Soccer players sometimes get a reputation for being overly dramatic during games. While that assessment may be largely unfair, there are still plenty of unflattering examples a quick Google search will show of players flopping around like a fish that was yanked onto a scorching-hot, sandy beach after barely being touched. Mario Strikers: Battle League avoids any contentious issues of players trying to milk the rules through a rather elegant solution — it gets rid of them.
From Bob-ombs marching toward their intended target (or any target really) to green and red shells whizzing around the field, Mario Strikers pulls no punches when it comes to frenetic chaos in the guise of a soccer game. Each match sees four characters per side (plus two AI-controlled goalkeepers) facing off against each other in a no-holds-barred frenzy of flashy moves, crazy explosions, flying projectiles and, for good measure, an electric fence surrounding the perimeter of the field.
If you think trying to keep track of all that while still completing the basic objectives of a soccer match borders on the insane, I’m happy to tell you that you’re absolutely right. It’s almost impossible to follow everything that’s happening at any given point, and even remembering which character you’re controlling becomes tricky. But it’s also great fun.
Mario Strikers provides the bare essence of what soccer is and launches it out of a confetti-filled canon point-blank. Passing, shooting and tackling are all important, but understanding the characters you’ve selected and their strengths and weaknesses matters just as much. Having a speedy character like Toad means you’ll want to play him in a position on the wing or at striker where he can run freely. At the same time, Toad has a low strength stat, meaning tackling opponents will require almost perfect timing, so controlling him on defense isn’t the best plan — unless you dive into the game’s gear system.
Mario Strikers’ customization system comes into play by allowing you to purchase gear with in-game coins that raise specific stats while lowering others. There are four different gear slots for each character — head, arms, body and legs —with each piece increasing a single stat by two points and lowering another by the same amount. Depending on how you customize a character, you can turn their base stats into supercharged ones that drastically alter the way the character plays. Toad, for instance, can go from being fast to almost uncatchable with the right setup. At the same time, you have to be aware that by going all in on speed, you’re likely creating a one-trick pony by inhibiting other attributes. At the same time, you can increase areas a character may be weak in at the cost of their better stats, developing a more balanced team in the process.
Understanding your characters and how they slot into your team’s setup is key to making the most of each match. The basic formation starts with a striker, two wingers and a defender, and they’ll stay in their general positions unless you manually move them. That becomes especially important while playing defense. While almost every character can competently pass the ball and shoot with some degree of effectiveness, tackling opponents is heavily reliant on the strength attribute, and unless you’re controlling a stronger character, you have to perfectly time a charged-up tackle to take the ball back. Even then, the game’s dodge mechanic means you still may miss, leaving your goal exposed.
There’s one other note about tackling. Remember that whole electric fence thing I mentioned earlier? If you happen to tackle an opponent into the walls surrounding the field’s perimeter, they’ll be zapped and temporarily immobilized. More than being a silly animation, there’s actually some strategy involved here because you’re not limited to just going for the opponent with the ball. Any player without the ball can tackle any other player at any time (except the keepers). While playing an AI-controlled opponent, this can lead to some wacky individual moments — but that’s not where the madness ensues. It’s when you’re up against other humans that everything goes haywire.
Mario Strikers: Battle League supports eight-player matches. That means eight players pummeling each other, throwing items and zipping around the screen with a wanton disregard for all semblance of order and structure. Pure chaos. And in the end, it’s precisely what makes games like this so good. More than anything else, Mario Strikers is a game you’ll want to play with friends, either locally or online. Just like Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., Mario Party and other similar games, the basic game — in this case soccer — is merely the vehicle to deliver the epic moments; the real fun comes from trying to figure out what the heck is happening on screen at any given moment in time, and that’s always made better with others.
Fortunately, the game features a robust online system to jump into, and even if you do decide to go it alone for a while, there’s still a lot to love here. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a Mario sports game, and that’s a great thing.
Mario Strikers: Battle League earns 4 GiN Gems out of 5.