A couple of hours into my time with Mario Strikers: Battle League the possibilities of the game’s gear system clicked—by gear system, I mean clothing items you unlock to upgrade the characters.
Each new bit of gear tweaks the strength, speed, shooting, passing, technique of whichever character you choose. It’s a balanced system—if you increase one stat, another stat declines an equal amount.
Before my revelation I’d wondered why anyone would bother with that kind of micro-management. There are ten players to choose from—Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Donkey Kong and so on—and rather than tweak the stats, surely it’s just as easy to choose a different player. If Donkey Kong is too slow, I could go ahead and pick Yoshi instead.
Toad is the quickest player in the game. Now I saw some potential. What if I maxed out Toad’s speed and sacrificed the other stats? Toad doesn’t need a lot of strength if none of the players can catch him, I thought. Lumbering slowcoaches like Wario, Bowser and Donkey Kong wouldn’t have a chance.
Toad would be a prime Michael-Owen-style speedster. His new speed kit involved a few choice pieces—new boots, body armour, gloves and a bulky Cyclops-esque visor/helmet combination. He looked good. At the kick-off to the next game, he ran around the ball squealing with happiness. It seemed that Toad felt as good about himself as I did. His whoops and laughter were soul-warming—joyous.
The game began. Toad was so fast he was out of control, and he seemed so catastrophically weakened by my gear choices that his lovable attempts at tackling failed abysmally—and amusingly, thanks to the tight and expressive animations in the game. He bounced off Bowser. Trying to do a slide tackle, he flew past Luigi and into the electrified wall of the arena. Electrocuted, he wailed like R2D2.
But he was the star of the team—literally the person the team had been built around. Every attempt was made to get him the ball. You could imagine the calls from the sidelines, ‘Release Toad!’ He got the ball and opened up those legs, and his pace was something else. He made some space, skipped beyond Peach—he shot, but his bad shooting technique (thanks to my gear choices) led to an easy save from the AI keeper and a quick breakaway. Bowser on the other team scored.
For a moment, Toad’s enthusiasm and his fancy new gear seemed worthless. But, at kick-off, he still warbled excitedly. He stole the ball, ran through—shot—the shot was saved—the ball was launched forwards by Peach and Bowser scored again.
To cut this intro short, a little like the four-minute match length in Battle League, it was time for reflection. I had to use Toad, and the game’s tight and hard-to-master controls a little better. So—I made sure not to over commit with my tackles. I made sure to use only the charge up ‘perfect tackle’—one of the advanced techniques—to make up for Toad’s lack of strength.
Suddenly Toad was defending much better from the front. He stole the ball again, opened up some space. He scored. One of Mario Striker’s characteristic celebration cut scenes began. Five other Toads came onto the pitch to celebrate with my cyber-looking, Owen-aping Toad. His noises were full of joy—no, full of earned joy. He was delighted. I was delighted. It was the confidence boost he needed. He became the match winner. My team, Esperanza FC, won 7-4. In his celebration animations, I felt as if I was watching a player come of age. We won 5-0 in the next game and Toad got a brace. He’d got better—I’d got better.
It was a nice passage of time in the game.
The question is, how was the rest of my experience? How good is Mario Strikers?
Mario Strikers: Battle League (Next Level Games/Nintendo) is out now on Nintendo Switch.
The Beautiful, Brawling Game
I’d never played a Mario Strikers game before. My unenlightened impression was of a game series that had never reached the addictiveness and quality of Mario Kart. It wasn’t as big a name for a reason, I thought, and surely the reason is that the Kart games are great and the Strikers games less so.
Then again, the two people I knew who had played an earlier version of Mario Strikers loved it. They used to spend hours playing each other over and over again.
So, what’s the deal?
Mario Strikers: Battle League is an arcade-style football game with equal parts sports game and beat-em up in its DNA.
As already mentioned the matches are short. The default match length is 4 minutes, but this can be adjusted to anywhere from 3-10 minutes. The gameplay is fast paced. There’s a depth to the controls that means there’s an enjoyable learning curve and a high skill ceiling for players who want to push themselves. The rules of football have been jettisoned. There are no red cards, no penalties. Winning possession in the game is a violent, and fun, Smash Bros-esque free-for-all—engaging, high-tempo madness.
On the slightly more negative side, there are very few game modes. Battle League is all about the multiplayer—another similarity to beat-em-ups. The main menu offers only three play options: Quick Battle (single console, local wireless, or online); Cup Battles (a single-player mode which might as well be considered part of the tutorial); and Strikers Club.
In Strikers Club you make your own club—give the club a name, choose a badge. You choose a kit colour, though disappointingly there are very few colour options. Therefore, unless you’re a fan of a mono-colour team, you won’t be recreating your favourite Villa/Newcastle/Crystal Palace kits here (a missed trick).
