to play the ball into space rather than automatically send it to another team-mate who might be marked by the opposition. The moves are all there to allow practiced players to dominate the field at the highest level, and begs the question of how hard Nintendo will push it as a competitive sport.
It’s full of humour, with remarkable animation. Peach will cartwheel in celebration, while Wario opts to smack players with his belly or celebrate with cold hard cash. With a few friends (and maybe a beer or two) you will absolutely laugh yourself silly. That said, as with any other football game you’ll soon begin to skip intro animations and celebrations. Unfortunately, that leads onto the one major bone of contention with Mario Strikers: Battle League Football, and that’s the Hyper Strikes.
As with all of the sports-adjacent Mario games, there’s a mechanic that lets you unleash a monstrous “special” upon the other players. For this, orbs randomly appear on the field to power up your whole team for a short period of time. When powered up, performing a charged shot by holding the button down enacts a quick-time mini game that enables the Hyper Strike to fully power up – but there are multiple issues with this.
Firstly, if you’re successful in pulling off a Hyper Strike, you cannot skip the animation. These are lengthy (comparatively to how long a match is) and with only ten characters on offer in a 4v4 match-up, you’re almost guaranteed to see the same animations every other game or so. The second issue with the special moves is that they are incredibly difficult to pull off against real people.
With a Hyper Strike being worth two goals, you don’t want five of them going in per game. But they take so long to actually pull off, you’d have to be against a very poor player if they don’t slide into you while you’re charging, let alone when you’ve charged and are trying to nail the meter from the second stage of enacting the strike.
Then there’s the goalkeepers. If someone does successfully pull off a Hyper Strike, you can keep it out by mashing the “A” button to fill your own bar, and it’s rare to see one not saved. You have to nail the mini-game perfectly to ensure a goal, but if you don’t do this, it’s almost guaranteed the keeper will save it. How hard this is to do depends on the technique level of the character you’re controlling.
There’s always talk about the “meta” of online games, but after a week it would be a shock to see people even trying to use the special moves, when you could score a curler or lobbed shot by simply charging up and flicking the left stick instead. This is a Mario title, and it’s hard to see people picking a character because of higher technique over their favourite Mario characters.
Rather than speculate, let’s talk gear. You can equip gear that is both hilariously cosmetic but also enhances the archetypal deficiencies. When going to the online clubs mode, you can select a striker to “main” (you can change it later) and spend earned coins on the 5-6 pieces of available gear for each part of your online avatar. This might mean Toad gets +2 strength from his helmet, but it can also cost -2 to his speed. It’s early days, but the gear seems to counteract itself and requires careful studying to ensure you’re not buffing with one piece, then debuffing with another. So yes, you can enhance technique, but it will diminish something else.
None of these gripes stop Mario Strikers: Battle League Football from being some of the most fun you’ll have with a multiplayer title this year. Whether you’re playing against housemates, family, online friends, or getting deep into the competitive mines with a club that’s serious about climbing the rankings, it’s a brilliant, fast-paced way to spend some time.
Yes, it’s a very slight package, but in terms of the on-the-pitch action, it’s been well worth the 15 year wait, and seeing Donkey Kong smash one in with his hands when you’re 3-2 down never gets old. Let’s just hope we get the new (free) characters and stadiums quickly.
While the lack of single player content is a bit of a downer, but Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is a robust, hugely enjoyable, weird and wonderful multiplayer experience on the pitch, which let’s face it, is where it matters.
- Fast-paced action
- Terrific animations
- Deeper than expected
- Not much for solo players
- Some irritating unskippable animations mid-match