By Neil Merrett
By merging the tight shooting and passing mechanics of five-aside football with hard hitting, big tackling American sports, as well as a smidgen of the casual violence and strategy of action videogames, even North American friends might just find something to embrace in Mario Strikers: Battle League.
Mario Strikers: Battle League, released on Nintendo Switch in 2022, developed by Next level Games
Perhaps one of the greatest collective struggles of humanity in the recent history of our species has been attempts to get North Americans to embrace football, or soccer as they insist on calling it.
To be fair, they have always seemed perfectly happy with their own homegrown sports. Likewise, the United States women’s national soccer team has been one of the dominant forces in the world game for decades.
But in the collective conscious of the United States, the “fast kicking, low scoring” game of football is an alien curiosity to gaze at from afar with bewildered wonderment or outright apathy.
That is not to say that the sport doesn’t have its fans in the US, especially with the country’s changing demographics. But the World Cup, certainly in terms of the men’s game, is never going to rival the Superbowl, the NBA championship or even the Stanley Cup as a national obsession.
This is after all the world’s game, and the broad US view seems to be that the world can keep it.
A videogame solution
However, perhaps in the realm of videogames, where titles like Rocket League are able to recreate the essential appeal of football with the use of rocket powered vehicle, there might be hope to gently school our transatlantic chums on the appeal or merits of footy.
As Squareblind has previously discussed, in sometimes painful detail, there are a vast number of attempts in recent decades to try and capture and recreate the essential appeal of football. This can range from outright simulation to a not so loving satire of the beautiful game with circular arenas, evil robot doppelgangers and bullet time slide tackles.
More recently, Nintendo has even tried to build an approximation of a four-a-side competitive kickabout with its motion-controlled sports games.
But – as is often the case in videogames – if you are trying to introduce a game to a close friend uninitiated with the charms of a title such as Sensible Soccer, perhaps Super Mario is the best place to start.
Mario Strikers: Battle League is the third main title in a series of arcade football games that commenced with 2005’s Mario Strikers on the GameCube. In European markets, the game was known as Mari Smash Football.
In all iterations of the game, football is imagined as a fast paced slug fest, where five players are trapped into a confined arena and required to get the ball into their opponent’s net anyway that they can. This relies on building up strategies involve dodging and checking rivals into electric fences, before blazing down a pitch to launch a split second counterattack culminating in Birdo smashing in an overhead kick – fit hey get the timing right.
This is to say nothing of the focus on special moves, and the adoption of some staple weapons from Mario Kart such as a red shell that can be sued, as is traditional, to hunt down a player on the ball before they can smash some long-range curling wonder shot passed your keeper.
As one reviewer suggested playing the game from a North American perspective, Mario Strikers is an experience akin to injecting a traditional football game with Epinephrine and leaving a load of explosive weapons casually around the pitch.
In short, yes, it is a football game with kicks, passes, lobs, tricky footwork and dodging. But these mechanics are sort of reimagined as an intense multiplayer puzzle brawler, such as playing Bomberman with sprinting and dodges.
Brute force, blind luck, split second dodges and amazing through balls to allow a player to beat two or three rivals are all viable strategies to success in Mario Strikers. Sometimes, victory can come simply to the last playing standing that can get into a good shooting position.
Mario Strikers in 2022
With the latest release of Mario Strikers: Battle League in June 2022, those key tenants of success are the same. However, the latest title presents them with a graphical overhaul and some options to build an online team of players from around the world that can play together collectively or individually to score points to climb up or down online leagues and win cosmetic bonusses.
Whether the game has the cahonies to function as an bonafide e-sport or not, it is certainly competitive.
For an experienced player of football videogames, the arcade approach of the Mario football series plays like a legitimate and purposefully over the top sports game. Albeit, it is a football game that does away with the basic rules of fouls and common decency, replacing them with power ups such as bombs and banana skins to get back at rivals.
In the 2022 iteration of the series, tackles are seemingly removed altogether in favour of shoulder barges that can be charged up to either smash an opponent into the ground or -more usefully – into the electric fencing around the pitch. If the player is really clever, they can also shoulder charge their own players into a rival as if they are projectile that can be catapulted like a pool ball into the other team.
Honour and sportsmanship are much less of a concern in Battle League. This is a game that favours trickery and perfect timing much like Mario Kart.
With the online options now available, the latest Mario Strikers is also an interesting test bed for some US players that have not had the time, inclination or opportunity to play a FIFA game.
To the game’s credit, it builds a football-like experience that makes use of some classic multiplayer gaming techniques that can surely meet the US appetite for more kiss, kiss, bang, bang in their sports.
Yes, it can pay off to master the game’s shooting mechanics as if playing a more traditional football game. There is value in trying and learn how to charge shots that can be aimed around to spin the game’s fairly competent goalkeepers with an attractive Beckham-esque curled shot or to find space to put in a perfect overhead kick as if Princess Peach has become 2018 Gareth bale.
But there are other ways to play the game that mirror sone of the mechanics of American football or ice hockey, such as providing interference with shoulder checks and weapons to cover your team mate as they charge up a super powerful special shot to be launched straight through the opposite goalkeeper.
The inclusion of the charged tackle mechanics can also allow player to make a last-minute move into the path of a ball to try and block a shot on goal, albeit with the resulting power of the ball sending them painfully into the game’s electrified barriers.
Likewise, the dodge mechanic, where a player with or without the ball can site step or roll out of danger of a brutal tackle at the last second before speeding off for a shot or pass a range of modern adventure games in terms of appeal.
It is certainly fair to compare Mario Strikers: Battle League with the more intense, hard tackling North American sports, or even a highly physical game such as Rugby – which has got its own Mario and Sonic-themed version in recent Olympic Games tie ins from Sega.
But in taking some of the more thrilling and technical aspects of football, and merging them into an action-adventure game there might just be something here for those not normally bothered in football, but do enjoy a solid multiplayer game to team up or go head-to-head in.
You might just find even your North American friends enjoying the prospect of latching intro a darting through ball before blasting a lightning first curling shot around the goalie. Sometimes, perhaps fast kicking and low scoring can be enough to make a compelling multiplayer experience to share across the Atlantic.