September 30, 2022

There are few things in life that are not enhanced with the addition of destructive red shells and slippery banana peels. It turns out football is no exception. Mario Strikers: Battle League is Nintendo’s latest attempt at an arcade-style football game, and it’s an experience that’s both streamlined and chaotic. That means it’s easy to pick up and play, but also has a lot going on, providing both depth for experienced players and shortcuts for beginners. It follows much of the same philosophy as Mario Kart, only you hit a ball instead of following the curves of 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.

In his heart, Strikers is a lighter version of classic football. The field is much smaller, more in line with a basketball court than a football field, and games are five-on-five. (You can control all four players on the pitch, while the goalkeepers are still managed by the AI.) Typical matches only last four minutes and they can’t end in a draw; if this happens, the game switches to “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 ordinary football on a smaller scale. A bit like in Mario Kartthere are items that can turn the tide of the match, from the aforementioned banana peels and banana shells to Bob-ombs that temporarily leave a huge crater in the field. Strikers is also much more violent than real football. Not only can you blast your opponents or stun them with a red shell, there are no fouls in the game, so you can attack them without fear of repercussions. In fact, there aren’t many rules at all, so don’t expect football stalwarts 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 correct item, a player can fire a special charged shot which, if entered, counts as two goals. These are tricky to pull off – you need to reload without getting tackled and complete a timed challenge to have a chance to score – but they can really change the dimension of a match. I didn’t have much success with them, but I definitely lost a lead or two because I couldn’t stop a hyperstrike.

Really, that’s what I mainly take from Strikers Gameplay: It’s fast and chaotic and leads to incredible back-and-forth play. It’s a bit like basketball, with both teams constantly heading for the net. This is due to the combination of speed, a smaller playing field, and things that can turn things around quickly. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that no lead is safe Mario Strikers: Battle League. It’s also a game with an excessive personality; the characters gloat hilariously, and the stadiums are actually two home arenas smashed together. That’s enough to make it a fun spectator sport as well.

As with most arcade games, Strikers much more fun to play with other people. And you can bring lots of friends: it supports up to eight players via local multiplayer, and those matches can get particularly wild, especially if you’re not working as a team. It may not be real football, but it still requires a certain degree of strategy and coordination when playing four-player. 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 climb a competitive ladder together. Unfortunately, I couldn’t test this before launch, but it seems to be a major part of the experience.

The trade-off, however, is that Strikers is much less interesting as a solo experience. And it’s not because the game isn’t fun to play on your own – because it is. I really enjoyed jumping into quick Mario Soccer matches while watching real football on TV. (I should also note here that Strikers works great in handheld mode.) The game has a series of tournaments that you can play solo, but they aren’t particularly exciting. Unlike, say, cups of Mario Kart, the tournaments are not so different from each other. The challenge increases and there are opponents with different skills. But other than a cool new trophy at the end, there’s not much to set the tournaments apart.

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 a 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 the way your team plays. This doesn’t necessarily make the characters more skilled, but rather allows you to change the composition to better suit your playstyle. Right now I have a very fast Princess Peach who loves to sprint on the wings, getting the perfect pass for 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 I’m excited to find out Strikers online, and Nintendo also said it would support the game with free post-launch content, including new characters. (The current cast includes 10 playable characters.) So it looks like the game has a solid future. The core of Strikers is fantastic, and it’s especially good with friends. But the lack of a meaty solo experience is a disappointment. You’ll almost certainly have fun with it, but how much is entirely up to your teammates.

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