There are few things in life that aren’t improved with the addition of destructive red shells and slippery banana peels. It turns out that soccer is no exception. Mario Strikers: Battle League is Nintendo’s latest attempt at an arcade-style soccer game, and it’s an experience that’s both streamlined and chaotic. That means that it’s easy to pick up and play but also that there’s a lot going on, offering both depth for skilled players and some shortcuts for newbies. It follows much of the same ethos as Mario Kart, only you’re kicking a ball around instead of hugging the curves on Rainbow Road. It’s an incredible amount of fun — but to get the most out of it, you’ll definitely need to bring some friends along.
At its core, Strikers is a stripped-down version of regular soccer. The field is much smaller, more in line with a basketball court than a soccer pitch, and matches are five vs. five. (You can control the four players in the field, while the goalies are always handled by AI.) Typical matches last just four minutes, and they can’t end in a tie; if that happens, the game shifts to a “golden goal” mode where the first goal wins the game.
Of course, this is Nintendo we’re talking about, so there’s a lot more to it than just regular soccer on a smaller scale. Much like in Mario Kart, there are items that can turn the tide of the match, from the aforementioned banana peels and shells to Bob-ombs that temporarily leave a huge crater on the pitch. Strikers is also much more violent than real soccer. Not only can you blow up your opponents or knock them out with a red shell, but there are no fouls in the game, so you can tackle them without fear of repercussions. In fact, there aren’t many rules at all, so don’t expect soccer mainstays like corner kicks or penalties here. Some characters even use their hands.
One of the big additions to the game is something called a hyperstrike; after collecting the right item, a player can fire a special charged shot that, if it goes in, counts for two goals. These are tricky to pull off — you have to charge up without getting tackled as well as complete a timed challenge for a chance to score — but they can really change the dimension of a match. I haven’t had much success with them, but I have definitely lost a lead or two because I couldn’t stop a hyperstrike.
Really, that’s my main takeaway from Strikers gameplay: it’s fast and chaotic and leads to some incredible back-and-forth gameplay. It’s a lot like basketball, with both teams driving to the net constantly. This is due to the combination of speed, a smaller field of play, and items that can quickly change things. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that no lead is safe in Mario Strikers: Battle League. It’s also a game with an excessive amount of personality; characters gloat in hilarious ways, and the stadiums are actually two home arenas smashed together. It’s enough to make it a fun spectator sport as well.
As with most arcade games, Strikers is much more fun to play with other people. And you can bring a lot of friends along: it supports up to eight players through local multiplayer, and these matches can get especially wild, particularly if you aren’t working as a team. It may not be real soccer, but it still requires some degree of strategy and coordination when you’re playing as a group of four. Strikers also has what appears to be a fairly robust online mode — hence the Battle League title — where players can join clubs with other players and work their way up a competitive ladder together. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test this ahead of launch, but it appears to be a major component of the experience.
The tradeoff, though, is that Strikers is much less interesting as a single-player experience. And it’s not because the game isn’t fun to play by yourself — because it is. I’ve really enjoyed squeezing in some quick matches of Mario soccer while watching real soccer on the TV. (I should also note here that Strikers runs very well in portable mode.) The game has a series of tournaments you can play through solo, but they aren’t particularly exciting. Unlike, say, the cups in Mario Kart, the tournaments aren’t all that different from each other. The challenge increases, and there are opponents with different skillsets. But aside from a cool new trophy at the end, there isn’t much to differentiate the tournaments.
But you’ll still want to play through them because winning tournaments earns you money, which can be used to unlock gear for each character, which is one of the most satisfying parts of Strikers. Gear works like a skill respec, in a way. Equipping a helmet or pair of gloves will improve one skill — like, say, speed or strength — at the expense of another. Once you have a whole bunch of gear, you can completely customize how your team plays. It doesn’t necessarily make the characters more skilled, but instead lets you tweak the lineup to better suit your playstyle. Right now, I have a very speedy Princess Peach who loves to sprint down the wings, getting the perfect pass to my deadly striker Yoshi. Neither is particularly strong, but that’s why I have a deceptively powerful Waluigi on defense.
This ability to customize characters is part of the reason why I’m excited to experience Strikers online, and Nintendo has also said that it will support the game with free post-launch content, including new characters. (The current cast features 10 playable characters.) So it looks like there’s a solid future ahead for the game. The core of Strikers is fantastic, and it’s particularly great with friends. But the lack of a meaty single-player experience is a bummer. You’ll almost definitely have fun with it, but how much is entirely dependent on your teammates.
Mario Strikers: Battle League launches on the Nintendo Switch on June 10th.