Mario Strikers: Battle League Preview – It’s Coming Home

Mario Strikers: Battle League is laid out like FIFA, but it’s actually Smash Bros. After about an hour of play, I’m finding myself trying to remember button combos more than I’m caring about positioning and actually lining up goals like you would in actual football. Which is great, because even though I don’t care about the real game, I had an absolute blast with Battle League.

During a short preview session with Nintendo, we’re told that the devs can’t wait to see the fighting game community come up with all kinds of different techniques, and it’s easy to see why. Just like in Smash Bros., there’s so much to remember. Even more so than the first two Mario Strikers games, there’s a heavy emphasis on flashy, unsportsmanlike moves, and it’s a perfect way to put the spin-off’s best foot forward. It’s what we’re all here for after all.

You play in teams of four, either with your pals or against them. But again, linking back to its clear fighting game inspirations, 1v1 is where the true fun lies. From the charged up tackles to being rewarded for perfectly timed passes, it’s better to only trust yourself on the pitch. Memorize the tech, and go and clown on your friends.

One change that’s likely to cause a whole bunch of chaos is the fact that any player can perform a Super Strike now. Like last time, they’re worth two goals, and give us gloriously over the top animated sequences. But now, if one of your players picks up a power-up, anyone can take advantage of it. The fact that these shots heavily rely on a quick rhythm prompt is another example of this not being much of a sports game, but very approachable for newcomers to both the series and the genre.

While this might deter hardcore FIFA fans, this shouldn’t put off competitive players in general. Indeed, it’s still the best player who wins, not the one who can mash a load of buttons and hope for the best. When an opponent I’d previously beaten (5-0, but who’s counting?) took some time to master the more advanced strats, I couldn't land a single Super Strike. Meanwhile, I’d spent a bunch of time dressing Peach up all nice. It didn’t pay off like I’d hoped.

That new dress up feature is the Gear System. From what I saw in the preview, it’s pretty balanced, so matches shouldn’t be won by whoever has the most currency to spend. For example, you can’t take Peach – who has low strength but a high technical ability – and beef her up until she’s an unstoppable goal-scoring machine. Each item you put on a player will buff one stat, and nerf another. In casual play, this means you can customize your characters to suit your playstyle. But to pro players, this could become a matter of optimization, rather than comfort.

The split between casual and pro play seems to be a very conscious decision. The tutorial we were shown is even divided like this, rather than throwing all the higher-level moves at you from the offset.

However you play, the action never stops in Battle League. There’s no half-time, as you simply select how long you want to play. There’s not even a wanker of a referee to come in and stop the fun if you’re intentionally trying to wind up your opponent. Hell, that seems to be encouraged with some of the new moves, such as a team-up tackle that not only knocks an enemy to the ground, but immediately nicks the ball from them. Admittedly, this means that methods to stop your opponent from griefing are unlikely to do much. For example, if you keep tackling players who don’t have the ball, the crowd will throw an item box onto the pitch that only the other team can use. But given the number of button combos I was trying to memorize, I pretty much forgot the items were there at all. That’s not where the fun is, definitely not in the same way it is with Smash.

Another thing it could also improve on is the sense of control you have over your character. The feel of moving around the pitch was never bad enough that I felt like missing a goal wasn’t my fault, but it was enough to leave you disoriented as you cycle through all the characters, trying to control the one you want. Passing exactly where you want can also be very finicky, especially if you’re going for a free pass that doesn’t automatically lock on to another player. In such a small pitch though, it’s easy enough to pick yourself up from a bad move.

All in all, messing around in 1v1s was a lot of fun. Yet my biggest hope for the final game is that it gives us a bit more to do than just play these matches on repeat. As we’ve seen recently with Nintendo Switch Sports, there’s only so long you can be entertained by the same thing over and over again. Sure enough, splitting the game between casual and hardcore players will help, like how Smash Bros’ for fun/for glory set-up keeps us busy. But running around a pitch is still nowhere near as fun and free as jumping around Final Destination. Just because it’s going for the Smash crowd, it doesn’t mean it can rely on one game mode. If anything, it just makes it even more vital to keep its likely young audience entertained.

But if you’re just here for your Mario Strikers fix, you won’t leave disappointed. Mario punches Yoshi, Toads invade the pitch, and Waluigi’s animations are as seductive as ever. It might not be quite enough to justify its smaller roster, but it pushes the series forward in every other department, and delivers on the Strikers charm we’ve missed for so long. And definitely don’t be fooled by the toned-down art style this time around – Mario Strikers is just as gloriously chaotic as it was before, and will put a smile on your face in every match.

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