Soccer is considered by many the world’s most beautiful game. There’s an elegance to the way players pass, score, and celebrate during their time on the pitch. While Mario Strikers: Battle League may share foundational DNA with its real-world inspiration, it focuses more on brutality over beauty.
The setup for Battle League is simple: Players choose from the familiar suite of Mario, Luigi, and the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom, assembling teams of four controllable characters and an A.I. goalie. From there, you descend into customizable arenas in front of rowdy fans and duke it out for soccer supremacy.
At times, Battle League feels more aligned with a fighting game than soccer. There are no rules; pulverize the enemy whenever you can. Kick them into electric fences. Shoot shells and banana peels at them. Utilize whatever brutal tactics you see fit. As a competitive person, I found the chaotic gameplay enthralling, and I loved learning the ins and outs of characters from match to match.
While the game doesn’t shy away from being a brutal bloodsport, Mario Strikers also rewards you for using these mechanics with tact and strategy; every move on the pitch has consequences. Tackling is a powerful way to disrupt the enemy team and secure the ball but also results in opponents getting a chance to nab an item from the crowd. If you miss a tackle and the opposing player dodges at the right time, they get a speed boost and increase their chance of scoring. The amount of strategy in Mario Strikers surprised me but also kept me engaged as I learned the best ways to score a goal and reign victorious.
Nothing epitomizes that strategic dance better than Hyper Strikes. These stylish two-point shots are earned through on-field orbs and can blast past your opponent’s goalie if your timing is right. There’s a risk, though, as mistiming the sequence allows opposing goalies to block your shot, or worse, opens you to tackles and breakaway chances from the enemy team. While the scenes are flashy and fun at first, I found myself wishing I could skip them and return to the game at hand. Nevertheless, these moments are exhilarating, leading to pure elation or crushing defeat in the blink of an eye.
While strategy on the pitch is essential, team composition in the pregame is almost as important, and each of Nintendo’s iconic characters have specific areas where they excel. Bowser may be slow, but he’s an expert shot. Donkey Kong is adept at strength and knocking people off the ball. Toad speeds down the field in no time. Especially on a greater difficulty, keeping a balanced team is imperative when countering what the opposing squad throws at you. There were plenty of times I got burned for loading up on shooters who struggle with passing, and I paid for it when the opponents intercepted the ball and scored. This need for balance forced experimentation with characters I wouldn’t normally pick and gave meaning to my casual matches as I learned who best fit my play style.
Once you find a team comp you enjoy, utilizing gear and boosting its best attributes is essential. Coins earned from matches can be spent on equipment, affecting how each character controls. These stat boosts come at a cost, though, as each buff to one category brings down another. At first, I largely ignored the gear system, but the steeper the challenge got, the happier I was having boosts in passing and shooting as I delved further into Battle League’s different modes.
Those modes are where Mario Strikers loses a bit of its luster – save for one exception. The single-player experience comes from Quick Battle solo sessions and Cup Battles. The former is your standard match, whereas the latter is a tournament where players move up a bracket and vie for trophies and larger sums of coins. Cup Battles were more enjoyable than the standard Quick Battle, given I knew I was working towards more rewards. The problem is, outside of the slight difficulty scaling and teams being tailored around a specific attribute, Cup Battles aren’t all that different from standard matches. Sure, they were enjoyable, but I found they were helping me learn the game more than posing a considerable challenge – aside from the occasional competitive championship round.
While other modes offer plenty of fun, the real highlight is Strikers Club. This new mode allows you to bring in your unique character and form a soccer league with friends and the community. As the club owner, You can explore many features, such as naming your own league, creating your own jerseys, and even designing the field. Some of these customization options only unlock by spending tokens earned from matches in Strikers Club, which comes as a small disappointment to those looking only to explore single-player modes. Still, I relished the heightened sense of competition I felt playing online, and I’m excited to keep building my club and experience a full season alongside a group of friends as time goes on.
For those looking for more of a challenge, there’s a hard difficulty in Quick Battle. But it’s not for the faint of heart. Computer players are smothering and will make you pay at almost any moment if you happen to turn the ball over or miss a tackle. I welcomed the extra difficulty since I could waltz through previous Cup Battles, but it exposed some of the game’s more frustrating A.I.
At times, my goalie looked like Tim Howard in his prime, blocking everything near him without breaking a sweat. Other times, they would let in the weakest shot from one of the corners and cause me to erupt in anger. The same can be said of computer teammates, who generally did a good job getting into position to score and defend, but then let a ball daintily bounce off them, allowing the other team to score with ease. I make plenty of mistakes that cost me dearly during a match, but nothing was more frustrating than when I was doing my best Messi impression, only for one of my A.I. teammates to cost me a game.
Mario Strikers: Battle League may not be the ultimate version of the world’s most popular sport, but its strategic matches, fun online modes, and energetic animations make for an enjoyable experience. While the single-player crowd may find the game a bit lacking, Nintendo’s return to the pitch is bound to create the same triumphant highs, and friendship-ending lows the company’s suite of other party titles is known for.
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