Mario Strikers: Battle League is a letdown

Let me get this out of the way first, Mario Strikers: Battle League will be the last Mario-themed sports game I buy at full price. I was having a lot of fun with the First Kick demo a couple of weeks ago, but that’s where most of the appeal for the game went. The single-player content is weak, so unless you have others to play with, you’re not going to have too much fun.

Mario lifting a trophy after winning the Cup

Lack of Content

I grew up with the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance-era of Mario-themed sports games. Those games offered an RPG-rich experience that also had fun sports content. With Battle League, the single-player content is very thin and takes only a couple of hours to complete.

Outside of Quick Battle matches, the only real mode for single-player is Cup Battles. In this mode, you create your team of four, then proceed to play in double-eliminations tournaments to earn coins. Each of the Cups available pairs you against teams that excel in one aspect of the game. Play the “Muscle Cup” and you face off against teams that are built around being strong. Take part in the “Cannon Cup” and assume your opposition has excellent long-range shots.

The problem with this mode is that there really isn’t a noticeable difference between the teams. In all six tournaments available in the Normal difficulty setting, I never felt a real challenge. Of all the matches I played, only two ended with a one-goal difference. Every other match ended as a blowout, winning by at least three goals.

A replay of a goal being scored in Mario Strikers Battle League

Terrible AI

A big reason for the lop-sided results is that the AI in the game isn’t that great. On your team, you can either play with auto or manual switching. Choosing “auto” means then you are always controlling the player with the ball on offense. If you pick “manual”, then when you make a pass you’re not directly controlling that player until you switch to it.

Going this route means you can expect your teammates to make dumb decisions. I played one tournament like this because I wanted to try it out, and it was awful. Yes, I still won that cup, I was regularly frustrated by the mistakes my teammates were making. Player switching isn’t that good in the game and trying to quickly change who you are controlling before the AI does something stupid is frustrating.

I also noticed that the keeper AI was wildly inconsistent. I would have matches where the keeper could stop so many shots, including most special Hyper Shots. Then have a match where the keeper was letting in just about anything that came towards them. You have no control over the keeper, so you’re left at the game’s whim on how good or bad they play from one game to the next. In online matches, it was the keeper’s performance that more or less determined who wins a game.

Yoshi's gear customization in Mario Strikers Battle League

Uninspired Customization

To adjust your team’s play style, you need to unlock gear. Gear is unlocked by earning coins in Cup Battles and in Strikers Club. All ten characters have five ability categories, with point values ranging between 0 and 25. Some characters, like Donkey Kong, are really strong. Then you have characters like Yoshi who have fantastic passing and shooting attributes. All characters share the same point total spread across those categories.

What the gear does is allow you to “move” points around the other four attributes. You can unlock gear for your head, arms, body, and legs. For example, if you want to equip the Chain Helmet on Yoshi, then he’ll get a +2 on passing, but will lose -2 on speed. You can regain the +2 on speed by unlocking and wearing the Turbo Gloves, but doing this will reduce strength by -2.

With the current gear available, you can definitely make a character like Donkey Kong go full strength. If you go this route, then his Speed and Technique suffer. Unfortunately, I can’t see a route going where you can turn him into a balanced player. At the same time, those who are pretty balanced, like Mario or Waluigi, won’t see major shifts in one category. At least, not with the current gear available.

One thing I don’t like about the customization is that the game doesn’t really encourage trying different gear. In Cup Battles, once I had the team I enjoyed and unlocked the gear I wanted for them, they stayed that way. I created a squad with DK at near max strength, Peach with max speed, then Mario and Waluigi being balanced. I used that for every cup and never had to make any changes.

A goal is scored, making the score 8-1 against the computer

Again, where’s the content?

After winning the first six Cup Battle tournaments, you do unlock Galactic Mode, which is different series of challenges with increased difficulty. The format doesn’t change. So, it’s just another set of double-elimination tournaments featuring four yourself and three other teams.

Winning those Cup Battles on normal mode did unlock some new gear, the Bushido Gear. If unlocked, it increases one attribute with a +4, but every other category loses -1. Outside that, there isn’t much more customization available in the single-player portion.

This is disappointing since the game desperately needs more team customization options in Cup Battles. There are only five team crests, which all have their own pre-determined color and kit design. It’s only in the online mode, Strikers Club where you have a bit more variety with club creation and kit choices. The problem there is that only the team’s captain/owner can make those changes.

My Strikers Club team select, featuring players from my club

Joining a Club

As I’ve already mentioned, the game’s primary multiplayer mode is Strikers Club, Here, you can create or join a club with up to 20 other players and work together to earn rewards. You have two kinds of matches, those you can play on your own or those with other members of your club. Winning these matches earn you coins for you to unlock gear for your players and unlock items for your stadium.

When joining a club, you create a player that represents you on the team. Every member creates a character with the gear they want and everyone else uses those for online matches. At the time of this review, my club only had six members, so I could only create teams for online matches featuring the players my teammates and I made.

This concept is actually pretty neat if you have a club with enough members. Members can change their character when they want, which includes adding or removing gear. I suspect groups that are close to full are a lot more fun since you have more choice in which players you build a squad around. Single-player modes don’t allow for multiple versions of the same character. But in Strikers Club, if you want to build a squad of four variations of Mario and your club has enough to do so, you can!

Vines appearing on the pitch after Waluigi performing his Hyper Shot

Playing with others

I had a lot of fun with the First Kick demo which was entirely online-focused. With the full game, I was able to get into matches pretty quickly. The gameplay felt fine, with no noticeable lag. In nearly every match I played, it was me against another solo player. While I played in handheld mode, most of my opponents played the game docked with the Switch Pro Controller.

There was one match where I actually played against two opponents at the same time. Before jumping into an online match, it asks you if you’re playing solo or with a friend, so I assumed I would always pair up against another solo player. Since this didn’t happen, it was interesting to see how different it plays with this kind of handicap.

I’ve already mentioned the bad AI is and online play only further highlights the problems. In that match against two players, since they were controlling 50% of the team at all times, they didn’t have to rely on the AI to get into the correct spots and to actually play defense. Obviously, people will learn to overcome the AI’s shortcomings but the ideal way to play this is if you have as many people as possible controlling each player on the pitch.

The match line-up screen just before a game starts, featuring all 8 players selected

Wait for now

At this moment, I can’t recommend Mario Strikers: Battle League unless you have a core group of friends to play with on a regular basis. For what I enjoyed with Strikers Club, I just don’t see myself sticking around too much. Nintendo did support both Mario Tennis Aces and Mario Golf: Super Rush with additional content. Hopefully, we get some extra stuff for Battle League that isn’t just new gear and stadium customization.