REVIEW

REVIEW

Mario Strikers: Battle League

July 3, 2022

GOOD

  • Engaging arcadey mayhem
  • Ridiculously good art style
  • Great fun online

BAD

  • Slim single-player experience
  • Occasional unintuitive/punishing AI

GOOD

GOOD

Despite a significant lack of single-player fun and some other small but frustrating missteps, Mario Strikers: Battle League provides a visually stunning, madcap competitive experience that has us hooked.

For those out there that have been Nintendo fans for years, Mario-themed sports games have always been a bit of a hit-or-miss affair. Over the years, we’ve seen some absolute greats. However, between those we’ve probably seen a few too many that were maddeningly mediocre and even one or two that we now actively try to forget. Golf and Tennis were very early additions to the Mario family and while these were significant in their own right, Strikers (Nintendo-football with a twist) often stood out because of its more edgy art style and arcadey gameplay. Now, many years later, after Switch sequels for Tennis (Aces) and Golf (Super Rush), Strikers, in the form of Battle League, gets a go on the hybrid console too. So, how does it fare? Well, that depends a lot on your expectations. While Aces and Super Rush at least gave you some sort of offline single-player story mode to enjoy solo, Battle League is pretty much exclusively about multiplayer play. And while that’s understandably likely to put some off, for those that are looking for some crazy local or online footy fun – Mario Strikers: Battle League provides a visually stunning, madcap competitive experience that has me very much excited to keep coming back to, despite some minor but frustrating missteps.

The Beautiful Game

While almost all of the enjoyment you may be expecting to get from this game comes (for better or for worse) from the gameplay – I can’t help but gush about the visuals. I know the art style is not necessarily new; Both Super Mario Strikers and Mario Strikers Charged have riffed on and evolved this look with its hand-drawn, dark scribbled outlines highlighting some fierce and explosive poses and moves. However, Next Level Games have continued this awesome tradition by providing a game starring the Mushroom Kingdom gang that really stands out. I know some feel like the very polished 3D models that Mario and his pals have had in most games in recent years are feeling a little stale. I don’t actually agree, as I’m still quite fond of the clean, bright design. However, whichever side of the fence you sit on – I suspect that pretty much everyone can agree that it’s refreshing to see the art department was able to take some risks with this prized property.

I can’t help but gush about the visuals.

This energetic, almost kinetic look mesmerised me even when it was just the still marketing images we saw prior to the game’s launch. However, I’m happy to report that the game’s simple menu, fun gear changes and awesomely engaging animated scenes keep this comic-book look alive throughout the time you play. I simply loved it! And while at times seeing the same (unskippable) hypershot animation for each character can get a little repetitive – the detail and personality depicted (from Bowser’s flame-blown pitch to Wario’s garlic-laced, butt-powered strike) meant I didn’t mind too much.

Solo Soccer Sucker

Now, I realise a story mode is not what most people look for in a game like this. However, in previous Nintendo sports games (including both Aces and Super Rush), the packages included simple (often quite short) narratives that connected a series of matches together with some sort of ultimate goal. This structure not only progressively teaches you the mechanics but also means you have something to do as a single-player when not connected to the internet. So I was rather disappointed that Mario Strikers: Battle League has no similar offline story mode (of course my dismay was only heightened because it meant I couldn’t see more of the art style in action). Instead of this, you learn the mechanics in an option tutorial mode (which was available as a pre-launch demo), and as a single-player [offline] you are then only able to jump into once-off matches or compete in cup-style competitions. There are 5 standard cups which consist of your team competing against three other AI-controlled teams in a double-elimination format tournament (you need to lose two matches to be knocked out). Each time you win a cup you gain coins – the currency needed to buy gear to alter each character’s stats – and gears – the currency you need to upgrade your stadium.

The single-player AI in cups had me feeling like controlling my team was a lot like herding cats… and made me miss a simple story mode even more.

