I love football games. Some of my earliest memories in gaming involve playing various mid-noughties FIFA entries against my brother and dad, losing almost every time. My final resort was plugging in an AFK second controller, leaving the opposition entirely idle so I could actually score.
While those days may sadly be long gone, my love for any kind of football game has never wavered. That's why the arrival of Mario Strikers: Battle League, Nintendo's arcadey spin on the sport that first debuted on the GameCube, was such an enticing prospect when announced at this February's Nintendo Direct. One of the surprise reveals in a presentation laden with new games, it was the next logical step after Mario Tennis Aces in 2018 and Mario Golf: Super Rush in 2021.
The series has lain dormant since 2007's Mario Strikers Charged on the Wii, with fans wondering whether a sequel would ever see the light of day. Luckily, the time I've spent with the latest entry proves that the undeniable charm of seeing Nintendo icons duke it out on the pitch hasn't wavered one bit. Mario Strikers: Battle League is a confident return to form that warrants the fifteen-year wait.
Hitting the Pitch
If you've spent any time with a football game, no matter how competitive or realistic, you'll know what to expect from Mario Strikers: Battle League. It's far more arcadey than its contemporaries, with combative and zippy 4v4 matches that breeze past in the four-minute default length. Of course, it's nothing like the tactical buildup of something like FIFA. Instead, you'll find yourself bombing into rival players, shooting as hard as possible, and collecting power-ups to get defenders out of the way so you can blast a shot on goal.
In that sense, it's probably the best arcade football game out there. You don't need to know your Messi from your Maldini to appreciate the simplicity of the concept. Even if you don't care for sports games at all, Battle League does enough to entice newcomers by never placing too heavy an emphasis on sporting prowess or tactical nous.
That's because the gameplay loop is very easy to get to grips with, even if matches are lightning-fast in their pace. You'll rarely find yourself worrying too much about passing to teammates, instead focusing on tackling opponents out of the way and taking well-placed shots at the Boom Boom goalkeepers. Of course, seasoned football fans can experiment with the more advanced controls, including lofted through balls and passes ricocheting off the walls to their intended destination. However, just like Mario Kart, Battle League is designed to welcome newcomers with open arms by never making itself too complicated.
It's more than just about footballing prowess though because powerups and special moves are also key to success. Random boxes will drop from the crowd sporadically throughout matches, containing anything from mushroom speed boosts to red shells that wipe out the nearest opposing player. It adds a veneer of luck, hoping you get an offensive powerup if you're a few goals behind. Alongside that is the Hyper Strike move, where you'll need to collect a special pickup before sending a supersonic blast at goal, in the hope of scoring double points.
Football games are never renowned for putting visual fidelity first, but Mario Strikers: Battle League more than looks the part. First-party Nintendo games always have a certain level of polish, and this is no different, with impressive character models and detailed stadiums, teeming with animated spectators watching the action. They sadly aren't particularly reactive to the on-field events — no cooing at a harsh tackle or celebrating a goal, for example — but there's a tangible atmosphere to each match. Combine that with a range of Mario-inspired stadium layouts, such as Mushroom Hills and Bowser's Castle, and you've got a Switch title that looks as good as anything else out on the system.
One thing that may disappoint fans is the range of characters on offer. At launch there are ten characters to choose from, which is a good amount, but lacking when compared to the Mario Kart series, for example. Notable omissions include Daisy, King Boo, and Birdo, and the lack of a character creator to add your Mii to the action seems like a missed opportunity.
That said, there are plenty of options to customise the existing roster with gear that changes your stats. You can purchase visors that boost your speed, for example, that adds a level of choice to proceedings. If you want a team with one ultra-speedy attacker and a really strong defender, you can spend your coins to collate that sort of gear. They carry over into tournament and online modes as well, so you can really hone your play style by picking a range of equipment.
Tournaments, Leagues, and More
When it comes to the modes available in Mario Strikers: Battle League, you may be left wanting slightly more. There are three main modes at launch: Quick Battle, Cup Battles, and Strikers Club. The first two are fairly self-explanatory, with quick matches to play online or offline, and brief four-match tournaments. The Cup Battles mode is surprisingly fun, and I ended up spending quite a lot of time testing myself on these tiered ladders. Each cup has a different focus, with one containing speed-boosted rivals, one focusing on strength, and so on. It prepares you for the gamut of builds available with the equipment, and the thrill of winning a final never gets old.
The biggest focus seems to be the Strikers Club mode, which seems a little like Pro Clubs from the FIFA games. You choose a character from the roster, equip them with any of the gear you fancy, and join teams consisting of other players. From there you'll compete in leagues and tournaments, with more end-of-season prizes available the higher up the ladder you are. It's certainly a mode that has a lot of promise, and is by far the most fleshed-out one in the game, but finding a match prior to launch was a bit of a challenge. It's something we'll have to consider more deeply once players get their hands on the game.
If you're more interested in single-player, or you don't plan on linking up with friends on Strikers Club, then you may be left wanting from the modes available at launch. The lack of a career or season mode is a missed opportunity, offering more longevity to the offline modes than just a single match or brief tournament. Equally, there could've been scope for a story mode, however brief - if anything, just as a more engaging way to introduce the game mechanics over the slightly laborious training sequences.
None of the game's minor problems are enough to deter from the sheer arcadey fun you'll find when playing Mario Strikers: Battle League. It confidently updates this subsection of Mario sports games for the Switch, with really engaging mechanics and a gameplay loop that never gets old. Shooting feels crisp, tackles crunch through, and the joy of slamming a goal in the back of the net is a testament to how well the gameplay functions.
The only regret is the lack of features on offer, which may leave some wondering whether to purchase at full price or wait for a sale. If you and a bunch of friends all plan on getting it then the Strikers Club will provide plenty of online co-op fun. However, those anticipating solo play sessions may not find enough in the single match and tournament options to justify the purchase just yet.
Nonetheless, it's a charming and nostalgic comeback for the Mario Strikers series that is bound to resonate with newcomers as well as those reliving those early 2000s memories. When it comes to arcade football games, there aren't many doing it better than Battle League.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A code was provided by the publisher.