You really can’t judge a book by its cover. Or in this case, a game by its concept. When news leaked in late 2016 that Ubisoft was making a crossover title between their Rabbids characters and Nintendo’s Super Mario franchsie – one that was rumored to involve guns – gamers were a bit skeptical (to put it lightly). With nothing to go by but those rumors, the entire concept sounded like some batty fanfiction. But now here we are in 2017, and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a reality. And it’s a damn good game. Yes, it’s as strange as it sounds, but it’s also one of the freshest – and best – Mario games in recent years, and one of the best titles on the Nintendo Switch.
Mario + Rabbids really is unlike anything else bearing the Mario name. Though Mario’s world has always been one of surrealism, here it is the more sane of the game’s two clashing worlds. The Rabbids have run amok in the Mushroom Kingdom, bringing with them a sense of irreverence (and toilet humor) that would normally seem out-of-place in Mario’s usual fairy tale world.
The story goes like this: a genius inventor from our world, who also happens to be a Mario Bros. fangirl, has created the “Supamerge,” a device that can combine two objects together. While she’s away, a group of Rabbids arrive in her room/workplace in their inter-dimensional, time-traveling washing machine, and start chaotically playing with all the Mario memorabilia. One Rabbid, however, starts messing around with the Supamerge, and accidentally begins merging his fellow Rabbids with the objects around them. The Rabbid then hits the time washing machine with the Supermerge which, combined with all the Mario-themed items scattered about, inexplicably teleports the Rabbids – along with the genius’ robot assistant Beep-0 – to the Mushroom Kingdom.
From there, the Rabbid who stole the Supamerge accidentally ends up merging with the machine itself, thus giving himself the ability to combine objects. This Rabbid is found by Bowser Jr., who decides to use this Rabbid’s newfound ability to create a mutant Rabbid army and take over the Mushroom Kingdom while Bowser is away on vacation. Naturally, it’s up to Mario to save the day, but he’ll be getting some help from some of his usual friends, as well as a group of Rabbids who were cosplaying as Mario characters when they were merged, thus adopting those characters’ heroic traits.
It’s…it’s insane. Though it seems weird for a Mario game to be so meta as to present itself as a video game in its own story, it does seem a bit less inappropriate due to the outright insane idea behind the game itself. After all, this is a title in which Yoshi wields a machine gun. It’s not exactly the usual Mario fare.
Gameplay-wise, Mario + Rabbids is a tactical RPG in the vein of XCOM. The game is played in a somewhat isometric perspective, with the segments in between battles featuring some exploration and puzzle-solving elements. Players technically control Beep-0, who guides Mario and friends throughout the exploration segments. Meanwhile, the game features eight playable characters for battles, with players being able to select three of them at a time for their team.
Mario is of course mandatory to be in your party at all times, as is the case in every Mario RPG up to this point. But along the way, Mario will be joined by Luigi, Princess Peach and Yoshi, as well as four Rabbids dressed as those characters (aptly named Rabbid Mario, Rabbid Peach, etc.). Battles take place in grid-like environments, where characters take turns performing their actions. Each character is allowed three actions per turn (movement, attack, and using an ability), with the best part being that, for deeper strategy, you can swap between characters during individual actions, instead of having to blast through all of a character’s actions at a time.
These actions aren’t as simple as just making a move and attacking, however. Character placement is key to victory, and you want to be moving your character somewhere where they can cover from enemy fire, while also having enemies in their line of sight. Additionally, during the movement phase, a character can “dash” into an enemy for some extra damage, and can select a nearby teammate to perform a “team jump” to cover even more distance.
Each character has their own role to play, with everyone having their own combinations of weapons and abilities. Luigi, for example, is a bit of a glass canon; being able to deal great damage from a distance with his sniper-like weaponry, but has the least hit points of all the characters. Meanwhile, Princess Peach is something of a tank, having a large number of hit points, a shotgun-like weapon that deals close range damage, and a shield ability that let’s her soak up half of the damage enemies do to whoever she’s protecting. Rabbid Luigi specializes in debuffing enemies, while Rabbid Peach heals allies.
