Mario Strikers: Battle League

Mario Strikers: Battle League achieves an undesirable special feat: it is simultaneously easy to love and to dislike

As most avid gamers are aware of, especially those with a predilection for Nintendo’s output, the Mario Sports series has been suffering from a problem regarding lack of content. The issue is by no means new: case in point, Mario Tennis Open, released for the Nintendo 3DS all the way in 2012, was hit with numerous reviews complaining about the shortness of its single-player campaign; and three years later, when many expected its follow-up, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, to address these problems, the game actually found a way to make them even worse. Back then, one could easily look at these events as small bumps on the road of a property that had been consistently great; it was easy to see that thinness of content as accidental. But as Nintendo shifted its focus to the Switch, fans of the plumber’s fun takes on various sports were bitterly confronted with the realization that those shortcomings were not punctual: they were an actual trend.

When Mario Tennis Aces arrived on the hybrid system, players were treated to the best racket-wielding mechanics in the series’ history; a gameplay which produced frantic skill-based matches and an achievement that was worthy of celebration. Sadly, the title diminished any euphoria surrounding it due to a reduced roster, barren options to set up matches, and irregular single-player content. A little later, when the time came for Mario Golf to hit the Switch, history repeated itself, albeit in a slightly more negative fashion, as besides exhibiting notable gaps in both its online and offline modes, the game also faltered in mechanics.

battle_league5

Given that recent track record, Mario Strikers: Battle League enters the scene with obvious questions attached to it. During its marketing cycle, every new reveal was fairly followed by worries concerning how much meat the experience would have. And these doubts were specially valid because the previous two Mario Strikers games, which were released during an era when Nintendo was still making thoroughly solid sports titles set in the Mushroom Kingdom, had already exhibited content-related troubles. Therefore, if the once full-fledged whimsical recreations of golf and tennis had lost their muscles, the outlook for the always more frail framework of Mario Strikers was not exactly bright.

First and foremost, then, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed. Mario Strikers: Battle League does not stop the negative trend related to lack of content; it reconfirms it. Even though there was some hope Next Level Games would not be affected by the recent Mario Sports approach due to how golf and tennis are Camelot products, the title ends up revealing this problem is the result of an overarching philosophy stemming from Nintendo itself. Because of that, anyone jumping into Mario Strikers: Battle League ought to be aware it is – at least in its original state – a thin package: it does not have many modes, it does not have many characters, and most of its value will be the result of either local or online multiplayer matches.

As it was the case with Mario Tennis Aces and Mario Golf: Super Rush, however, it has to be pointed out that Nintendo plans to update the game during the year following its release, which means some of its content struggles could be solved in the long run. Nevertheless, like its Switch siblings, which were eventually upgraded into better but not yet ideal packages, Mario Strikers: Battle League has to contend with two realities: firstly, some of its issues are unlikely to be addressed in future updates, meaning they are here to stay; secondly, its initial full-price is too high for what it offers.

It is not all doom and gloom for Mario Strikers: Battle League, though. Proving that third time indeed might be the charm, at least in some regards, Next Level Games has both polished and expanded the series’ mechanics to an absolutely exquisite level. What this title represents is a massive turnaround, because while its predecessors – particularly its GameCube debut – were strong contenders for being the simplest Mario Sports games out there, this Switch entry might be easily running away with the award for being the most complex of the bunch. Because even if the formula here is still based on passing, lobbing, shooting, and tackling in a brutal variation of soccer where there are no rules or fouls and where an electrified fence surrounds the field to turn it into a battle cage, nearly everything has been tweaked.

battle_league1

The biggest change is, perhaps, how all of the game’s basic motions have a perfect version that will be triggered if the command is performed just right; needless to say, this flawless execution has major benefits. A perfect shot, which increases the chance of scoring a goal, occurs when players charge the move and let go off the button just as the circle surrounding the character is filled. A perfect pass or lob, which cannot be intercepted, is activated when the corresponding button is pressed as the ball is travelling to the receiver and released precisely when it reaches that character. A perfect dodge, which produces a short boost in speed, is pulled off if the motion is done when the player is about to be hit. And a perfect tackle, which rather than causing the ball to bounce away in a random direction guarantees that it will be controlled by the character who delivered the blow, is done by charging the attack and letting the button go right as an indicative arrow is filled.

