Mario Strikers: Battle League
First debuting in 2005 on Nintendo's GameCube, the Mario Strikers series has developed a cult fan base over the last 17 years. However, in the time since that original launch, the series has only seen one additional title hit store shelves. Just two years after the launch of that first game, Mario Strikers Charged launched on Wii, but that's the last we heard of the Mario Strikers franchise until earlier this year when Nintendo announced a new title for Switch, Mario Strikers: Battle League. While it has certainly been a long wait for fans of the GameCube and Wii entries, the more than 30 minutes of live gameplay I saw indicates that Mario Strikers: Battle League is worth the wait.
As you might expect, Mario Strikers: Battle League carries forward many of the franchise's conventions. Players once again step onto a fantastical field of play to compete in a soccer-like sport called strike. These strike matches consist of five-on-five action – four players on the field for each team (who can be controlled by human players), with one goalie (who cannot be controlled by players) – with basically no rules to govern the Nintendo athletes; players can tackle each other with no regard for safety, use items to temporarily incapacitate opponents, push each other into the electric fence that surrounds the field, and even pick up the ball with their hands. The game featured in Mario Strikers: Battle League may look like soccer on the surface, but if anything, this is a no-holds-barred version of the most popular sport on the planet. However, the objective is the same at the end of the day: blast the ball past the opposing goalie more times than your opponent can before time runs out.
While items like Bob-ombs, Red Shells, Green Shells, Banana Peels, and Super Mushrooms litter the field over the course of a given match, the most exciting and effective pickup is the Strike Orb. If you manage to grab a Strike Orb, your entire team glows for a brief window, granting you the ability to perform a Hyper Strike shot. These shots require you to charge up, then correctly time a meter to get the shot off in its best form; if you get the timing just right, the shot is unblockable, while if you mistime the meter portion of the shot, the opposing team can do a button-mashing minigame to have their goalie block it. These Hyper Strikes play out in character-specific cutscenes, with each character possessing a distinct Hyper Strike. For instance, Yoshi unleashes a massive egg that bounces around the field, squashing anyone it lands on before firing the ball towards the goal, while Bowser picks up the ball, breathes fire on it, then throws it at the net. If the Hyper Strike goes into the net, it counts for two points, giving these cinematic shots extra significance.
Players can take the field through three modes of play: Quick Battle, Cup Battles, and Strikers Club. Quick Battle is exactly what it sounds like: a one-off match between two teams. Cup Battles serve as the game's tournament mode and appear to operate much like Mario Kart's cup series, with you unlocking more cups as you play and earning coins and other in-game rewards. Those coins can be traded in for gear with which you can customize the characters of Mario Strikers: Battle: League (more on that later).
The big addition for this entry is Strikers Club. This online mode allows you to create or join a club with up to 20 people. From there, any four players from an established club can hop online and compete against another Strikers Club. Based on how you do in the match, you earn coins and club points. You can also earn additional rewards through in-season achievements like using Hyper Strike shots a certain amount of times or winning a set number of matches. Club points determine your ranking in the league you're in; teams with the highest points at the end of a season are promoted to the next league up, while the bottom teams of each season are demoted. With seven leagues to ascend and descend, it sounds as though the game will usually deliver equally matched competition.
Strikers Club also relies heavily on customization, allowing club owners to personalize uniforms, logos, names, and even the stadium in which your games are played. Through the club customization screen, you can unlock and level up different components from the game's various arenas to make your home field your own. Every club owner selects a base stadium on which to build, but you can then drill down into parts like fence posts, goals, goal-line decorations, and the field itself. While this responsibility falls into the lap of each club's owner, the other 19 members can vote for how they'd like to see the customization play out, giving the owner feedback from the rest of their team.
The gear customization suite I alluded to earlier isn't the most robust I've ever seen in a video game, but it allows you to use the coins you earn to essentially respec the characters in the game. For example, Rosalina is already a strong shooter, but the person running the demo added shot-buffing gear to make her a seemingly unstoppable scoring machine. On the other hand, the already-sturdy Bowser was equipped with gear that boosts his tackle resistance stat, making would-be tacklers bounce off unsuccessfully much of the time. All this gear is acquired through coins you earn in the various Mario Strikers: Battle League modes. Characters have four slots to customize – head, arms, body, legs – with five upgraded gear sets to unlock and choose from. The gear you equip to characters carries across all modes, giving you the ability to change the natural stats and appearances of each individual character.
The wait may have been long since the last Mario Strikers game, but if Strikers Club is as immersive as it appears to be on the surface and the gameplay is as entertaining as my hands-off demo would have me believe, Next Level Games and Nintendo may have another Switch hit on their hands. Mario Strikers: Battle League comes to Switch on June 10.