Mario Strikers: Battle League is the third installment in the soccer-like Mario Strikers series, and the first entry to be released in fifteen years! Suffice to say that fans of the series had their patience tested, with a follow-up to Mario Strikers Charged being one of the more requested Mario spinoffs of the past decade and a half. While fans’ pleas for a new entry may have been answered, it comes at the expense of depth, as Mario Strikers: Battle League – while fun – lacks the substance to make a more lasting impression.
The idea of the game is simple enough: like soccer, each round of Battle League sees two teams try to get a ball in their opponent’s goal while defending their own. The team that scores the most goals within the time limit wins the match. Each team consists of four characters, plus an NPC goalie. You can kick the ball, pass it to team members, tackle opponents, dodge, pick up and use items, and perform a ‘hyper strike’ once you’ve grabbed a special orb.
It’s a simple enough setup that makes the game easy to understand, though there are a few cumbersome elements present. Notably, it often gets difficult to keep track of which character you’re currently controlling amid all the chaos of a match. You have the option of automatically switching to whichever character has the ball (you still control whoever had it last if the enemy takes the ball) or being able to manually switch character at your own pace. Although the latter option sounds more ideal on paper, I find that I can’t get used to either option, as they both end up feeling awkward. For a game that otherwise is pretty simple to pick up and play, the clunky switching between characters is a huge drawback.
On the plus side, the gameplay is otherwise entertaining. True to the Mario sports titles of yesteryear, the “Mario-ness” adds a fun and chaotic twist to the sport of soccer. Not only can you perform the aforementioned tackle (which would be an illegal move in any real soccer match) but doing so gives the other team an item box, and vice versa. The items include your usual Mario fare like mushrooms that give you a speed boost, banana peels to trip opponents, green and red shells to knock opponents down (with red shells tracking the nearest target), Bob-bombs that send players flying, and power stars to make your current character invincible for a short time. And should you grab the special orb, each character has their own hyper strike that can be charged up with timed button presses (the more accurate the timing, the more likely it is to score a goal). Goals gained with hyper strikes are worth two points, but if the enemy tackles you while you’re trying to time your shot, you lose the opportunity for the special move altogether.
Elements like this are what make Mario Strikers: Battle League fun to play. Unfortunately, the game is so lacking in other areas that it makes Battle League a game that’s best played in quick bursts, as it quickly becomes repetitive.
An interesting addition to the game is that each team chooses their half of the stadium, choosing from a handful of different themed stadium inspired by the Mario series and its offshoots such as Bowser’s Castle, Luigi’s Mansion, and a jungle out of Donkey Kong Country. It’s an interesting idea, but one that doesn’t amount to much because not only are there only a small handful of choices, but they also have no effect on gameplay. It would be nice if the different stadiums had their own gimmicks and quirks to keep players on their toes. Instead, the only differenced I noticed is that a stadium with two different halves has original music, but if both teams choose the same stadium theme you get a remix of music from the game that inspired the stadium (as a big fan of video game music, it’s a nice touch. But it doesn’t really seem like enough to justify the setup).
You’ll also find that the playable roster seems a bit thin, with ten characters in the base game: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Rosalina, Wario and Waluigi. Developer Next Level Games is slowly adding additional characters in free updates, which is fine, but it is difficult to get very excited for an addition like Princess Daisy. It’s also kind of a shame that the ‘sidekick characters’ from the previous Mario Strikers games are no longer present, which takes out a whole element from the series’ gameplay. Battle League also seems to be a victim of Nintendo’s bizarre trend of recent years of not allowing characters from the broader Mario universe (other than Donkey Kong himself) to show up. For example, the goalies in the past Strikers games were Kremlings from Donkey Kong Country. Now they’re Boom Boom from Super Mario Bros. 3. It’s not as egregious as the limitations being forced onto games like Paper Mario, but it is unfortunate to see the Mario sports titles are also falling victim to this questionable trend.
Each character has their own stats, with Mario of course being well-rounded, Bowser is your go-to powerhouse, Toad is quick on his feet, etc. This time around, you can customize the characters further. By playing the game you unlock coins, which can be used to purchase new uniform pieces for each character, which increase different attributes (at the expense of others). It’s another fun little idea that may add a little bit of replay value to the package, but it can also feel like certain uniform combinations give players too much of an advantage. That’s doubly a shame considering that this game emphasizes multiplayer (maybe to a fault), so the players with all the uniforms are given a sometimes unfair advantage. Perhaps this is an instance where the uniforms should have just been cosmetic?
Where Battle League really seems to drop the ball is in its lack of variety when it comes to game modes, particularly single player options. Granted, the online is considerably smoother than most other Switch titles are, but basic matches and tournaments are pretty much your only options. And when it comes to single player, you have basic matches against the computer AI, or a small series of cups. Though both tournaments and cups ultimately just amount to a series of the same standard matches. One reason why Mario Kart endures is because – despite being a racer – it also includes its famous battle modes, which uses the same mechanics as the racing to create a very different experience. It would be nice if Mario Strikers could do something similar and provide some greater gameplay variety with a different mode or two. With the stadiums already providing nothing different between them in regard to gameplay, the lack of variety in play styles is all the more apparent.
On face value, Mario Strikers: Battle League is a lot of fun. It brings the same chaotic energy and fast-paced action that Mario and company often bring to their sport outings, but it’s also a game that’s sorely begging to be more. Perhaps with updates, Battle League will get the depth it so desperately needs. But it’s becoming a concern trend with Mario’s sports titles on the Switch how they keep needing multiple updates just to feel like a complete game. And with how long fans had to wait for Mario Strikers: Battle League to become a reality, it’s all the more a shame that it couldn’t buck that trend and become the new MVP of Mario sports.