Every time a Mario sports game has released over the past decade, it’s seemingly the same story. Players benefit from a solid core experience rooted in highly refined sports gameplay. The problem? There aren’t many compelling reasons to play due to the thin feature lists. We saw it in Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, Mario Sports Superstars, Mario Golf: Super Rushand now again in Mario Strikers: Battle League.
The latter is arguably the most egregious offender to date. While it features some of the most complex and nuanced Mario sports gameplay to date, it is sorely lacking in game modes. Rather than including challenges and mini-games to test players’ skills, there are three options: Freeplay, a small set of tournaments and online play. All of this can be enjoyed single-player, but it feels very much like a first-time multiplayer experience built around its standout online “club” mode.
It’s a tough sell for a $60 game, but the format may be the problem. Of all Nintendo’s series, Mario sports games could benefit from a more modern approach by adopting a free-to-play model. The tricky part is making sure it’s done the right way.
Less is good
What’s funny about a game like Mario Strikers: Battle League is that it has about as much content as other modern titles. It’s not unusual for a multiplayer-focused game to launch with a tight mode and later expand it with updates. We already know that battle league will get DLC, bringing more characters to the roster. The difference between this game and something like Apex Legends comes down to the initial purchase.
Due to the nature of their $0 pricing, free games have a lot more flexibility than full retail games. It doesn’t matter how rare the package is when players download it for free. Successful free-to-play multiplayer games tend to hook players with an immediately fun experience that feels like stealing and earn their money later by selling bonuses (a tactic that some games tend to abuse).
In contrast, gamers expect the full experience right off the bat if they pay full retail price for a game – and that’s what Nintendo is struggling with right now. Recent Mario sports games (and even Nintendo Switch Sports) feel almost inspired by free-to-play design, putting more effort into creating solid inline hooks that will keep players engaged. Additional content usually comes later, long after the average gamer has moved on to the next hot game.
Take Mario Golf, for example. Nintendo GameCube Title Mario Golf: Poison Mushroom Tour featured four main single-player modes, a dozen multiplayer options, a handful of minigames, and unlockables that players could pursue long term. Last years Mario Golf: Super Rush launched as a much slimmer package with a quick story mode and three main multiplayer options. It would add new features over time, but it was hard to shake off the feeling that Nintendo had missed the green with its release strategy.
If Nintendo continues to scale back its multiplayer games in this way, a free-to-play pivot looks like a win-win move. This would allow the company to focus on building solid multiplayer experiences that don’t need to launch with the wealth of content fans have come to expect from previous Mario sports titles or $60 games. It would help games like Mario Strikers: Battle League finding a wider audience that could be hooked to the game’s superior football systems through its club mode.
It would be an unprecedented decision for Nintendo, but not for the industry as a whole. This month both Knockout City and Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout pivoted to a free-to-play model. Both games are great multiplayer titles that struggled to retain their audience after being offered free to players initially, but they sold out in the long run. The much larger example is Infinite Halo, which went free-to-play with its multiplayer and sold its campaign separately. It continues to be a winning strategy for some of gaming’s most profitable franchises, so why shouldn’t Mario get in on the action too?
Nintendo’s Cash Cow
There’s a simple answer to why Nintendo wouldn’t make a Mario game, sports or otherwise, free: they make too much money. Mario is a constant cash cow for Nintendo, who can seemingly turn any game featuring the plumber into gold. If Nintendo was experimenting with a free-to-play model, it would have to find a way to recoup what it would have earned by simply launching a $60 game that it rarely offers.
This is where the downside of the business model comes in. Free games get a bad rap with some gamers for their sometimes aggressive use of microtransactions. For every game that only charges for cosmetics, there’s another that creeps uncomfortably closer to pay-to-win territory, As pokemon unite.
Nintendo’s previous attempts at free play have been mixed in terms of their monetization success. There was the ill-fated Wii U Wii Sports Club, which charged users a daily fee to play. Other free Switch titles like Pokemon Quest and Super Kirby Clash haven’t exactly been big earners for Nintendo, although he’s had more success with Fire Emblem Heroesa mobile game that uses “gacha” mechanics.
I imagine a free-to-play Mario sports game might charge players for new characters rather than giving them away for free, which seems reasonable, although there is also potential danger. Some Mario sports titles feature unlockable gear, like golf clubs, that can boost player stats. Locking those behind a paywall could be what cracks the thin ice the series is already standing on.
It’s risky, but a change of form is in order. Mario sports games have been in steady decline since 2015 and Mario Strikers: Battle LeagueThe lack of content is a worrying sign for the future of the series. A bold step into the free-to-play arena could allow Nintendo to stay competitive in a crowded modern scene and reclaim its position as the king of multiplayer.