You choose one character to be the ‘Striker’. This ‘Striker’ is the only player guaranteed to be in your team in this mode. Before each match, your team is then made up of a randomised selection of three other players. The ‘Striker’ is also the only player who gets to use their gear—like Toad in the opening of the review.
I had expected Strikers Club to be a little like Fifa Ultimate Team’s Online Seasons mode. For most of my time with the game, Strikers Club was in its ‘off season’, so I wasn’t able to play the mode—until recently.
Now, having played a little, the truth is I find the mode a little disappointing.
Fifa’s Online Seasons matched you with random players, giving you a points target (of course, you win 3 points for a win, 1 for a draw) to progress up the leagues. So if you get 15 points in 10 or so games, you get promoted.
Here, it’s different. Your team is put into a randomised group. You don’t play any of these teams—over the course of the week you pick up points in every game you play, and the points are then used to determine your position in the group.
At least for now, this system seems to be encouraging you to play as many games as possible rather than giving you a competitive challenge like in Fifa. The teams who are going to do the best are the teams who play the most games.
Factor in that up to twenty people can join each club then progress seems weighted towards whoever fills up their twenty spots. Each of the twenty club members can play their own separate games to rack up points for the team as a whole. There might be a certain social aspect to this, but for me, someone who knows only one other person with the game, this mode feels a little cynical almost—a kind of ‘keep them playing at all costs’, grindy mentality.
Forgetting the game modes for a moment and focussing more on the quality of the game’s mechanics, things look much more positive.
Mario Strikers: Battle League is very enjoyable to play. The controls are easy to pick up, yet they are loaded with advanced techniques—hyper shots, perfect shots, hard-to-time dodges and so on. Players who practice and raise their skill level will quickly dominate more casual players (and it should be noted that there are clear options to ensure you play someone in your skill level). And most importantly, holding it all together, the gameplay is incredibly fun—and full of character too.
Items add some delightful chaos to proceedings. Managing these items—shells, bananas for example—requires a little tactical decision making too. A well-timed green shell can save the day as a last-ditch defensive move, or, in attack, can clear a path to attack.
Victories in the Cups and Strikers Club win you coins. The coins allow you to unlock new gear for the characters, but that seems to be it. Completing achievements also wins you coins, but apart from a little experimenting with outfits and the adjustments they make to player statistics, they don’t do anything else. Obviously, I enjoyed experimenting with Toad’s gear, but that kind of thing will only go so far, and something feels a little lacking. Maybe there’s more to come in future DLC or updates.
Graphics and Audio
It was easy to become obsessed with Toad because his animations—during the in-game graphics, or during the cartoon, anime-style hyper shot cut scenes, or during his goal and celebration cutscenes—are incredibly endearing and pretty funny. This goes for all the characters.
Generally speaking, Mario Strikers is a slickly produced game. There are hidden animations everywhere—often hilarious ones. One character’s Hyper Shot consists of a flaming, spiralling sideways tornado, and the opposition players caught in its path run around afterwards with their hair or hats on fire. The slide tackles fly in with cartoonish, but tightly controlled energy.
The game feels like it has an almost nonchalant confidence in itself. The little cut scene animations for the hyper shots are pleasingly over-the-top and kinetic. I love watching Toad’s header animation—the little tilt back of his head beforehand, the smash forwards, how the ball compresses against his head. The little look of concentration on his face the whole time.
The game looks great on the Switch—both in docked and handheld.
As a local or online multiplayer game with friends this game is absolutely perfect. The game captures the famous Mario brand of fun well and translates it into a deep, satisfying football experience that is one of the most enjoyable multiplayer games on the Switch. If this sounds like something you’d be able to take advantage of, then the game is an easy recommendation.
The other side to that coin is there aren’t that many game modes, and beyond multiplayer with friends the experience doesn’t have that much more to offer. Finishing the initial cup mode unlocks a harder ‘Galactic’ mode—which may or may not appeal to you depending on how much you enjoy playing sports games against the computer.
Then, with a Nintendo Online Subscription (you need this for any of the online modes), you have the aforementioned Strikers Club. Whether this mode will provide more depth than I experienced in my short time with it, only time will tell. If forming a club with friends and grinding out points sounds like fun to you then your opinion may well differ to my own.
Whether this game is for you, again, depends on whether you’re looking for a competitive multiplayer arcade-style game. If that’s for you then Mario Strikers: Battle League has plenty to offer.
With its fun presentation—and the good time I had with Toad as my star striker—along with its satisfying gameplay and deep controls, Mario Strikers: Battle League gets the Thumb Culture Gold Award.
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.