Mario and his friends have moonlighted across different sports for many years, but it's been a whopping 15 years since the Mushroom Kingdom's most recognizable names stepped onto a soccer pitch. Next Level Games has clearly missed the experience as much as anybody else, which is why the team is back for the third entry in this specific Mario sports franchise. While the core experience is as much fun as ever and a blast to play with friends, unfortunately there's a lot left to be desired with Battle League, which takes a few steps back from 2007's Mario Strikers Charged.
Back on the pitch
For those too young to remember the original Mario Strikers games or those who haven't played them in over a decade, this is Nintendo's take on 4v4 soccer with a few noteworthy exceptions. The biggest ones are that there are no fouls and the ball cannot go out of bounds. That leads to brisk sessions with few stoppages in play. Since games aren't divided into halves, most sessions will only take a few minutes.
Even with a distinct arcade style at work, soccer fundamentals are heavily at play. The keys to scoring include passing the ball back and forth, trying to lob a pass above defenders, dodging incoming opponents, and finding an opening to fire a strike against the goalie Boom-Boom. Teams on defense are focused on trying to intercept passes and tackle opposing team members into the electric fence along the walls. The controls are exceptionally easy to grasp with the only main issue being that it's hard to read an individual character's stamina. I had a few instances where I wanted to go for a tackle, only to find out that my character was out of gas.
Given that this is a Mario game, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the typical array of wacky items are available. Teams can pick up shells, banana peels, Bob-Ombs, Stars, and other items to add a degree of chaos. Battle League does a good job of integrating these items without having them feel like they totally take over the game. Shells are a tool for victory, not the direct cause of it.
In addition to that, the Super Abilities from Charged are no more. This leads to arguably a fairer, albeit less chaotic, soccer session. I personally appreciated the game being decided more on the fundamentals, but fans' mileage will vary on this change. Of course, there is still one key idea from Charged still in place and that's the Hyper Strike, formerly the Mega Strike. Hyper Strikes are a fun mechanic that take some work to pull off and reward players for finding an opening with a potential momentum-turning maneuver. While Hyper Strike goals count for two, they never feel unfair just because there's a good amount of effort that has to go into them to make these shots pay off.
I've enjoyed nearly every session of Mario Strikers: Battle League that I've played. The best I can say about it is that it's left me wanting more, which does leave me a little disappointed by the overall package that Nintendo has put out. Given that every Battle League session is 4v4, only having 10 playable characters doesn't lend itself to a lot of variety. This is especially the case given that Next Level has tossed out the Sidekick system from Charged.
Likewise, the arena selection for Battle League feels noticeably smaller than previous Strikers games. One idea that this new game has going for it is that both captains will pick an arena and the stadium will turn into a hybrid of the two selections. Unfortunately, the stadium itself is just window dressing. There are no unique elements or gimmicks at work, which take a lot of personality out of this aspect of the game. It's possible to upgrade each arena by spending in-game currency earned over the course of single-player and online sessions, but again, it's all just for show.
Speaking of currency, that's mainly going to go towards the new gear system. Players can spend coins on new pieces of gear, which do go a long way towards making characters look a little bit cooler. Unfortunately, unlike stadiums, this is not just window dressing. Gear will actively affect one stat at the expense of another, so anybody who wants to dress a certain way will have to take the stat advantages and disadvantages that come with that fresh new look.
It's not often that I walk away from a Mario sports title feeling like I played something basic, but Mario Strikers: Battle League feels just like that. It feels like a more limited package than what Next Level had put out with the series in the past. It's not unplayable by any means, far from it. In fact, I enjoyed myself immensely and found the current game to be suited well to short sessions. The online component had a few lag spikes in my time with it, but it wasn't outright broken, which means I'll probably find myself playing over the internet against strangers on more than one occasion. Even better, co-op partners can dive into online sessions on the same Switch. It might even be worth trying the new Strikers Club feature, which allows friends to get together to try and progress through the multiplayer ranks together.
However, the biggest downside to Battle League is that there just isn't more to it, because we've seen that Next Level is capable of delivering more. Even if there are DLC characters coming down the road (Daisy fans, I hope you don't think I forgot about you), it won't fix the relatively low number of items, the gimmick-free stadiums, or the lack of substantial unlockables. This package could and should be so much better than what it is.
As it is, Mario Strikers: Battle League isn't the World Cup of Nintendo soccer that fans were probably hoping for. Instead, it's merely an average Sunday game that's playing on Univision: good for a few hours of entertainment and little more than that.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch digital code provided by the publisher. Mario Strikers: Battle League will be available for Nintendo Switch on Friday, June 10 for $59.99 USD. The game is rated E10+.
Mario Strikers: Battle League
- Strong fundamental arcade soccer
- Sessions are briskly paced
- Items are fun, but don't feel unfair
- Stadium hybrids are a fun visual
- Online sessions were mostly issue-free
- Some features from Charged are scaled back or gone
- Small character roster
- Disappointing unlockables
- Can't equip gear without accepting stat changes
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Mario Strikers: Battle League review: Soccer riot