The cups are very easy to win (at least the first time around). Once you complete the set, however, a new set of cups is unlocked and there is suddenly a huge jump in difficulty; Each game becomes a punishingly difficult death match. And here is one of the areas where I believe the AI needs a little tweaking (particularly if you’re playing alone (each of these modes can be played in with friends too). In the second round of cups – while the AI of the computer team functions as a single, organised unit, swarming teammates and cutting off passing lanes, you’re left to control a single character at a time. Of course, you can switch between members of your team (a la FIFA). Unfortunately, while the switching is quick, I too often found I had switched to the incorrect character. While this isn’t a huge deal when playing with the first-round AI (or even online against humans with real-world reflexes), in the second round of cups, computer-controlled teams are lightning quick. And worse still, it seems your own non-controlled team members’ AI does not level up to keep up with the tougher opponents. And I often find myself desperately switching between players just to get them all to move ‘as one’. It feels like herding cats and really makes tackling those cups more frustrating than it needs to be – and made me miss a story mode even more.

It’s a team sport!

Now, while that may sound quite negative, the truth of the matter is: I actually can’t stop playing the game!  This game is clearly made to play with others, and when you do it really shines. Playing on the same team with a friend is a bit of a juggling act, but means you can more easily function cooperatively. And while that’s obviously fun – it’s the competitive online games where I now spend almost all of my time. You can set up a club (choosing a logo, team name, stadium etc) and then take on other clubs from around the world in a league format. Well, that is when the league is open (which, inexplicably, only happens every second week). Each club can have several members (all adding their uniquely geared character to the roster) but only a selection of those (always two in my experience) enter the 5v5 match (with non-geared generic characters making up the rest of the team). During my play through I was always just single-player club and (barring the fact that I therefore only ever one geared character – my own deadly-striking Tron-Mario – which is a bummer) I always had a load of fun taking players on from around the world in quick bursts. Sometimes I won. Sometimes I lost… very badly. But importantly I had a pretty stable online experience. So jumping into the next game was just a quick minute or two away. It was really enjoyable because each game is frantic, competitive and strategic.

In online play each game is frantic and competitive and (so far) stable.

While it clearly leans into an arcadey-styled version of football with, wildly inappropriate but immensely satisfying bone-crunching tackles, not to mention the special ability hypershots – don’t be fooled into thinking this is just a button-smashing soccer sim. Thanks to a clever combination of varied character abilities, a surprisingly deep timing-based passing and shooting mechanic and the addition of unique powerups – playing players from around the world always feels unique and engaging. Each player chooses 4 team members from a roster of 10 characters and each character has series of attributes (strength, shooting, speed etc) and depending on their size (and a little on their personality) they have higher scores on some columns versus others (Toad is super speedy, for example, while Donkey Kong is strong and difficult to bump off the ball). The gear you then unlock can alter these attributes slightly but it’s always a balancing act – adding speed, lowers strength; upping your technique stats means your shot power may take a hit. This means each team feels different not only because of who might be holding the controller on the other end but also because even if it’s a matchup featuring Luigi, Waluigi, DK and Peach on both sides – even those chracters’ in-match abilities could vary greatly.

The addition of timing for passes and special abilities means you constantly have to assess your next move. Making snap decisions about whether to risk trying to power up a hypershot (worth two goals instead of one) or taking the safer (& quicker) passing route… knowing the 4-minute timer is not on your side (not to mention an incoming barreling Bowser or randomly ricocheting green shell). Powerups will drop on your side if you’re falling behind on the scoreline and similar helpful advantages make you note how much work the team has put into keeping games competitive. While mastering all of the skills mentioned above is almost impossible at the start, the more I played the more I realised the benefits of selecting a team of four characters with different skills; Of choosing the best moment to get rid of the ball; And of when to use a red shell vs Bobomb… It’s a flow that’s great to get into and as soon as one match ended – I was enticed to keep going for ‘just one more match’. It’s really everything you want from an online multiplayer game.

An arcadey-styled version of football with, wildly inappropriate but immensely satisfying bone-crunching tackles, not to mention the special ability hypershots and surprising strategy.

Full-time whistle

Mario Strikers: Battle League is not a perfect game. In fact, if you’re hoping for a sports title with a more single-player focus, it’s probably one I wouldn’t recommend. I especially miss the story mode. I also have an issue with some of the AI and even the online club mode (while usually stable and smooth) has a weird one-week-on-one-week-off calendar that just seems to hamper the regular enjoyment of seeing your team moving up and down the league. However, since starting Battle League, I keep coming back to it. I’m a huge football and Mario fan and the staggeringly good art style keeps drawing me in. Every version of the multiplayer gameplay is great. And thanks to some surprisingly strategic gameplay and generally frantic mayhem – It’s almost all I want from an arcadey football game and I can’t wait for new content to be released.

July 3, 2022

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