Mario Strikers: Battle League Review — Yellow Card
After I scored my twelfth goal of the match in Mario Strikers: Battle League, I just started feeling sorry for the opposing team. They couldn't possibly know that I'd found a small exploit in the shot system, and their baffled keeper wasn't aware.
Color me surprised when I swaggered into Galactic Mode's challenges and could barely keep the ball, and my keeper apparently forgot how to play. The match dissolved into a mess in the best possible way.
Those two scenarios are indicative of Battle League as a whole. It's a mismatched, unbalanced experience that falls short of its potential, which is particularly disappointing given how strong that potential is. At Battle League's core is a smart, tactical soccer game that rewards quick thinking, even more so if your plans fall apart and chaos reigns. It's a shame there's so little personality and even less to do in the game.
Mario Strikers: Battle League Review — Yellow Card
Mario Strikers Battle League opens with no fanfare and a massive tutorial. The latter is very welcome since Mario Strikers is surprisingly complex and multilayered. Unless you've played the earlier Strikers games religiously, the tutorial is almost mandatory and does an excellent job easing you into the action.
The former lack of fanfare is a bit more complex. Back in the old days on the GameCube, the first Mario Strikers framed the Mushroom Kingdom's sudden obsession with soccer as a set of friendly competitions between characters. It made sense that Daisy suddenly rolled up one day and challenged you to a duel on the field, and it was just a small extra layer of fun.
Battle League immediately thrusts you into the main menu with a set of cups or quick battle options. Sports games don't need narrative framing, obviously, but the lack of it in Battle League highlights a bigger problem with the experience: It just doesn't feel like a Mario game.
It's also pretty barren. Mario Golf Super Rush launched similarly, without a decent-sized stable of characters or rotation of courses. However, it still had the sense of fun that characterizes Mario games – using fireballs to slow opponents down or smacking golf balls off a giant mushroom.
Battle League doesn't have anything like that. Sure, there's a (small) selection of Mario power-ups to use on the field, but it almost feels perfunctory, and there's not much variety in how they perform. Shells smack into friend and foe alike, interrupting their progress and making them lose the ball. Bob-ombs blow up after walking a few steps, affecting friend and foe alike by interrupting their progress and making them lose the ball. And, well, you get the point.
Items are more useful in Galactic Mode, but you typically rely on tackles and clever passing more often.
One of the most significant issues is the lack of playable characters. You build a team of four players from a roster of eight – and most of them overlap roles. Three are power characters, two are hybrids, meshing technique and passing, one's speedy, and the other two are all-rounders. There just aren't many team-building options, and the characters themselves are strangely flat on the pitch. Even with the sometimes-relevant hyper-strike animations, the most personality they show is when you shove them into an electric fence.
The original Strikers could hardly win awards for dynamic pitch design, but the fields at least change in each match – grass, wooden floors, and so on. Battle League has a good idea of mashing two Mario-themed stadium types together. The camera angle during the match means you never actually see them, so it's the same setting each time.
The core of Battle League works, at least, and it works quite well. You settle into a rhythm of strategic tackles, risky trick shots, passing combos, and trying to land a perfect shot after a few matches.
There's a surprising amount of room to experiment. Battle League is at its best when matches devolve into a mad scramble for ball control, with everyone shoving everyone else into the fence. This all happens as you try to pull off a desperate shot that, against all odds, actually makes it in the goal.
These moments happen fairly often. Even though the AI keeper has a weakness for letting perfect shots in, the challenge is positioning yourself to charge and fire off that shot, to begin with. For as many matches as I almost flattened the opposing team, there were just as many that could have gone either way. Swapping your tactics on the fly and doing everything you can to win helps Battle League rise above some of its more noticeable issues, if only because it's so absorbing.
The problem is there's just not much reason to stick with it. Quick battles are a decent way to spend five minutes here and there, but with few unlockables and no additional modes, stadiums, or characters, there's not much reason to spend any more than that.
It seems like Nintendo is probably assuming most players will stick around for online battles and matches with friends. These are a refreshing change of pace from challenging AI teams, though the usual issues with Nintendo's online multiplayer pop up here as well. The best way to play online is definitely with the Switch OLED and an ethernet connection. Otherwise, lag tends to plague matches at random, even with a good wireless connection and strength.
Mario Strikers: Battle League Review — The Verdict
- Smart, strategical action.
- Challenging Galactic Mode.
- Chaotic fun.
- Tiny roster.
- Few modes.
- Shaky online support.
- Surprisingly lacking in personality and design flair.
I hope Mario Strikers: Battle League can get better. It deserves to be better. The actual soccer matches can be riotously fun, despite lacking much personality and ignoring pretty much everything that gives Mario sports spinoffs their unique identity.
Maybe Nintendo will continue supporting Battle League with future DLC, though I think I'd prefer it if the next Mario sports game launched with all its content intact, especially if the Big N still asks full price for it.
[Note: Nintendo provided the copy of Mario Strikers: Battle League used for this review.]