When it first leaked late last year that Ubisoft was working on a game that combined the Rabbids franchise with the Mario universe, many people had their doubts. That’s natural since Mario has had crossover or guest appearance games dating back to the SNES era, and many of them didn’t turn out that great. Titles like Mario Is Missing!, Mario’s Time Machine, and Hotel Mario sort of spelled the end of licensing him out to star in subpar games. The most recent crossover example that has been somewhat of a success is Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. While not the best games ever created, they offer up some fun multiplayer action that can be appreciated by a wide audience. With the Rabbid franchise all but dead in North America, I couldn’t help but wonder why Nintendo would allow this type of deal to take place. I figured the game concept must have been amazing or they wouldn’t have agreed to it. Luckily, that turned out to be the case with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.
If you’re looking for a traditional Super Mario game then you’ll want to wait for Super Mario Odyssey to release later this year. Mario + Rabbids is a completely different experience and a brand new genre for the Mario characters to star in. This title is a turn-based strategy game, not unlike the popular XCOM series. It bears some similarity to other tactics-based games like Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, and Disgaea, but the gameplay has been streamlined so that the entire genre is now accessible to players who might have normally been overwhelmed by the aforementioned franchises. That’s not to say this game is watered down or too easy – far from it, but the team at Ubisoft has crafted a truly magnificent world where the rule sets make complete logical sense and the game does a wonderful job of exposing players to new gameplay mechanics throughout the levels.
So, how exactly does the game work? Well, at the beginning you’ll have control over three separate characters: Mario, Rabbid Peach, and Rabbid Luigi. I’m not going to take a deep dive into the story, but suffice to say the Rabbids get sucked into a washing machine and teleport to the Mushroom Kingdom where things get crazy and now Mario and team must stop the evil Rabbids from destroying the world. As you enter a battle section of the overworld map you’ll be able to look around freely and see where the enemies are stationed. When it’s your turn, you can move each of your individual teammates to where you think they’ll be the most useful. Each has a specific number of squares he or she can move, as well as a range of attack. There are usually objects that you can hide behind to take cover, like the traditional bricks from the Mario games. This will prevent the enemies from dealing damage if you have 100% cover, but they can slowly chip away at the bricks and expose you to future attacks if you stay in one spot for too long. Most levels will require you to defeat a certain number of enemies to progress, although there are other objectives every now and again that will require different strategies.
What sets Mario + Rabbids apart from many other strategy games is that there are a bunch of awesome moves that you can perform. As you move through the beginning levels you learn some new attacks and partner actions that can completely change the battlefield. For example, each character will be able to slide through an enemy while moving, dealing damage along the way. In addition, if you move your character to the same space as one of your allies, he or she can then lift you up and throw you a further distance to reach areas otherwise inaccessible during that round – effectively increasing your range of attack. Add in other environmental features like warp pipes, which can transport your characters to other areas of the stage, and the battles become increasingly fun and entertaining.
In one round early in the game I was able to take Mario and deal massive damage to every enemy on the field in just one turn. I moved him and slid through one enemy, then had Rabbid Peach throw him on top of another enemy, causing jump damage. Mario could still move into a nearby pipe, coming out the other end and hiding behind cover to fire his gun and take out another enemy. On top of that, I was able to activate his “Overwatch” ability, which basically means if an enemy in range moves to another spot, Mario fires a shot, which deals damage even during the enemy turn! Combining these moves and scouring the landscape to discover some of these chainable actions are really exciting and feels rewarding. Of course, the enemies have the same moves as you do, and the AI is rather cunning, so you have to be careful to not leave your team open to attacks.
Between battles you can explore the world. These sections of the game are easily the weakest part of the entire experience. Most of the time you’re just running around collecting coins and solving pretty easy puzzles. There are secrets littered about and some treasure chests will give you access to some nice weapons, but not being able to jump around like Mario normally can really puts a damper on the experience. It’s obvious the Zelda team had nothing to do with the puzzles – as they’re about as simple as can be. Still, it’s not a horrible time and it does break up the battles, but I can’t help but think something more could have been injected into these areas to make them more engaging.
What is cool is that each of your characters has a skill tree that you can upgrade. You’ll earn and find special orbs that you can then spend on different abilities and enhancements. You’ll be able to customize your fighters the way you see fit. Perhaps you want Mario to become a powerhouse damage dealer, so you’ll want to increase the damage he deals by sliding or jumping on enemies. Maybe you’re having problems with a character dying a lot, so you can instead allocate points to increase their HP. These skills can be reallocated anytime you’re not in a battle, so if you feel you made the wrong choice you can easily fix it without any type of penalty.
The weapons in the game are really unique and a great callback to many of those found in the Mario universe. Each character can hold a primary and secondary weapon, and new ones are constantly being found, but must be purchased with coins to obtain them. Many of them will have special augments to them, which have a chance to deal additional damage or affect the enemy in various ways. For example, if your weapon is infused with honey it will have a chance to land a honey attack that will stick the enemy to the spot they’re currently in for their next turn. Another will push your adversary away from you, and possibly off the playfield, dealing massive damage. These are really fun to experiment with can have a huge impact in your battles. The secondary weapons will usually deal area of effect damage, so you could potentially hurt multiple bad guys at the same time. You have to be careful though, because if any allies are in the path of destruction they will also take damage. Each character has different types of weaponry – Mario has a hammer for up close melee attacks and Luigi has a sniper gun to take out enemies from a distance.
The visuals in Mario + Rabbids are simply stunning. The developers went the extra mile with the animations of all of the characters to make the game look like an animated cartoon. The bosses are especially impressive, with expressive faces and over-the-top gestures and movements that really give each one a personality of its own. The overworld exploration segments are particularly impressive with very detailed environments and tons of small details to appreciate. Combine that with particle effects and things like pollen moving around with the wind and the game is just gorgeous, both on the TV and on the Switch screen.
Likewise the sound effects and music are absolutely stellar. Grant Kirkhope returns with an amazing score that definitely sounds a bit like Banjo-Kazooie, but is entirely original. Every now and again he will integrate familiar tunes into the music, like Peach’s Castle from Super Mario 64 or memorable notes from Donkey Kong Country. Although the beginning of the game is fully voiced, the majority of the rest of the game is not. This is to be expected as the Mario characters generally just mutter a word or two and the Rabbids simply scream.
Speaking of the Rabbids, you either love them or you hate them. They remind me a lot of the Minions from Despicable Me, even though technically the Rabbids were around before they were. They definitely inject some humor into the game and I like watching their zany interactions. I think they fit in well with the Mario universe and the ones on your team are pretty funny. I especially enjoy Rabbid Peach, as she often has the best expressions on her face and is always trying to be the center of attention, constantly taking selfies on her phone.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is another fantastic game available for the Nintendo Switch. It’s hard to believe the amount of quality games that have already released for the system during its first six months on the market. This collaboration not only works well, but is a wonderful experience that everyone should try. It’s a great way to introduce gamers to a genre that has typically remained hardcore and niche. The game combines smart and elegant battle mechanics with fantastic controls and an entertaining story. It falls short in the exploration parts, as it’s way too linear and basic when compared to other Mario games. A bit more variety in the character lineup would have been nice, and I don’t like how some characters have the same moves that can be unlocked in the skill tree. Still, these are minor quibbles that shouldn’t stand in the way of your enjoyment. It’s the best Mario crossover game to date!