Naturally, what this implementation does is considerably raise the skill ceiling of the Mario Strikers formula, allowing anyone with a perfect grasp of these abilities to steamroll their way through beginners. To some, that might be a negative trait, because Mario Strikers was generally known to produce tight matches regardless of the gap between participants, and that is certainly not the case anymore. But the bottom line is that, with these advanced techniques, the franchise has reached the ideal configuration seen in popular Nintendo multiplayer games such as Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., as well as Mario Golf and Mario Tennis: it is easy to pick it up and play it for the first time, but it has plenty of depth to those who are willing to explore it.

Even if they are large enough to be game-changers, though, these perfect variations of basic moves are accompanied by other special actions that are equally not too trivial to pull off. There are combo passes and combo shots, which are triggered if the respective button is pressed when the ball reaches the receiver. There is the fantastic free pass, which by pressing L lets players aim the direction into which the ball will roll, hence opening the door to crazy plays such as bouncing passes off walls or launching the ball far ahead of a teammate and making a run for it. There is the team tackle, which involves hitting characters of the same team to either give them a helpful speed boost or launch them towards the opponent like a projectile. And, of course, there is the Hyper Strike, the game’s signature special move, which includes a brief spectacular stylized animation that is specific to each character and that culminates with a shot that might score two goals.

Regarding the Hyper Strike, it is worth mentioning that it represents quite an improvement over the special shot of the series’ previous entry, the Wii’s Mario Strikers Charged. Both are mechanically similar, since they entail charging a shot to its maximum level and then pressing the A button twice to hit two target areas in a gauge; a process that takes time and that leaves characters very vulnerable to tackling. But here, the effect of that super move is much more limited. Firstly, because being able to perform it depends on grabbing an energy orb that will spawn on the pitch from time to time. And secondly, because instead of being able to net players a ridiculous six goals in one shot, it is limited to two, with that quantity only being guaranteed if players perfectly hit the target areas in the gauge; if that is not the case, then the opponent will get a chance to increase the probability that the ball will not go in by pressing A quickly to fill up an energy bar. Consequently, Hyper Strikes never feel overpowered.

battle_league2

It is certainly a lot to take in as far as commands and techniques go, but Mario Strikers: Battle League introduces them in a tutorial that can be replayed at any time. More importantly, they give birth to matches that balance wackiness and skill. On one hand, this is a game that has a funny brutal physical component where all kinds of hits are valid and where rivals can attack each other by using items, with these showing up either in colorful boxes that appear randomly or in team-specific boxes that materialize when a player is hit without the ball – hence working as a punishment for playing dirty. On the other hand, its arsenal of moves adds a layer of depth that sometimes is not even seen in realistic portrayals of the sport.

Unfortunately, that is the only area where Mario Strikers: Battle League deserves loads of praise and not much criticism, because the content that surrounds that core is very uneven. It begins with the roster, which upon release is restricted to ten characters, making the game, by a good margin, the installment of the series that hit store shelves with the smallest available cast. Although that amount will undoubtedly increase as upgrades come, it has to be said that in addition to being rather disappointing, that number also paves the way to a punctual issue: it potentially creates confusion in the field. That happens because while in previous entries teams were made up of one captain coming from the main cast and three sidekicks picked from a different pool which contained minions that could be fully painted in different colors such as Koopa Troopa, Boo, Birdo, and Dry Bones, this time around that distinction is gone, and players have to assemble two teams of four from an initial group of ten options.

As a consequence, Next Level Games had no choice but to allow for repeated selections, meaning that each team can have a Mario, a Luigi, a Bowser, a Peach, and so forth. It is true that given they will be wearing differently colored uniforms, no two characters are ever totally alike. Nonetheless, in a setting that is as fast-paced as the one of Mario Strikers: Battle League, it can be easy for someone to, for a split second, think that the Rosalina that is close to the ball belongs to their team rather than to their rival’s, especially because details like the tone of a character’s shirt can be overlooked or simply hard to see. And when this visual confusion leads to mistakes and these mistakes lead to goals, frustration is bound to arise.

