Mario Strikers: Battle League could have just been another title in a long series of Mario sports games. It could have rehashed mechanics from previous Strikers games, and then called it a day. But between and throughout matches, the characters flaunt something not present in every Mario game: their personalities. Whether it’s Waluigi confidently lounging on the pitch just before kickoff, or Peach fanning off her frustration before letting her temper get the best of her, Battle League breathes new life into characters that not even mainline Mario games have been able to refresh for quite some time.
Nintendo is great at putting out playful games that don’t take Mario too seriously. But Battle League takes itself even less seriously. What stands out most is the willingness of developer Next Level Games to take the Mario characters to deliriously funny heights. In between goals and matches, the characters’ personalities shine. In one instance, Five Toads do a joyous airplane run across the field; in another, Wario butt slams a soccer ball so hard that it rockets forward in an explosive path toward the goal.
The very premise of the game goes unexplained, further adding to the surreal chaos of the matches. The game opens on a giant, translucent, extradimensional orb that soon produces a chimeric monster of a soccer field — a fusion of two completely differently courses joined at the center line. Imagine the cartoony jungle from Donkey Kong on the left, and Bowser’s lava castle on the right, and you get a typical field in Battle League. From there, we see each team emerge dramatically from an interdimensional portal.
The game presents itself more like a Mario Kart than something like Mario Golf: Super Rush. In other words, there is no underlying story or exposition to its campaign or world. It’s a colorful series of short, roughly four-minute-long matches of 5v5 soccer. If you’d like, the game’s forgettable robot mascot offers you a tutorial. But otherwise you just boot up the game and get right to the pitch. Unfortunately, if you’d like to know more about the characters or how to intercept a lob pass, the game hides additional information in a guide only accessible between matches.
Unlike many sports games, and many sequels, really, Strikers avoids the ethos of more. Its roster is relatively lean, offering only Mario, Bowser, Luigi, Peach, Rosalina, Yoshi, Toad, Donkey Kong, Wario, and Waluigi. In lieu of oodles of characters, Battle League opts for customization. You can buy gear for each player that tweaks stats like speed, strength, passing, and weapons technique. You can effectively tailor the perfect super-charged soccer player to get the job done. In one of the more advanced cups, you’ll face down a team of toads: fast Toad, buff Toad, and a Toad that’s just really good at passing. Rather than broadening its character offerings (like so many Mario sports games have done before it) Battle League instead deepens its cast, with adaptability and potential.
On the mechanical side, Battle League sticks to the fundamentals, opting for action over complexity. When doing a “super strike”, the franchise’s signature mechanic, Battle League lathers thick animations onto the cast, with highly stylized line art that resembles an intense finisher from a sports anime. (The easiest comparison is the jump serves from Haruichi Furudate’s Haikyuu!!) From there, your fiery-eyed Mario, or rose-carrying Waluigi, will perform their own unique, game-breaking kick. Toad, as a standout example, headbutts the ball so hard that it alters the terrain of the field with a volcanic explosion.
It all works wonders in packing a surprising amount of personality into these rote characters. I can’t help but feel that this is the most care and attention we’ve seen paid to them in years.
These energetic moments help quell some of the frustrations I had elsewhere in Battle League. My biggest hang-up is that I can’t remap the controls on my Nintendo Switch controller. I found myself mixing up the “pass” and “shoot” buttons in my head so often that I found myself muttering “A is shoot, B is pass” out loud as I played. (A is the most intuitive pass button, in my mind, thanks to the vast majority of sports games, and also previous Mario Strikers entries.)
Battle League’s multiplayer aspects also expose the cracks in the foundation. When playing single-player, you can cycle through any of the characters on the field, as an AI takes over the rest of the team. However when playing on the same team with a friend, you need to be in constant communication over who is going where, and when they plan to switch. If not, you might change to the wrong character if, for example, both try to switch the forward striker at the same time. Playing on a shared team with a friend presents ample opportunities for mess and confusion. (This also leaves me apprehensive about how the full online functionality will pan out when it’s live.)
Mario Strikers: Battle League is far from perfect. In an iterative series of Mario sports games, where each entry seems to raise the bar — Mario Golf: Super Rush and Mario Tennis Aces come to mind — Battle League is relatively tame. But it does wonders for some of gaming’s oldest characters, allowing the likes of Peach, Wario, or Waluigi to let loose. In the fiercely limited time I’ve spent with each of them on the field these past two weeks, I’ve seen an energy and gravitas from these characters that they haven’t shown in years. Whether it’s the temper of Peach or the joy of a fellow Toad basking in the glory of victory, Battle League is ready to stretch its legs.
Mario Strikers: Battle League will be released on June 10 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.