Even the abilities everyone shares, such as the dashes and team jumps, have unique features depending on the individual character. Mario can, of course, damage enemies by jumping on them with a team jump, while Luigi is the only character who can team jump twice in a row, and Peach’s team jump heals allies nearby to her landing position. While the Mario characters get the better jumping benefits, the Rabbids have the more varied dashing abilities. Rabbid Peach can dash into multiple enemies, while Rabbid Mario’s dash explodes as to damage other nearby foes.
Between every character’s primary weapon, secondary weapon, and special abilities, there’s a wide range of gameplay and strategy options available for every battle. Better still, you gradually unlock more character abilities (or improve those you already have) by upgrading a character’s skill tree. By winning battles and completing certain tasks, you are awarded with Power Orbs, which are essentially experience points, and are used to customize a character’s skill trees to however the player sees fit. You can even respec the characters at any given time.
Power Orbs, as well as coins for buying weapons, come in greater numbers depending on your performance in battle. Should you keep all of your characters alive and finish off enemies within a certain amount of turns, you’ll be given a better grade and better rewards, thus giving you more incentive to thoroughly think through your strategies.
I can’t compliment the battle system enough. The battles will constantly keep you on your toes and scratching your head wondering how to best tackle the enemies and their tactics, as well as how to use the environment to your advantage. There are even some types of battles that change up the rules – such as escorting Toad or getting a character to a certain point – that add a whole other layer to the battle system’s depth and complexity.
If there’s one downside to battles, it’s that your team options are more limited than you’d like. It’s understandable that Mario has to be in your team, but on top of that, you must also have a Rabbid on your team at any given time. I can understand Ubisoft wanting players to use their characters (who wouldn’t pick all Mario characters if given the option?), but if that needed to be the case, then maybe the team size should have been expanded to four characters instead of three. There were multiple occasions where I knew I would have a battle down pat if I could have both Peach and Luigi on my team. But I couldn’t do that simply because I then wouldn’t have a Rabbid in battle. And when you consider that Princess Peach and Rabbid Peach are the only characters with healing abilities (and there are no healing items in battle), you’ll likely feel the need to have at least one of them on your team at all times. While the battle system itself is insanely fun mechanically, the team limitations can be a bit disappointing at times.
Some may lament that, at only four worlds long, the game may appear to be on the short side. And considering you don’t get Yoshi on your team until midway through the fourth world, he may come across as underutilized. But each of these four worlds are decently lengthy, consisting of nine “chapters” apiece, plus a secret chapter found in each that can only be accessed after the world is otherwise completed. Additionally, after you’ve conquered a world boss, you can replay the world and face a series of challenges which further change up the rules (finish a fight in a set number of turns, get everyone to a specific spot without dying, etc.). And there are a few “Ultimate challenges” that are only available post-game, so little Yoshi still has a lot to do, despite being a last minute addition to the story mode.
Mario + Rabbids is one of the best looking titles on the Nintendo Switch, with clean, colorful graphics that take advantage of the usual Mario aesthetics, combined with a bit more absurdity to compliment the Mushroom Kingdom’s current invaders. I did experience multiple freeze-ups during my playthrough, however. Nothing that affected gameplay, but still frequent enough to note.
The visuals are a definite standout, though there was a little bit of a missed opportunity in combining the Rabbids with traditional Mario enemies. While I enjoyed all the character designs, it does seem a bit weird that Chain Chomps and Boos are the only usual Mario baddies to show up, and even then, they show up as obstacles, not enemies. Not really a complaint, but should there be a sequel, I hope to see some Rabbids donning Koopa shells or riding Lakitu’s cloud, and maybe a Bob-omb with bunny ears.
Along with the battle system, Mario + Rabbids’ biggest highlight is its musical score. Composed by the great Grant Kirkhope, Mario + Rabbids captures a unique flair in the Mario series, but one that should stand alongside the series’ classic scores. From a handful of classic Mario tunes remixed, to the completely original tracks, Mario + Rabbids has a fantastic score that is distinctly Kirkhope. So on top of Mario, Rabbids and XCOM, the game may also bring Banjo-Kazooie to mind. And that’s just swell.
2017 has proven to be a banner year for the video game medium, with one great title being released after another. And Mario + Rabbids is a standout title among that lot. It’s a surprise no one really could have seen coming (even after information on it leaked). It combines two very different franchises, and mixes in some inspirations from others, to create something that feels completely original. It’s far and away the best Rabbids game ever made, and it’s also one of Mario’s best outings in recent memory.