Super Mario can do anything. That’s an objective fact. The portly Nintendo icon has been, in no particular order: a plumber, a carpenter, a soccer star, a basketball star, a kart racer, an astronaut, a RPG character, a kidnapping victim, a paper doll, an actor, a one-man graffiti clean up crew, a doctor, a fighting game character, and inexplicably an Olympian.
As such, it goes almost without saying that of course Mario and gang can team up with another recognizable property to create a whimsical strategy game. When I first winced at the early leaks regarding Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, it was less an aversion to the Rabbids themselves; in fact I can’t recall ever playing any Rabbid game. No, my issue was that Nintendo was handing their most protected creation over to the likes of Ubisoft, a publisher well known for mostly bad ideas and beating the few good ones they have past the point where comparisons to dead horses could even apply. I even asked for an extra week to work on this review just in case Ubisoft added microtransactions or something like they did in For Honor and Tom Clancy’s The Division.
Thankfully, it turns out my fears were mostly unfounded, and Mario + Rabbids is a fine addition to the Nintendo Switch’s increasingly strong lineup.
If you somehow missed this game when it leaked months before its reveal at E3 this year, the idea is exactly what it sounds like. Thanks to a clever but convoluted setup, Mario and pals are teamed up with Ubisoft’s Rabbids (think Minions but rabbits), with some dressed in costumes based on Mario characters. Together, the characters face off against enemy Rabbids on grid maps complete with high and low ground and various types of cover to protect from long range attacks. Each character is armed with weapons, most of them projectiles, to fight back and inflict effects. The key is of course to maximize one’s position and abilities to accomplish whatever the map’s particular goal is. Most of the time, the goal is to just eliminate foes, but others will change things up and require a character to reach a specific point on the map, certain enemies to be target, or side characters escorted.
To many players, that probably sounds like the buzz phrase “X-COM, but for kids.” However, I found that to be pretty disingenuous. Despite the cheerful demeanor and the goofy Rabbids, Kingdom Battle is actually pretty challenging. Only a few matches in, you’ll be introduced to enemies that require multiple hits to take down while putting out massive damage on your players. Things then ramp up significantly at the halfway point. Just when you’d think you’ve gotten a proper hang on things, the maps become more difficult, and enemies get more powerful and gain more buffs. Since we’re talking strategy games, the need to try and try again is an integral part of that experience, and it gives Mario + Rabbids a whole lot more heft. The only concern I might have is the curve isn’t a consistent increase as much as it’s a sharp spike upward, and that might turn less dedicated players off.
Thanks to the fact that the Mushroom Kingdom can, like Mario, be whatever it needs to be, there is a lot of flexibility when it comes to actually mapping the arenas. Thanks to the Mario franchise’s notorious pipes, all kinds of different platforms can be connected and stretched out, changing the way both you and the enemies move. Jumping is another huge factor. Characters can jump off of each other to increase movement, reach higher levels, and (in true Mario fashion) jump on enemies heads. Being able to decide even where you land is incredibly important, so there is a setting that lets players check the map, all the enemies at the start, movement options, and ways to swap out characters and weapons as needed. For some reason, this isn’t turned on at the start, but it’s the way to play. Weapons are just as varied, with all kinds of designs and effects. Each character can only wield two weapon types, and nothing can be changed regarding that as the character abilities is where each are differentiated. What’s really fun about the weapons however, are the names and lore regarding them. Names are often puns or winks at the audience, with descriptions going even further.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle isn’t just a series of strategic maps to conquer, even if that’s the main thrust of the game. Mario and company need to traverse mixed up versions of locations both in and around the Mushroom Kingdom, and the battles are broken up with crossing the world and solving small puzzles that unlock bonuses and weapons. Several of these puzzles require new powers unlocked later on, encouraging you to return to places you’ve been, which is easily accomplished thanks to some fast travel devices. None of the puzzles are too complicated but make for a nice break in between tough strategy sessions when they come up. It also lets players take in the very cleverly designed but very clearly messed up version of the Kingdom, littered with Rabbids enjoying or being overtaken by the new status quo.
About those Rabbids: they’re pretty much fine. They’re mostly enemies, so they don’t have a lot of time to be annoying, and most of the overworld stuff can be completely ignored. Most of the shenanigans falls to the Rabbid versions of Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi. They very much lean into the ridiculous, but it also surprisingly works. See, while most of the cast has been allowed personality, it’s only been so much, and Mario himself is allowed the shortest leash when it comes to actually having anything past his default characterization. While the joyfulness of Mario is hardly a bad thing (if anything, more games need it), but the Rabbids turn out to be the perfect way to just take the piss out of the whole thing. Each Rabbid version is an extreme version; Rabbid Luigi is smaller and more loud, Rabbid Peach is overly conceited, and most hilariously, Rabbid Mario finds its center in being even more working class Joe than Mario himself ever was-he even keeps a toothpick in his mouth. All of their antics illicit things like groans and eye-rolls out of Mario, and when the hell was the last time he was ever allowed to do that?
The humor implied is just the right amount of irreverent to make the player aware that everything being done is in reverence, though of it is a little bit lowbrow. I’ve seen a Rabbid pooping in a Warp Pipe, in fact. Even if it has a several groaners, I felt myself wanting even more zingers, oddly enough. Where’s my even greedier Rabbid Wario, for example? Was he busy? Why can’t I escort Rabbid versions of the Toads, just to make Mario more put upon? Those are the kind of questions that make me wary of the fact that Ubisoft announced a season pass prior to the game’s release; presumably because no publisher’s PR department is capable of understanding how bad of a look that is. That said, there’s still a lot of game and jokes to go around, even if they revolve around the same conceit over and over.
All of this is tied together by some very well polished visuals that choose solid colors and a united art style that feels familiar while maintaining an unique sense of a mismatched version of the Mushroom Kingdom. The bow is knotted with a score courtesy the legendary Grant Kirkhope. You don’t realize how badly you needed the artist behind the Banjo Kazooie music scoring a Mario game until you hear it. Kirkhope was psyched to get this gig, and it shows continuously. That score is helped by some very handy sound design, which allows for variations in the background music as you approach various parts of the map. This one will easily be in the running for best music of the year.
I liked Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle a lot more than I thought I was going to. If anything, I’m glad to report that I was genuinely wrong. The team that worked on this game obviously had the right heart and a passion for a special combination. The gameplay might get a little tough, and the jokes could use a little more variation, but it’s a good time and will likely put a smile on your face. Congrats to Nintendo for scoring another reason to make the Switch a must-have.
Developer: Ubisoft Paris, Ubisoft Milan
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: August 29th, 2017
Copy Purchased By Reviewer