Still, there is some praise to be thrown at the roster; more specifically, the fact characters are very distinct from another. This is primarily achieved thanks to how their skills are defined by five stats: the obvious shooting, passing, and speed; plus, technique and strength, with the first determining the size of the window for the execution of perfect moves and the latter being related to the ability of both delivering and resisting tackles. Since differences in the way points are distributed among these stats have a huge impact on how characters feel, assembling a team and choosing the position of each player is key for success: with his combination of high speed and strength, Waluigi is ideal for defense, but he is offensively lackluster due to his poor shooting; meanwhile, Bowser’s powerful shots, unmovable body mass, and slow movement make him a good fit for the the role of a static forward.

battle_league4

To boot, Mario Strikers: Battle League lets players toy with these stats via gear, which can be bought with coins that are earned as matches are played. Coming in the form of helmets, gloves, torso pads, and boots, these items invariably increase one or two stats while diminishing others, and since the points that are earned are equal to the points that are lost, they work more as a way to redistribute stats than of making characters overall stronger. When analyzed from such an angle, their purchase may sound optional, but the truth is that building a competitive team, be it for online or offline play, almost necessarily goes through using gear to polish characters’ stats according to the role in which players will deploy them.

With a team set, gamers can choose to play on their own or alongside friends, and this is where it all starts to falter noticeably. If one is looking for a single-player experience, Mario Strikers: Battle League offers only two options: setting up random matches against the CPU or going for trophies in cups that only consist of three elimination rounds. And that is pretty much it. There is no competition involving points, no career mode, no extra challenges, no unlockables, and not even an attempt at something akin to an RPG adventure, which was a task that Mario Tennis Aces and Mario Golf: Super Rush at least tried to execute. Therefore, anyone who prefers to play solo rather than against human competition is better off ignoring Mario Strikers: Battle League altogether.

Truth be told, there are positive comments to be made about the cups. There are six of them, and since they come in two levels of difficulty (Normal and Galactic), that leads to a total of twelve, which is a good number. Moreover, every cup is centered on a stat: in the Canon Cup, for instance, CPU teams use equipment to create squads where every character has excellent shooting. And thanks to that, all tournaments present a unique type of challenge that will test players in a certain way and require specific strategies. Still, problems exist: they are short; the leap in challenge from one difficulty to another is too abrupt, meaning there could probably be a third level in-between them; and although many will appreciate how hard Galactic Cups are, others will certainly be frustrated, because there is some blatant input-reading being done by the CPUs, as they anticipate moves with speed and accuracy that are just not natural.

Given that thinness in solo offline content, it is clear Mario Strikers: Battle League aims to be a multiplayer experience, and that is a good bet. Sure, it could easily have a better single-player offering, and there is no excuse for how weak it is in that regard. But it is a fact its gameplay inherently shines more brightly in another setting; one from which many will be able to squeeze dozens of hours of enjoyment. As far as local multiplayer goes, there is little to complain: it works, it is a blast, and it supports up to eight players, with each controlling a character. In that sense, the only problem stems from matches that have two or three humans in a team, because there are situations in which it will not be possible to know who will take control of the character who is about to receive the ball, hence making the execution of combo shots, combo passes, and perfect passes a bit troublesome.

battle_league3

When it comes to online gameplay, though, it all gets a bit trickier. As it happens in local multiplayer, the essence of the experience is marvelous, with two caveats: having two or three humans cooperate still causes confusion, and getting three or four friends in a team will require a pair of consoles, because in an online setting there is a limitation of two simultaneous players per Switch. Sadly, though the issues run deeper than that. The biggest one is that the title allows gamers who chose to play alone to be matched against those who paired up with someone else, giving birth to unfair matches where the side with the largest amount of human-controlled characters has the advantage. But there is more.

The game’s ranked mode involves clubs, which can be joined by up to twenty members. And this system is the origin of a lot of questionable decisions. Clubs do more than aggregate players under the same banner: they force users to cooperate in the building of a roster. When either creating or signing up for a club, gamers do so through a single character (with or without gear), which can be changed at any time. After that is done, that character will then become part of the club’s roster, being available for all other members to use. As such, before starting a ranked match, instead of being able to freely select from the characters they have fine-tuned, players will have to assemble a team out of the current roster. If, for example, they feel like deploying the speedy Toad in the midfield but nobody in the club has selected the little guy, that is not going to be possible. And in case a club has less than four users, the available roster will include a few completely randomized characters so that it at least reaches that number.

