Name a sport. Go on, name one. Now presumably you’ve chosen some obscure sport that Mario hasn't played because you saw where this bit was going, but that doesn’t change the fact that our red plumber chap has been in a hell of a lot of sports games. Mario Strikers: Battle League attempts to carry on the legacy of the much-beloved Strikers series, but does this third entry achieve the hat-trick we’d all love to see?
When you boot up the game you’ll be presented with various modes. Quick Battle allows you to jump into a game right away, setting the duration, how skilled the CPU is, whether or not you want items and/or Hyper Strikes to be enabled (more on those later), and whether the game should take place in the daytime or at night. This is the basic mode that most people will bust out when playing with friends, and thankfully you can do so on a single console (with up to eight players at a time), local wireless, and over that new-fangled internet that you might have heard of. If you want to play a quick game of Strikers, this is likely where you’ll go.
Then you have Cup Battles, a sort of tournament-based mode where you and up to three others on the same console are pitted against CPU teams each themed around one of each of the five stats each character possesses in the game. This definitely feels like it’s been designed as the ‘solo’ mode, but the ability to charge in with friends as well is a nice touch.
And lastly, if you don’t count training and options, there’s what we believe is the main selling point in Nintendo’s eyes: Strikers Club. This is an online mode where you can create your own club with friends or any old Joe on the internet complete with customisable name, kits, and stadiums. The kits have a decent amount of flexibility in their design, but the real meat comes in the stadiums. The pitch, the surroundings, the goal design, the fence, the decorations around the goal, there’s so much here to tweak it’s a little bit overwhelming at first.
The owner of the club has the exclusive ability to customise everything, but other members can vote on what they would like to be chosen. The owner can just completely ignore them of course, but it’s nice to see a bit of (optional) democracy at play. From this menu you can also choose to jump into matches with fellow clubmates, and interestingly you’re limited with the characters you can pick. Each member chooses a character and any gear they’d like to wear, and they are then added to the pool of available players. This feels a little bit limiting at first, but it certainly helps to push the idea that you’re really playing as a club, and even if a member isn’t online, their choice of character is still having an impact. Your club’s gear and stadium can also be used in any offline mode if you want to keep flying those particular colours despite not paying your broadband bill. Nice.
But regardless of which mode you select, what matters most is the core gameplay, and what core gameplay! The rules are largely the same as real-life football/soccer, but with no referee, limitations on what limbs can be used, and an electrified fence on the perimeter. Any character unfortunate enough to be tackled into it is stunned for a good few seconds, which is about as devastating as it sounds.
You’ll need to pass, lob, tackle (a lot), dodge (even more), and take shots at goal in order to win, and it’s nothing short of excellent. The game’s tutorial has a lot to take in at first, but the more you play the more the game’s seemingly myriad mechanics slot neatly into place and become second nature. We’re not dealing with Monster Hunter levels of complexity here, but you will have to employ all the tools in your arsenal if you want to take on anything but the easiest CPU, and once you reach this state (which shouldn’t take more than a few hours) everything just sings.
What starts off as a whirlwind of obtuse concepts melds into a choreographed dance of violence and strained relationships. Playing against CPUs is fun, and challenging, but as is almost always the case with these games, the true fun is playing against other humans. Ideally, humans that are within reach for a damned good thrashing when your Boom Boom goalie is just not pulling his flippin’ weight. A group of newbies can fire up the game and have tremendous fun immediately, but those like us that take games far too seriously will, in time, take the tech and metagame to levels we can’t yet imagine.
Indeed we spent longer than we’d care to admit totting stats, workshopping strategies, and counting frames from recorded footage to see how far we could push things. We’re miles away from reaching any kind of zenith, but it became clear just how much hidden depth Mario Strikers: Battle League holds. Every match we improved, and at every results screen we just wanted to jump right into another match; there are no stage hazards (besides that electric fence), only five items, and no variance in the stadiums besides aesthetics. In a lot of games this would be considered a bad thing, but the core experience is so strong here that we’re left with a beautifully pure and effortlessly refined sports game.
This extends to balancing as well; as previously mentioned all the characters have points in five stats, and every character’s total number of points adds up to exactly 63. Some are better at shooting, some are faster, but all of them can be tweaked effortlessly using the gear system. Is Toad too weedy to tackle opponents effectively? Slap enough of the right gear on him and he’ll be tossing Bowser aside like tissue paper.
Each item of gear does have a negative effect as well, meaning for each point gained in one stat, another point must be lost from another, meaning that no matter how much gear you burden your characters with, their total stat points will always add up to 63. Or less if you try and go beyond the maximum of 25 in a single stat, but we know you’re not that silly.
The only practical difference between characters that can’t be changed in any way is their Hyper Strikes. By grabbing the big honking glowing orb that sometimes falls within reach and holding down the shoot button for long enough without being even lightly knocked by a nearby opponent, you can release a Hyper Strike. These are essentially ‘super’ shots that if successful will score you two points instead of one, and each character has their own flavour, such as Luigi’s tornado kick that simply has to be a reference to Super Smash Bros., or Toad’s worryingly effective burrowing header.
Hyper Strikes appear overpowered at first glance, but they’re surprisingly difficult to execute effectively. You need to be completely untouched by tackles for several seconds, and time button presses to improve their effectiveness, and even then Boom Boom the goalkeeper has a chance to repel the onslaught unless your timing is literally perfect. We think they’re an excellent addition and only add to the gameplay rather than breaking it.
As for presentation… well let’s just say the swathes of fans gushing over every tiny detail are entirely justified. This is easily one of the best-looking and well-animated games in Nintendo’s history. Wario celebrating a goal by running in slow motion through a flurry of cash, Rosalina’s frustrated ‘harumph’ upon the opponent scoring, Waluigi’s eerily accurate lip sync of his own name — there is so much detail and sheer delight in every movement, heightening each character’s established personality traits and taking them to their logical conclusion. Even outside of the cutscenes there’s a wealth of superb animation to feast your eyes on, whether it’s Mario booting Yoshi directly in the face, or Boom Boom expressing disbelief at failing to save a goal to a referee that has never been there.
But it doesn’t stop at the visuals, the soundtrack goes so hard we were worried for our console’s safety. Distorted electric guitars and heavy drums produce hardcore remixes of the likes of Super Bell Hill, Luigi’s Mansion, and many more besides. You might not immediately notice them with all the carnage taking place on screen but when you do we dare you not to break out in a gigantic grin.
Performance is borderline perfect offline, we encountered almost zero dropped frames from the target 60fps no matter how hard we pushed things. However, when playing online during the review period, things did get a little spottier. We imagine it’s little more than network latency but slowdown was something we sadly ran into on occasion. It’s by no means game-breaking and we never had any full-on hanging, but we were slightly disappointed that things weren’t as seamless over the internet.
Mario Strikers: Battle League is a masterclass in competitive game design. What it lacks in options is more than made up by just how much fun the game is, and it’s absolutely gorgeous to boot. As it stands it already feels like a complete product, but the promise of future updates down the line gives us even more to get excited about. If arcade sport action isn’t your bag, it’ll likely do nothing to sway your opinion, but if you have even a passing interest in this kind of caper, Mario Strikers: Battle League is the best sports game on Switch right now.