Yep, we’ve only gone and played Mario Strikers: Battle League (Football) by invitation of Nintendo UK. We’re not boasting or anything, we just didn’t know how else to open the article.

Fittingly, we had a good 90 minutes with the game and have been able to get a fairly decent idea of what we can expect from it when we finally plonk MSBL firmly into our console’s game card slot/SD Card storage. Thankfully, it’s all good.

The first thing we need to make clear about this new entry in this soccer-adjacent series is just how much new stuff they’ve added. We don’t mean more characters or anything like that (sorry Daisy fans), we’re talking mechanics. The previous entries were joyful in their simplicity, and whilst Battle League can still absolutely be enjoyed as a simpler, slower, pick-up-and-play kind of game, you can also make best use of the slew of new tricks to leave those people who might prefer a leisurely game in the proverbial dust.

You can now dodge foes, tackle a teammate forward so that they boost way across the pitch with seeming invulnerability, charge up pretty much any action you can think of, and a whole lot more that we’re sure we didn’t fully absorb in our time with Battle League. These new additions may not be revolutionary in terms of gaming as a whole, but it provides you with just so many more tools to pound the other player into the dirt. It’s early doors of course, but we can see the skill ceiling being considerably higher in this game than the Wii outing, especially.

And to further your experience you can don your characters with gear in order to alter their stats. It’s thankfully all a tit-for-tat system, meaning a pair of gloves may well give you +2 power, but you’ll also lose two points of another stat as a payoff. It means that no matter how much gear you’ve unlocked, you’ll always have the same total stats on your character(s) as anyone else. Having said that, stats also feel like they’re even more important than ever.

We repeatedly encountered a situation where our beloved Toad didn’t have a high enough power stat to be able to properly tackle opponents. Opponents would stumble and come to a stop, of course, but they could easily maintain possession of the ball unless the tackle was charged or we were able to slam them into the electric fence. Clearly the character you pick and the gear they wear is more important than ever, and we love it.

Speaking of gear, you’re going to have to work for it. In a system that's pretty par for the course but somehow felt refreshingly retro in its straightforwardness, earning in-game coins by playing matches unlocks individual pieces of gear for each character, and there’s a lot of gear. We don’t know whether it’s a sign that we need to start looking for sheltered accommodation or not, but we really appreciated this simple unlock method — with no multiple currencies or points meters to track — that rewards you for playing but doesn’t give you a needless advantage over anyone else. Top stuff.

But what’s more ‘top stuff’ is the presentation. Graphics are good, yes, yes, but it’s the animations that really sell this thing. The last time we saw Mushroom Kingdom residents animated this smoothly and with this much character was way back in Luigi’s Mansion 3. Probably because it’s from the same development studio team in the form of Next Level Games.

We really cannot emphasise enough just how gorgeous all the goal celebrations, victory swaggers, defeat tantrums, and even the simplest action of Mario booting Yoshi squarely in the face mid-match make this game come to life. The developers have even gone to the trouble of making Waluigi's lips sync perfectly with his self-righteous cry of ‘Waluigi!’ upon scoring. Truly we’re being spoilt.

In short, Mario Strikers: Battle League (Football) is shaping up to be one hell of a follow-up to the Wii and GameCube classics. We know we shouldn’t count our chickens before they’re two in the bush, but if our expectations continue to be so effortlessly fulfilled, we could easily be looking at the best Mario sports title on the Switch.