Football is considered the most beautiful sport in the world. There is an elegance to the way players pass, score and celebrate during their time on the pitch. While Mario Strikers: Battle League may share foundational DNA with its real-world inspiration, it focuses more on brutality than beauty.
The setup for Battle League is simple: Players choose from familiar suits of Mario, Luigi and the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom, assembling teams of four controllable characters and an AI goalkeeper. From there, you descend into customizable arenas in front of rowdy fans and battle it out for soccer domination.
At times, Battle League feels more aligned with the sport of fighting than with football. There are no rules; Crush the enemy whenever you can. Kick them into the electric fence. Hit the shells and banana peels on them. Use whatever brutal strategy you find appropriate. As a competitive individual, I found the chaotic gameplay thrilling, and I loved learning about the characters from match to match.
While the game doesn’t shy away from being a brutal bloodbath, Mario Strikers also rewards you for using these mechanics with skill and strategy; Every move on the pitch has consequences. It is a powerful way to disrupt the enemy team and secure the ball, but it also results in the opponents grabbing an item from the crowd. If you miss a tackle and the opposing player dodges at the right time, they get an increase in speed and their chances of scoring. The amount of strategy in Mario Strikers surprised me, but at the same time kept me busy as I learned the best ways to score goals and come out victorious.
There’s no symbol of that strategic dance better than Hyper Strikes. These stylish two-point shots are earned through on-field orbs and can overtake your opponent’s goalie if your timing is right. There is a risk, however, because mishandling the sequence could cause the opposing goalkeeper to block your shot, or worse, open you up to opportunities for tackle and breakdown from the enemy team. While the scenes are engaging and fun at first, I found myself wishing I could leave them and get back in the game. Still, these moments are exhilarating, leading to pure euphoria or crushing defeat in the blink of an eye.
While strategy is essential on the pitch, team composition is almost as important in pregame, and each of Nintendo’s iconic characters has specific areas where they excel. Bowser may be slow, but he is an expert shot. Donkey Kong specializes in power and hitting people with the ball. Todd speeds up the field in no time. Especially on a higher difficulty, it’s essential to have a balanced team when fighting against what the opposing squad throws at you. Many times I got burned for loading up on shooters who struggled with passing, and I paid for it when opponents stopped and scored the ball. The need for this balance entails experimenting with characters I wouldn’t normally choose and giving meaning to my casual matches as I learned who best suited my play style.
Once you’ve found a team you enjoy, it’s essential to harness the gear and enhance its best features. Coins earned from matches can be spent on equipment, depending on how each character is controlled. These stat boosts come at a price, however, as each buff in one category brings down the other. At first, I largely ignored the gear system, but the more the challenge went on, the more joy I was finding in passing and shooting boosts as I delved more into the various modes of Battle League.
Those are the ways Mario Strikers lose their shine – save for one exception. The single-player experience comes from Quick Battle solo sessions and cup battles. The first is your standard match, while the latter is a tournament where players move up a bracket and compete for huge sums of trophies and coins. Cup battles were more enjoyable than standard quick battles, as I knew I was working towards more rewards. The problem is with little difficulty in scaling up and teams being tailored to a specific specialty, cup battles are no different from standard matches. Sure, they were enjoyable, but I found that they were helping me learn the sport, and not present quite a challenge – aside from the sometimes competitive championship rounds.
While the other modes offer a lot of fun, the real highlight is the Strikers Club. This new mode allows you to bring your unique character and create a soccer league with friends and the community. As the club owner, you can explore many features, such as naming your own league, creating your jersey, and even designing the field. Some of these customization options are only unlocked by spending tokens earned from matches in Strikers Club, which comes as a minor disappointment to those only looking to explore the single-player mode. Still, I enjoy the increased sense of competition in online play, and I’m excited to continue building my club and experience a full season with a group of friends as time goes on.
For those looking for more of a challenge, quick battles have tougher difficulty. But it is not for the faint hearted. If you overturn the ball or miss a tackle, computer players are harassing you and you will have to pay almost any moment. I welcomed the added difficulty as I could walk through previous cup battles, but it exposed some of the game’s more frustrating AI.
At times, my goalkeeper looked like Tim Howard in his prime, blocking everything near him without breaking a sweat. Other times, he would let in the weakest shot from a corner and enraged me. The same can be said of computer teammates, who usually did a good job in scoring and defending positions, but then bounced a ball smoothly, allowing the other team to score easily. I make a lot of mistakes that cost me during a match, but nothing was more frustrating than when I was at my best Messi effect, only costing me a game for one of my AI teammates .
Mario Strikers: Battle League may not be the ultimate version of the world’s most popular game, but its strategic matches, fun online mode, and energetic animations make for an enjoyable experience. While the single-player crowd might find the game a little lackluster, Nintendo’s return to the pitch is bound to create similar winning heights, and Friendship Ends is known for the company’s suite of other party titles.