Thankfully, there are no referees in Mario Strikers: Battle League Football. Within minutes, I had kicked every single opponent in the face with a flying kick, and had set fire to a whole squad of Blue Yoshi’s who ran around screaming while their Boom-Boom goalkeeper tried to resolutely hold his ground and keep the ball out of the net while learning about the Hyper Strike. When it came to multiplayer, he, like me, failed miserably. I caned Luigi into an electrified wire that surrounds the arena, and he did the same. Luigi, I had no idea… I had no idea.

In reality, this is merely football in name. Nintendo’s third attempt to introduce football to Mario’s universe takes as many liberties as possible while still remaining recognizably football, and it’s all the better for it. Nintendo has appeared to relax in recent years when it comes to putting its characters in more mature circumstances (see: Mario’s nipples in Super Mario Odyssey, but also don’t), but I have to admit that the brutality in Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is next level.

Fans of a certain generation may recall the iconic “Cantona” kick being imitated in another game, but this is just a regular charged tackle. With a tap of the “Y” button, you’ll slide, but if you hold it down, you’ll unleash a full-on karate kick at the player you’re fighting, whether friend or foe. You can either knock them out or kick your own buddy in the behind for a supercharged “tackle” that gives you greater reach: essentially kicking your own pal in the arse for an advantage.

To win the game at all costs, players will employ all of their Mario-ness and breach the rules. Donkey Kong does not even use his feet; instead, he simply throws the ball wherever you direct him. Putting the comic impact aside, the supercharged tackle is a key tactical feature that has me thinking about Battle League Football’s long-term prospects, even after only a few hours of play. There are a lot of minor ideas here that casual gamers won’t touch (or need to touch), but there’s depth that surprised me.

You can, for example, manually pass the ball. That may seem insignificant, but in a furiously fast-paced arcade version of football where you’re encouraged to ping the ball around with a combination of ground and lobbed passes in order to get a powerful shot on goal, being able to manually commit to a “through-ball” and catch your opponent off guard is intriguing. It’s a touch difficult, requiring you to hold a button and use a mouse to select a place while keeping control of the ball, but it has a competitive depth for those determined to learn it.

If you time your combination passing correctly, it will perform better. There are charged shots, sprints, off-the-ball dodges, and everything else you’d expect from a game like this, but after playing it, I’m struck by how nuanced and deep it could become, with certain skills resembling a fighting game parry. Again, master it and you’ll be a force to be reckoned with, so let’s hope the online components are well-matched.

After then, there are the Hyper Strikes. Glowing orbs will appear on the field of play at random times. With just one, your entire team will be energized. Then, while in your opponent’s half, hold the shoot button to charge a shot and activate a mini-game that swings a meter from left to right. If you get it right, you’ll be able to perform a Hyper Strike. If you don’t manage perfect timing, the keeper can stop it, but the opposing player will have to hammer a button to fill a bar to keep the ball out of the net.

The animation for the shot comes before that, and this is how my Mario ended up burning down the entire team of Blue Yoshis. They’d all returned to the penalty area to defend, you see, and Mario’s Hyper Strike had resulted in a lake of fire, which, well, you know the rest. Although the keeper (always Boom Boom) rescued the day, Mario’s message was clear: if you play with fire, you’ll get burned.

If the message isn’t getting across loud and clear, here’s what you should do: Mario Strikers: Battle League Football is a fantastically entertaining game. It’s fast and intense, aggressive and humorous, and it suddenly matters when you’re partnered up with friends, and based on the clamor in the room, my opponent and I weren’t the only ones who felt this way.

The Hyper Strikes are the first point of criticism for Mario Strikers: Battle League Football. It’s not an issue against CPU-controlled opponents, but this technique can be disrupted while you’re doing it. I’m not sure I have a solution other than to say it has to be able to happen faster, because neither of us were able to pull it off in numerous matches against a real person; each time we were tackled before we could finish the mini-game.

These count as two goals if scored, thus they can’t be too simple to pull off, but they now feel like they require more time and space than the pitch permits. When you’re “powered-up,” the hectic nature of the overall experience is amplified because it doesn’t last long, so it’s a race to find the time and space to try and land a Hyper Strike.

It will also be interesting to observe if it becomes too chaotic when eight people play at the same time. There can be a lot going on at once when power-ups are included (red and green shells, bob-ombs, banana peels, mushrooms). There’s also the all-important netcode to dive into, because it’ll be a farce if this doesn’t operate well online.

Another issue to be answered is how feature-rich Mario Strikers: Battle League Football will be when it launches. A gear system allows you to spend coins (acquired through gameplay) to unlock new equipment for any of your characters. Toad and Donkey Kong have some very ridiculous expressions, and I’m all with that. Toad’s helmet, in particular. To believe it, you must see it.

The stats of the characters are adjusted by these equip pieces. DK and Bowser are the heavyweights, with all-rounders and speed characters: the standard Mario Sports or Kart stuff. It’ll be interesting to see how much customization is available in the finished game, but early indications suggest that it might add depth to an arcade sports game that already has a plethora of ways to play.

It’s early days for Mario Strikers: Battle League Football, but it’s typically a good sign when you want to play more after a few hours. We’ll find out soon enough, but this is already building up to be one of Nintendo’s and developer Next Level’s best sports games. Fingers crossed it’s not just a one-day wonder and will be around for the long haul.