Mario has always preferred sport to plumbing, but the beautiful game has been only a very occasional pastime.
Despite the obvious appeal of having the Mushroom Kingdom’s eccentric residents leathering a ball about with very little respect for the sport’s traditional rules, there have only been two football-focused Mario games to date: Super Mario Strikers on the GameCube in 2005, and Mario Strikers Charged on the Wii two years later.
It’s been 15 years, then, since Nintendo’s moustachioed mascot has kicked a ball in earnest, but that changes with the arrival of the clunkily titled Mario Strikers: Battle League Football on the Switch. Like its predecessors, Battle League Football is a very Nintendo take on football. It’s still very much a team sport in which the aim is to score more goals than your opponent, but let’s just say that VAR would have a field day with the on-field conduct of Mario and co.
Here, it’s perfectly fine to have Donkey Kong shoulder barge an opposition Toad into an electric wall to regain possession for his team, while nobody bats an eyelid if Princess Peach fires a well-aimed green shell at Wario in before lining up a shot. And we haven’t even talked about Hyper Strikes yet. Wait until you hear about those.
Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is a colourful and chaotic alternative to FIFA (or whatever it’s going to be called from now on), but is it as much fun to play, and has Nintendo given us enough content?
If you’ve either watched or played a single game of football in your entire life then the primary objective of a match in Mario Strikers: Battle League Football won’t need to be explained to you. Each team has five players, one being a (maddeningly accomplished) goalkeeper, and whoever scores the most goals wins. Simple.
When you first boot up the game it’s worth playing through the various tutorials, which first teach you basic techniques like passing, shooting, dashing and tackling, before moving onto the more advanced “perfect” variations on each, which are time-based and far more effective, as well as through balls that allow you to cut open an opposition defence with Messi-like precision. Much like 5-a-side football as we know it in the real world, games move very fast here, and you’re better off trying to move the ball around quickly to create space rather than attempting a showboating solo run. Playing someone through can be a bit fiddly, requiring you to hold the ZL button and move the stick to decide where you want to play the ball while you’re running with it, but it’s something you’ll get the hang of with practise.
The goalkeepers also happen to have Manuel Neuer-like reactions, so you absolutely need to master perfect shots if you’re going to win matches. Their usually incredible shot-stopping does mean that an occasional thunderbolt from the halfway line feels even sweeter.
Where Mario Strikers: Battle League Football deviates from real-life football is in its approach to the rules. With no referee in sight, it’s pretty much anything goes. Where in real football a late slide tackle can result in a straight red, in Mario Strikers you’re free to two-foot someone whether they have the ball or not, and while the game may be named after him, it’s perfectly legal to bash poor Mario face first into the electric fence that surrounds the pitch. Team Tackles, meanwhile, see you intentionally pushing a teammate into an opponent for an even more vicious defensive manoeuvre, where only a perfectly timed dodge move can save them. There’s no such thing as offside in the Mushroom Kingdom either.
Think that sounds like carnage? There’s more. As a match unfolds, Mario Kart-style ? Blocks will be thrown onto the pitch, which contain familiar items that give you an advantage on the pitch when used. The star makes the player in question invincible for a short period of time, while the trusty red shell is a homing missile that will allow you to pinch the ball back without even needing to make a tackle.
It’s very entertaining and consistently funny to see a player dribble directly into the banana skin you’ve just dropped, but the small pitches mean the screen can become seriously busy quite quickly, especially in handheld mode, and because you can’t really afford to take your eyes off the game itself to see what items you’re currently holding, deploying them feels more like unleashing random chaos than anything close to tactics. We also found the off-the-ball character switching to be a bit hit and miss, sometimes not letting us switch to the character nearest the opposing player with the ball at precisely the wrong time.
So it’s thumbs up for foul play and a rough-and-tumble approach that would make Stoke City blush, but it’s Hyper Strikes that really shake up football as we know it in Mario Strikers: Battle League Football.
Every now and again a glowing orb will appear on the pitch, and the first team to grab it is able to perform a special shot in the opposition box. Before initiating a Hyper Strike your aim is to perfectly time two button presses that land a moving gauge in small blue zones. Do that and the player in possession launches into the air before a superbly animated cinematic plays and they unleash their trademark Hyper Strike. If executed properly these are unstoppable and earn you two goals in one. If not, the keeper gets a chance to push the inferno-surrounded ball back into play. (Good tip: have a player standing directly in front of goal when this is happening so they have a tap-in should the ball roll out).
But all is not lost for the opposing team. When a Hyper Strike is initiated you do get a small window in which to intercept it before the damage is done, and these moves can only be performed for a limited amount of time. Manage to keep possession or at least keep the ball in their half for the duration of the countdown and they lose it.
Hyper Strikes appear just infrequently enough not to get annoying, and they can completely turn a match on its head, making for some brilliantly tense closing stages. Just as it’s incredibly satisfying to let off a perfect Hyper Strike in the dying seconds to leapfrog the other team and win the game, it’s genuinely crushing when a slow-motion interception robs you of that glory.
