Mario Strikers: Battle League revives Mario’s long-dormant soccer-inspired spinoff series in vibrant, energetic fashion. It doesn’t go above and beyond to deliver a new or definitive take on videogame soccer—let alone soccer featuring everyone’s favorite plumber-turned-doctor-turned-athlete—but does take pride in the series’ legacy by embracing everything that made previous games great.
Mario sports spinoffs generally fall in the dips and lulls of the Switch era, populating the months in between the games most likely to crack 10 million copies sold—the Zeldas, Pokemons and Mario Karts. It’s a smart strategy that hinges on the simple fact that Mario sells, no matter what form he takes, be it a party game, sports game, a kart racer or even a tactics game. The insidious truth of this timing is that it allows Nintendo to publish games that feel content-bare at launch, only to add free downloadable content and updates to the game just in time for the holiday shopping season.
Saving character reveals and other free updates as post-launch treats is almost always a safe bet. It makes for great Nintendo Direct filler and always generates buzz on social media. People buying the games for their kids might see the promise of free content and jump at the idea, especially those tired of breaking out a credit card to buy more V-Bucks every time a new Spider-Man costume gets added to Fortnite. That strategy’s served Nintendo well since the original Splatoon launched back in 2015. Since then, they’ve embraced this games-as-service model with an overwhelming amount of their multiplayer output, yielding launches with varying degrees of gameplay depth and breadth of content.
Battle League keeps the same pace. Its roster is small compared to the gargantuan likes of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and only really has one gameplay mode with only a few minor structural tweaks. Of course, the Switch adds a new layer to the equation. As with just about any other Switch game, it’s incredibly easy to flip out the Switch’s kickstand and rest it on a bar, patio table or an AC unit during a climate panic-affirming heat wave, and run a few matches with friends. While I wish it better accommodated just how hard it can get to keep track of what’s actually happening on such a small screen, Strikers plays like a charm otherwise. Technical or visual bugs, skips and pop-ins are reduced to rare, unintrusive frame rate drops.
That technical polish bleeds into the airtight gameplay too. Nailing the timing on a pass into a shot on your opponent’s goal is immensely satisfying—and rewarding. Every aspect of play feels as fun as the last; defensively diving at your opponents as they barrel towards the goal has a frantic, desperate tension to it that delivers punishing but fair interactions between offense and defense. Defense doesn’t steal the show, though. Playing offense rivals defense in hiding layers upon layers of risk and reward with timing-specific passing and shooting mechanics that incentivize players to keep the ball moving and a dodge mechanic that grants a temporary speed boost if performed correctly.
The resulting tug-of-war makes Battle League the most involved a Mario sports game has felt in a long time. That can make it a bit hard to just pick up and play casually, especially for people used to the slower, more simulation-intensive, yearly soccer offerings that highlight different elements of the sport. Unfortunately, that doesn’t absolve it from the same creative issues that plague a FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer game. Nothing highlights this better than the game’s drawn-out, dense tutorial. Considering this is a game designed with eight-player local multiplayer in mind, just sitting down to play with friends isn’t as simple as it might be in a game like Mario Party or Mario Kart.
The most pertinent nit there is to pick about Strikers is its relative lack of inspiration or uniqueness. In 2005, an arcade-style soccer game that injected a rougher edge into the previously squeaky-clean Mushroom Kingdom was a welcome departure. 17 years later, Battle League offers more of the same. It’s still comically brutal, incredibly fun and deeply rewarding to play. And naturally, it’s got Nintendo’s impeccable polish working for it.
But visuals aside, almost nothing sets Battle League apart from the original Mario Strikers or its Wii sequel, Charged. Assuming there was graphical parity between the three games, you probably wouldn’t be able to spot a difference between Battle League and either of the other Strikers games aside from the players populating the pitch. Battle League feels more like a response to fan demand for a new entry in the series than it does an opportunity to bring a new spin to the game.
Rather than the triumphant return of a fan-favorite franchise, Battle League claims its slow season spot in Nintendo’s calendar as just another sports game. If Mario Strikers saw a new release every year, there’d be a problem, but it’s been well over a decade since the last entry in the series. Yes, it’s more of the same, but when “the same” is so fun—and so hard to put down after just one match—more of the same is more than welcome, even if the game isn’t as creative or ambitious as one might hope.
Mario Strikers: Battle League was developed by Next Level Games and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Switch.
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.