To a point, that is a bright idea that stimulates a unique kind of cooperation. From another perspective, though, it can be seen as counter-intuitive. Since Mario Strikers: Battle League focuses on online play and refining characters by acquiring gear, limiting players to employing only one of their creations in ranked matches seems absurd. In fact, it is a choice that makes coins mostly meaningless, because rather than working towards customizing a whole team to face off against rivals around the world, gamers will just be able to tweak one character and hope that their fellow club members do a good job with their contributions to the roster. Since the ranked mode works by alternating between a one-week season where clubs accumulate points to compete in divisions and a one-week off-season where scores are not tallied, perhaps a solution to this conundrum would be using the club roster during the season but letting players select from their own pool of characters while the off-season rolls.

Another problem arising from the club configuration is stadium customization. The main rewards for winning online matches are tokens which can be spent to either upgrade the club’s venue in massive visual overhauls or alter little details, like goalposts and emblems drawn on the grass. Since clubs are made up of many players, only the founder has the ability to actually purchase these goods; all that other members can do is vote on which items they think should be bought. Needless to say, this setup, though understandable, will likely be frustrating to some, since most players will have no control whatsoever over how the cash they are earning will be spent, just like they are not going to be able to define the team’s name, uniform colors, and emblem.

battle_league6

In the matter of modifying stadiums, other disappointing issues also pop up. Firstly, aside from the massive and expensive structural upgrades, the other customization options are not significant enough. Secondly, the five initially available stadium themes are not too distinct from one another. Some may attribute that to a lack of stage hazards, which were prominent in Mario Strikers Charged, but the truth is that their removal was a wise choice. Instead, this differentiation between themes could have been easily achieved via more prominent visual assets. Finally, the game oddly chooses to build the stadium where the match is being played by fusing two distinct halves, one built by each team. Not only is this aesthetically unpleasant, but it also creates the head-scratching problem that no club will ever get to see the full version of their customized stadium. Obviously, the solution should have been the random selection of the team that will play at home.

When it is all said and done, a multitude of problems of varying natures plague Mario Strikers: Battle League. There are content-related omissions. There are weird design choices. There are questionable online implementations. There are tiny faults in presentation that emerge despite the fact that technically and artistically the game is overall an impressive showcase of the talent at Next Level Games; especially regarding the animation department and how the gameplay chaos unfolds beautifully without the slightest stutter. And there are even gameplay faults that can generate a lot of frustration: the randomness that exists in the appearance of Hyper Strike orbs as well as in common item boxes can be anger-inducing due to how it can heavily benefit one side; the star, which is almost certain to be given to a team trailing by more than two goals, is excessively powerful; the goalie’s performance is very irregular and can make one feel a match has been lost because he failed to stop basic shots from going in; and switching between characters while defending is inconsistent, as besides not following a specific order, the action will not necessarily give players control over the team member who is the closest to the ball, which can cause a lot of confusion and even lead to losses.

Mario Strikers: Battle League achieves, therefore, an undesirable special feat: it is simultaneously easy to love and to dislike. The stylish nature of its presentation, the lovable brutality of its gameplay, the impressive prowess of its technical aspects, the accessibility of its basics, and the unparalleled depth of its mechanics are all high points in the history of the Mushroom Kingdom’s foray into sports. However, the bare-bones state of its content upon release, a series of questionable design choices, and a few frustrating aspects of its formula make the package come off as a wasted opportunity. Because, sure, in spite of a few bumps on the road, many will understandably be able get a lot of value from what Next Level Games constructed here. But it is safe to say an equally great number of players will either not join the club altogether or regret they did so due to an abundance of problems.

FINAL SCORE: 6 – GOOD

2 thoughts on “Mario Strikers: Battle League

  1. Great review!

    I’m pretty much in agreement. I think the core gameplay is fun – albeit with some irritating quirks – but it just doesn’t feel like enough. And I’m sorry, but whether the character selection is on auto or manual, I still can’t get the hang of switching characters, which really hampers the experience for me. Hopefully I can actually review this one soon myself, along with my well-overdue reviews for Kirby and the Forgotten Land and Elden Ring.

    Again, great review! 🙂

    1. Thanks a lot! And yeah, it’s a shame great gameplay is hampered by minor annoyances and an overall lack of content.

      I am looking forward to what you have to say about Kirby and Elden Ring.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s