You might dream of a team of Toads that play like peak Barcelona, but it’s not going to happen here. In Mario Strikers: Battle League Football, it’s important to pick a mix of players with different attributes. Big bruisers like Donkey Kong and Bowser have high strength stats so are harder to knock off the ball and excel at defending. Rosalina is good in front of goal, Yoshi can pick a pass, and Mario is a solid all-rounder.
But base stats are only half the story. Winning matches earns you coins which can be used to unlock attribute-boosting gear. Put a Turbo Helmet on Waluigi and he gets a +2 speed boost at the expense of two technique points. Equip Peach with Cannon Boots and her shooting will improve, but her passing ability takes a bit of a hit.
Experimenting with gear not only allows you to put together an amusingly odd 5-a-side team that looks better suited to American football than soccer, but it can also make the difference against a higher standard of opposition. We had a lot of fun moulding Luigi into a lethal hybrid of Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero, with a horribly aggressive Gattuso-like Wario sat behind him in midfield.
If there’s a criticism to be had it’s the game does feel weighted in favour of tacklers, with a perfectly timed dodge the only real way you can evade a crunching challenge. We’d have liked a few more skill-based moves to put defenders on their backsides; Mario Strikers does FIFA Street, if you will.
Ready for the big leagues
Mario sports games can sometimes fall down when it comes to content, and Mario Strikers: Battle League Football isn’t exactly stuffed with modes, particularly if you like to play alone. As a single player, you can either jump into a quick match, or compete in series of brief cup competitions, each pitting you against teams that excel at specific styles of play.
They’re not particularly challenging on the standard difficulty once you’ve mastered the game’s various systems and mechanics, and you can easily polish them off in a weekend or so. A story mode of some kind would have been welcome, or even a few additional mini-games to bulk up the package.
Battle League’s longevity, then, is as a multiplayer game. Up to eight players can play around the TV on a single console, or two over local wireless. We didn’t manage to test the local multiplayer options, but it’s easy to imagine that this is where the game will shine brightest. Those last-minute Hyper Strikes are presumably even more delicious when you’re sat next to the person you’ve just snatched victory from.
Quick matches can be played online in pairs or on your own against another player. Nintendo opened the servers at set times during the review period and we were able to get into a few games, but lag disappointingly interfered with several of them. Hopefully this will improve when the game launches properly. We tend to think Battle League Football is more enjoyable when you control every player yourself. The action is so intimate and fast-paced that trying to work out who has the ball is confusing in a pair, but this might change when you’re able to properly communicate with your teammate.
The main draw of Mario Strikers: Battle League Football’s online component is going to be Strikers Club. Here you create your own club, with a customisable kit, crest and stadium, and bring in players to compete against other clubs in week-long seasons, climbing up the divisions when you earn enough points. You can choose who joins your club and how seriously you’re taking the competition, and there will be achievements to chase throughout the season.
This mode will obviously only come into its own when the game is available to everyone, so it’s impossible to judge how much it adds to the overall experience right now. But if you’ve got friends playing the game then Strikers Club has the best chance of keeping Battle League Football booted up on your Switch throughout the year.
Mario Strikers: Battle League Football verdict
As is often the case with Nintendo’s first-party fare, it’s little details and the game’s personality that elevate Mario Strikers: Battle League Football. Whether it’s Wario’s goading celebrations, Yoshi using his famously lengthy tongue to win the ball from an opponent, or DK deciding his oversized hands are a better bet for taking a shot at goal than his feet (shock: no handball rule here), the game’s slapstick violence and wacky cartoon vibe make it very easy to love. We also like the way the home and away team’s respective themed stadiums merge to form arenas that make the San Siro look drab in comparison.
Mario Strikers: Battle League Football can also be very enjoyable to play. There’s a nice zippiness to the way the ball moves, seeing long-range efforts (when the keeper does occasionally switch off) go in is enormously satisfying, and while an aggressive setup is usually going to pay off, there’s definitely depth to the game that will see players who put the time in rewarded. It can be hard to keep track of what’s happening when the action ramps up, but this is a party game, not a simulation – embracing the chaos is the best approach.
We wish there was more to keep solo players hooked, but Strikers Club has the potential to make Mario Strikers: Battle League Football one of Mario’s best sporting efforts to date. Already, it’s perfect for keeping you occupied during the football-less summer.
Football without rules is as bonkers as it sounds, and while Mario Strikers: Battle League Football can be overwhelmingly frenetic at times, it’s also extremely fun
Hyper Strikes add a fun twist on conventional football
Looks and sounds great
Strikers Club has the potential to be a compelling online mode
Luigi scoring an overhead kick
Not many modes, especially in single-player
Cluttered screen makes it hard to keep up with the action
We wish there more ways to avoid getting tackled
Goalkeepers are too good