Real football would be far more interesting if the players were decked in armour (pic: Nintendo)

It’s been 15 years since the last Mario football game and the newest iteration for Switch shows Next Level Games hasn’t lost its touch.

Despite football being one of the most popular sports in the world it’s surprising that Nintendo’s red hatted mascot Mario has rarely partaken in it. Nearly every Nintendo home console has had their own tennis and golf game (even some of the handhelds too), but there have only ever been two Mario football games: the GameCube’s Super Mario Strikers (renamed Mario Smash Football in Europe) in 2005 and the Wii’s Mario Strikers Charged Football in 2007.

It almost feels like Nintendo only recently remembered this short-lived series existed, with a third game finally coming to the Nintendo Switch in a couple of weeks. Fans are understandably excited and nervous. After such a hiatus, will Mario Strikers: Battle League Football live up to their nostalgic memories of the previous games?

After attending a hands-on preview, and getting to play a few matches with actual human beings, we can safely say that most fans’ concerns can be assuaged. If you played a lot of the Mario Strikers games back in the day, Battle League Football will feel comfortably familiar in all the right ways.

It helps that Next Level Games, the Canadian studio behind the previous two games, has been brought back for Battle League Football, making this its first release as a Nintendo subsidiary. You might recognise the studio from its most recent work on Luigi’s Mansion 3 and that becomes very apparent thanks to the excellent character animation on display.

The cast of Luigi’s Mansion 3, from its cowardly hero to the various ghosts, were wonderfully expressive and full of personality, even when they had zero dialogue. This has carried over to Battle League Football and seeing each character’s unique scoring animations and the poses they pull at the start of a match is a real treat.

Even the animations during gameplay have had a lot of love put into them and can be incredibly funny, like Wario catching the ball out of the air in his mouth or Bowser just picking up the ball and chucking it at the goal. It’s almost a shame they’re easy to miss with how frantic and fast matches can be.

Things do feel a touch more saccharine compared to the last two games. The overall colour palette is much brighter and more… Mario than the last game, which was rather muted and had semi-realistic looking environments. While losing animations have returned, we didn’t catch any hilariously out of character temper tantrums or comical violence between teammates either (but maybe they’re in the game and we just didn’t see them).

That said, Battle League Football hasn’t shed the weird, edgy charm of its predecessors. You’ve probably already seen the striking (ha!) promotional art, which its jagged lines and fierce colours. The usual friendly faces like Mario and Yoshi are scowling with intensity; they aren’t here to have fun, they’re here to win and Mario will gladly dropkick his own brother in the face if he needs to.

Here’s how the squad lines up in #MarioStrikers: Battle League Football…

— Nintendo UK (@NintendoUK) May 9, 2022

This xtreme energy is translated into the setting: stadiums appear to take place in outer space and there’s an electric fence surrounding them that players can be knocked into; the ball itself is made of metal and tackle animations are weirdly violent for a Mario game (we weren’t kidding about the dropkicks). It’s a game riddled with OSHA violations and we wouldn’t have it any other way. With how strict Nintendo can be with how its characters and properties are depicted, it’s always fun and refreshing to see them loosen the reins a bit.

When it comes to gameplay, this is conceptually as simple as you’d imagine. It’s just five-a-side football but with a Mario twist. Your team is comprised of any four characters from the roster, plus recurring boss character Boom Boom as the goalie (replacing Donkey Kong enemy Kritter from the previous games), as you try to score more goals than the opposing team.

Rather than try and make a more casual FIFA clone, Battle League Football is rather complex, continuing the trend of Mario sports sims being surprisingly in-depth with their mechanics. We played through most of the tutorials and there are a lot of techniques you need to remember outside of passing and shooting.

Most of it is carried over from the last game, but even simple mechanics have an extra layer to them. For example, tackles can be charged to be stronger, and you can tackle into your own teammates to give them a speed boost to chase after the ball or reach the goal quicker.

With how detailed and lengthy the tutorial is, it’s evident that Next Level Games and Nintendo are trying to make the sort of sports game that can be played competitively. The kind where victory is mostly determined by skill rather than getting lucky with special items and random chance. We were even explicitly told that the aim is to reach a middle ground between the chaotic Wii game and the strategic GameCube game.

