As a newcomer to the series, Mario Strikers: Battle League is a game that surprises me. Its priorities are not what I suspected, and maybe not what anybody would've thought was coming. It's probably absurd of me to approach this football game and be startled by the emphasis on football, but… well, surely that's odd from a Mario game! This is the franchise that treated medicine as an excuse to play Tetris, that turned Formula One into rollercoaster-paintball and mutated golf into some kind of weird egg-and-spoon race. So yeah, the fact that the Mario football game mainly feels like football is peculiar to me. Is that odd?
Pitch it to me again
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Mario Strikers: Battle League starts with a fairly in-depth tutorial explaining all of its footballiest mechanics, and they're respectably deep. There are multiple kinds of passes, stamina mechanics, several varieties of tackle and a nice little rhythmic element wherein timing your passes and strikes perfectly gives them some extra oomph.
That was the bulk of the tutorial… followed by a brief, perfunctory handwave about items and the cinematic Hyper Strikes that filled the advertising material, as if to say "oh, and there's also some kooky Mario stuff in there if that's your thing I guess". This very much set the tone of the experience, which was a distinct sense that I'd come into Mario Strikers expecting something from it that it wasn't willing to provide.
Red flags and yellow cards
Honestly, Mario Strikers: Battle League is a slightly thin experience overall. No story campaign, only 10 playable characters, six items (including the completely broken Mario Invincibility Star, which might as well equate to a free goal), and a bunch of other odd design choices that feel hollow enough to leave an empty echo when you tap them.
For example, actually keeping track of the ball is often frustrating amid the constant chaos of color, with no UI element to highlight it - an issue that gets worse when you switch to handheld mode. The goalkeepers are always completely AI-controlled (because it's not like you'd want to have any actual input in your final line of defense), so scoring often feels less about skill than the game rolling dice for the keeper's reflexes. There's gear to customize your players' stats, but considering these hats and gloves just shuffle the numbers around, there's no need to boost Luigi's raw power when you could skip past it all and just pick a preset heavyweight like Bowser or Wario instead. And there are multiple single-player tournaments hard-coded in, but even now I'm not sure what the difference between most of them was, or if the game was just presenting me with different trophies for doing the same thing over and over.
The one that really threw me is that there's a cool feature that allows you to choose and customize your half of the Stadium around the pitch - Bowser's Castle, Mushroom Kingdom, etc - and watch it fuse together with your opponent's choice. That's a cool idea, and in fact, the first thing that happens every time a match begins is the grand, dramatic merging of these two landscapes…
But it doesn't do anything! The game mechanics don't change, it doesn't alter how you play, and 95% of the time you can't even see the Stadium you've chosen because you're looking solely at the pitch via a top-down perspective. I kept checking through the tutorials and in-game guide, convinced I'd missed some essential element about this or the other gameplay elements that seemed to be lacking substance. If I was missing something, I never found it.
It's a fundamental shift in design philosophies that feels at odds with its madcap, excitable tone. In sibling games like Mario Kart and Smash Bros, the zany, arcadey elements are the whole point, the twist on the formula that brings them to life and makes them memorable. But in Mario Strikers, it's the opposite - the footballing is central, and the Mario elements limply hang off it like party streamers off Jürgen Klopp's spectacles.
Bend it like Bob-omb
All of which is not to say there's nothing fun about Battle League. In certain moments the meatier football mechanics come together with some energy, and there's always something satisfying about the one-two-three ricochet of passing the ball between players, finally leading to a weighty kick that coils in the air around the goalie's reaching fingers and stretches the net behind him.
I also really liked the animations, at least until they started repeating themselves. They're colourful, dynamic, full of personality and excess, and have a flourish that gives the characters energy and identity. When Rosalina does a Hyper Strike, the ball orbits around the moon before coming back to her for the follow-up kick, frozen in crystalline ice. When Donkey Kong wins a game, he swings about the field on jungle vines, whooping and dancing. When Peach sees the enemy team score, it's charming watching her take deep breaths and try to cool her temper before she does something to disgrace the monarchy.
I just really wish that joie de vivre had carried over to the gameplay of Mario Strikers, which at its core is an average football arcade game with a few Nintendo-brand bells and whistles resting on it. I guess I had fun at times, but I suspect deep down that if I'd paid full retail price for it, I would've come away feeling a lot less charitable about the whole thing. Maybe snatch it up when it's discounted and you're looking for a household party game - otherwise, all but the most fervent football fanatics can probably skip this one.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch OLED with a code provided by the publisher.