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Mario Strikers: Battle League Football review - slick but slim fun

Tough pitch.

Mario Strikers returns with a stripped back entry for Switch that's ultimately less fun to tackle.

I'd been looking forward to Mario Strikers: Battle League Football because of the chaotic fun I remember having with Mario Strikers Charged, the incarnation of Mario's souped-up sort-of footy series which launched on Wii an astonishing 15 years ago. Battle League (without the Football outside Europe), which arrives this week for Switch, is the first new version of Strikers since then. But the more I played, the less I found of what I used to enjoy.

Battle League is, arguably, a more focused game - and ultimately likely the better representation of small-team football. Aside from the occasional frame-rate wobble, it is also slicker in presentation, and certainly hosts the most visual customisation seen in the series to date. But I don't really play Mario Strikers for football, in the same way I don't really play Rocket League for football either. I play Strikers - or I did, back on Wii - because it was a weird and very Mario version of football. To Battle League's detriment, it feels like there's less of that this time around.

The game's core offerings are its Cup Battles - a series of small tournament brackets where up to four players can make progress to earn customisation-unlocking coins - and Strikers Club, an online mode where your victories contribute to a weekly seasonal ranking for Clash of Clans-style groups of up to 20 members. At the end of each week, your club's founder can use tokens earned by members to tweak the look of their preferred pitch.

A runthrough of Battle League's gameplay.Watch on YouTube

Cup Battles are entertaining enough, though after each cup has been beaten once these offer a substantially reduced number of coins. You'll need this currency to purchase gear upgrades which customise Battle League's opening selection of 10 Mushroom Kingdom characters. As ever, Mario is your all-rounder, Bowser is slower but beefy, while Toad (in his fully-playable debut for the series) is speedy but prone to getting beaten up.

Alongside enhancing the designs of these characters with distinctly un-football-like armour that's more NFL than Premier League, gear can also be used to plug the gaps in some stats and smooth things over so, actually, your Toad can pack a punch if you so desire. Everything comes at a price, however - with skill points in strength coming at a cost to speed, for example - meaning you don't really upgrade a character per se, but tweak how they play.

Matches begin with you picking four main characters to control (there are no Sidekicks this time around, and the goalie remains a CPU) plus whether to use them with gear or without. A slim selection of five stadiums to choose from is up next, themed around Peach's Castle, Bowser's Castle, Luigi's Mansion, Donkey Kong's jungle, or a Mushroom Hill that looks straight out of the real-world Super Mario theme park. Your pick here is entirely aesthetic, and is mashed together with your opponents' to create a stadium of two halves. A consequence of this, sadly, is that the stadium effects seen in Charged are no longer present. Gone are the days where a windy stadium could see a cow blown across the pitch, blocking play in the middle of a hurricane.

Turning Bowser into a mecha Godzilla is fun though.

Gameplay itself feels more tactical, with a suite of moves you are initially introduced to via a lengthy series of tutorials. Dashing and dodging are their own separate skills, and getting to know when to use both feels key to avoiding the incessant tackling which is otherwise now a major focus. With fewer and weaker items than Charged and no Super Abilities at all, much of your time is spent slamming or skidding into opponents to wrestle control of the ball or pre-emptively take other players out. But as amusing as it is to see Yoshi repeatedly splattered against the stadium walls, the focus on tackling can be taken to the extremes, especially as players seem to writhe on the floor for a little longer than necessary. This is especially noticable during the wait for a Hyper Strike to play out, where your goalie tries to send the ball back into play. Here, some matches can descend into a distracting full-on punch-up, where none are left standing when play actually resumes.

It's a situation not helped by Battle League's paring back of items to just the simplest you might see in Mario Kart, and the removal of Charged's Super Abilities which were individual to each character. The new Hyper Strike ability, activated via glowing orb (think Super Smash Bros' Smash Ball) now simply offers a different animation dependent on which character activates it. It's not the same as actually controlling Wario as he lets out a powdery fart to confuse nearby enemies, or Yoshi as he squashes players inside a giant egg, or Mario as he turns supersized. Even good periods of passing the ball between members of your squad seems less important, following the greater emphasis on this in Charged with its metallic ball that heated up over time.

And that's how Battle League is - at launch, anyway. This Strikers installment is not without character - every so often I'll see Wario determinedly carrying around the football under arm like the big cheat he is, or watch another celebration dance from the truly weird Waluigi, and be left with a chuckle. The ability to just pull off a Hyper Strike as an opponent slides in to stop you is immensely satisfying. And already, there's suggestion the game will recieve a roster of post-launch updates with more characters to follow. But even with these, and even if the weekly Strikers Club ends up taking off, it's hard to look at the slim package of modes on offer right now compared to something like Rocket League, that other non-football football game, then factor in Nintendo's typical boxed Switch game RRP, and still be able to reccommend Battle League for a quick kickabout.

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