Explosions will knock players out for a bit, but they’ll walk it off eventually (pic: Nintendo)

Items can only be obtained from randomly appearing item boxes, while item variety itself is far more limited compared to the Wii game. The mix-and-match stadiums are purely cosmetic, with no field hazards to be wary of. Even the special Hyper Strike shot, which is now available with every character rather than just team captains, has been pared back.

Not only does it only count for two goals (you could get upwards of six goals at once in the Wii game), but you need to grab a specific item that will appear randomly, and its effect will wear off eventually.

It helps make the Hyper Strike more special when you manage to pull it off, but poor button timing means it can be blocked so it’s not a guaranteed path to success. A blocked Hyper Strike can still be dangerous though, since they have unique effects, like Mario setting nearby players on fire or Peach brainwashing anyone caught within the heart shape the ball makes (it can even charm the goalie into rolling the ball into their own goal).

Even with the more random elements dialled down, matches can get incredibly hectic, especially when you’re playing against someone of equal skill. Everything about Battle League Football feels fast paced and it can sometimes be easy to lose track of who you’re controlling, even with a handy number floating over their head.

In order to match the zany energy of the promo art and character animations, the action never stops. There’s no off-side rule or penalties and you’re free to tackle players who don’t have possession of the ball. Although this will lead to the crowd throwing an item box onto the pitch that only the opposing team can pick up.

In the end, however, victory is determined mostly by skill. The addition of items and Hyper Strikes is mostly to give lesser skilled players a bit of an edge, as opposed to something like Super Smash Bros., where the right random item can sometimes determine the winner.

This level of strategy extends to which characters you pick for your team, as each one has their own stats that determine their running speed, shooting power, etc. These stats can be altered with gear, so if you’re a Bowser fan but wish he ran faster, that’s a viable option. That said, each gear type also reduces a stat to keep things balanced.

Hopefully, there’s an option to keep the cosmetics without altering the stats since it’s fun just to see these characters wearing full battle armour (we spotted a couple that are a direct call back to the armour worn in the Wii game). Plus, you may like how one piece of gear looks but not the stat changes. With how much the game pushes customisation (you can select your team’s colours, the numbers displayed on players’ uniforms, etc.), it’d be a missed opportunity if this isn’t the case.

Honestly, from a gameplay standpoint, Battle League Football is getting everything right. Its biggest drawback, and what may even put off die-hard fans at first, seems to be the lack of content. As it stands, the game only features 10 playable characters.

It’s safe to assume Nintendo intends on adding more as post-launch content, just like Mario Tennis Aces and Mario Golf: Super Rush, but unless there are hidden unlockables, 10 is hardly a strong starting number and means early adopters will be seeing a lot of the same looking teams in online play.

There appear to only be five variants of each gear type, but we wouldn’t be surprised if more were added as DLC (pic: Nintendo)

It doesn’t help that the Wii game had twice as many characters to choose from and even Mario Tennis Aces had at least 16 at launch. The absence of a mainstay like Daisy (who’s so synonymous with Mario spin-offs that her not being in the base game feels bizarre) has only exacerbated the issue with some fans.

Nintendo has also yet to confirm any offline content for the game, beyond standard multiplayer and matches against the computer. We hate to compare it to the Wii game again, but that had a full-fledged single-player campaign and optional challenges that unlocked fun cheats.

Battle League Football’s success seems to completely hinge on the online and we can’t comment on how well it works since all our matches were local. All that’s missing are microtransactions and a battle pass and you’d have every other online experience out there. Neither appear to be present, though, with the in-game currency of coins (used to buy new gear) so far only obtainable through play.

A First Kick demo should be available for download sometime today, so you can see how the online play handles yourself. On the downside, said online play will only be available during select times on June 4 and June 5. Plus, you need to be subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online and have an Internet connection, even if you just want to play the tutorial.

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Nintendo is clearly approaching Battle League Football with the same ‘release now, add stuff later’ mentality as the Switch’s tennis and golf games, which is a bit risky given its track record. Mario Tennis Aces was decently successful, with roughly a year’s worth of additional content (namely 14 new characters), but Mario Golf: Super Rush only saw a handful of extra characters and courses and was abandoned after five months.

It’s a real shame since Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is precisely what fans of the series have been waiting for and has the potential to be one of Next Level Games’ best. Ideally, the final package will be much meatier than it looks now, because it’s not a good look when its 15-year-old predecessor offered a lot more.

Mario Strikers: Battle League Football releases for Nintendo Switch on June 10.

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