Mario Strikers: Battle League marks a return of a much-loved series. The GameCube and Wii Strikers installments garnered a lot of affection from those who played them, bringing a different sort of feel to Mario sports than the Camelot, Namco and Square Enix entries. It hits hard! It focuses on competition! This formula makes even more sense now, as Nintendo’s modern era amps up a focus on intense versus play.
Still, we can’t help but feel disappointed by Battle League, and for many of the same problems that have plagued Nintendo’s sports releases in recent years.
In Battle League, you play “Strike,” which is officially not soccer but unofficially very much soccer. You play 5-on-5, with automated goalkeepers and a four-character team of your choosing. Because it’s Mario, there are power-ups and items like mushrooms and shells! And collecting a special shiny energy ball called a Strike Orb gives you a super-powered shot, but you need to create space and time to get through several meters to pull one off.
Mario Strikers: Battle League’s marquee addition is the gear system. This allows you to tweak character stats slightly, angling them toward a particular play style. It’s a zero-sum system, so this gear doesn’t have a huge effect on gameplay balance! Still, we found it helpful to specialize, tanking a stat we weren’t using to boost others. Our Donkey Kong build, for example, has neither style nor grace as we lowered his technique and shooting to make him a swifter, stronger defender. Our Toad, meanwhile, already had no business tackling anyone, so boosting speed and shooting at the cost of further strength reductions felt beneficial.
The easiest thing to notice about the game, though? This thing is barebones. Like Mario Tennis Aces and Mario Golf: Super Rush before it, Battle League delivers a minimum viable product, hoping post-launch updates can keep it afloat with new characters and such. For now? There’s not a lot outside online competitive play. There are a series of offline “tournaments” to play, each featuring teams with gear that weighs attributes toward a single stat. The reward: coins, which can be used to unlock gear items yourself. There’s not a lot to it, and the double-elimination approach feels like it’s there to make it feel more “esports-like” rather than any gameplay purpose.
Online play in Mario Strikers: Battle League is largely club-based. You’re meant to join a team and play together, but you can just make your own solo club if you wish too. Succeeding earns you currency to customize your club. If you get heavily invested in this, that could be cool! But we’re not sure Battle League does a particularly effective job at pulling you in. It’s a shame, really. With better matchmaking, getting better at Strikers could become a Rocket League-like rewarding grind, learning to play your role. We think we’d enjoy really diving into becoming a good Sweeper DK! But matchmaking needs to let you play as part of a four-person team without assembling all of them yourself.
Perhaps the simplest problem for the game to remedy is its constant disruption. This isn’t new to Battle League, as it largely weighed down Charged! But a simple option to auto-skip celebration scenes and shorten special-shot animations would do a lot to keep players in the game. As it is? The pacing is an issue.
Still, we’ve enjoyed playing! That’s because Battle League retains the signature gameplay. It’s fun to tackle and dodge. It’s fun to use special items to create space for special shots. And it’s fun to gather with lots of friends and play action-packed soccer, as it’s been since the Nintendo World Cup days.
Mario Strikers: Battle League is available now on Nintendo Switch.