TThere are no referees here Mario Strikers: Battle League Soccer, Thank God. Within minutes I’d been flying kicks in the face of every single enemy and by the time I found out about Hyper Strike, I’d set fire to an entire team of Blue Yoshi running around screaming while their Boom Boom goalie tried to stand his ground and hold the ball out of the net. Like me, when it came to multiplayer, it failed. Like Luigi when I hit him against an electric fence that surrounds the arena. I didn’t know, Luigi… I didn’t know.
This is actually football in name only. Nintendo’s third attempt at bringing this particular sport into Mario’s world takes as many liberties as possible while still making it recognizable as indeed Football, and that’s all the better. Over the years, Nintendo has seemingly relaxed when it comes to putting its character in more mature situations (see: Mario’s nipples in Super Mario Odysseybut neither), but I must confess that the sheer violence that is shown in Mario Strikers: Battle League Soccer is the next level.
Fans of a certain age will remember the famous “Cantona” kick mimicked in another game, but here it’s just a standard charged tackle. You slide on a tap of the “Y” button, but hold it and you’ll unleash a full karate kick at the player you’re facing, whether they’re friend or foe. You can knock them out, or you can kick your own teammates in the back for a kind of charged “tackle” that gives you extra range: essentially kicking your own friend’s ass to gain an advantage.
Players will use all their Mario-ness and break the rules to win the game at any cost. Donkey Kong doesn’t even use his feet, he just throws the ball where you tell him to. Comic effect aside, the charged tackle is actually an important tactical element that even after a few hours of play got me thinking about the longer-term future of Battle League Soccer. There are many smaller ideas here that casual gamers won’t (and don’t have to) touch, but there’s a depth that surprised me.
For example, you can manually pass the ball. That sounds like a small thing, but it’s interesting in an incredibly fast arcade version of soccer that encourages you to ping the ball around with a combination of ground and lob passes, resulting in a powerful shot at goal to be able to do this manually Commit to a “through pass” and surprise your opponent. It’s a little fiddly to ask you to hold a button and select a location with a cursor while still maintaining ball possession, but it speaks to competitive depth for those willing to master it.
Combination passing works better if you time it well. There are charged shots, sprints, dodges, and everything else you would expect from this type of experience, but as I think about playing the game, I keep coming back to how complicated and deep it could prove to be with some skills that resemble a fighting game parade. Again, master it and you will dominate; So let’s hope there is solid matchmaking for the online components.
Then there’s the Hyper Strikes. At random times, glowing orbs appear on the playing field. Grab one and your entire team will be charged. Then holding down the shoot button in your opponent’s half will load a shot and bring up a mini-game, swinging a meter from left to right. Nail it well enough and you’ll perform a Hyper Strike. The goalkeeper can stop it if you don’t have perfect timing, but the opposing player has to press a button to fill a bar to keep the ball out of the net.
Before that, however, is the animation for the shot, and that’s how my Mario ended up burning the entire team of Blue Yoshis. They had all returned to the box to try to defend and the aftermath of Mario’s Hyper Strike left a pool of fire that, well, you know the rest. The keeper (always Boom Boom) actually saved the day, but I think Mario’s message was clear: you’re playing with fire; you will burn yourself
If the message doesn’t come across clearly: Mario Strikers: Battle League Soccer is seriously enjoyable. It’s fast and exciting, violent and fun, and when combined with friends, it’s sudden Affairsand judging by the sounds from the rest of the room, my opponent and I were certainly not the only ones feeling that way.
If there is an early criticism to level Mario Strikers: Battle League Soccer, it’s with the Hyper Strikes. This isn’t really a problem against CPU-controlled opponents, but this move can be interrupted if you pull it off. I’m not sure I have any solution other than saying it has to go faster because in multiple matches against a real person neither of us could do it; tackled each time before we could complete the mini-game.
When scored these count as two goals so it’s important they aren’t too easy to execute but they currently feel like you need more time and space than the pitch actually allows. The frantic nature of the overall experience is doubled when you’re “powered-up” as it doesn’t last long, so finding the time and space to try and take off a Hyper Strike is a rush.
It also remains to be seen if it gets too chaotic with all eight people playing at the same time. A lot can happen at once with power-ups (red and green shells, bob-ombs, banana peels, mushrooms). And of course there’s also the all-important netcode to delve into because if it doesn’t go well online, it becomes a farce.
How feature rich Mario Strikers: Battle League Soccer is at launch is another question that needs to be answered. There is an equipment system that allows you to spend coins (earned through the game) to unlock new equipment for any character. Toad and Donkey Kong have some spectacularly goofy looks and I’m totally here for that. Especially Toad’s helmet. You have to see it to believe it.
These pieces of equipment adjust the characters’ stats. DK and Bowser are the heavyweights, with fast characters, all-rounders: the usual Mario Sports or Kart fare, really. It’ll be interesting to see how many customizations the finished game includes, but again, first impressions are that it could add more depth to an arcade sports title that already seems to show how many ways there are to play.
It’s still early for Mario Strikers: Battle League Soccer, but if after a few hours of play you want more, that’s usually a positive sign. We’ll know soon enough, but this is already shaping up to be one of the best sports titles that Nintendo and developer Next Level have turned their attention to. Fingers crossed it’s not just a smash and grab on opening day, it’s here for the long haul.
Mario Strikers: Battle League Soccer will be released on June 10, 2022 exclusively for Nintendo Switch.