Videogame mash-ups aren’t as common as you think. While Mario and the gang get together every generation to beat each other black and blue, and you’ll occasionally unlock a platform exclusive character in a popular fighting game, it’s just not normal for a top tier developer to lend their IP out.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle (M+RKB) was announced to rampant skepticism. Mario merging with one of gaming’s most notoriously annoying creations sounds like an April Fool’s joke aimed at Nintendo’s failure to stay relevant. Despite making little to no sense, footage emerged, and it looked good – but it still felt like a prank. Mario teaming up with Rabbids dressed like Luigi, Peach, Yoshi and himself, using guns and grenades in an XCOM-style battlefield? Ubisoft were going all in on their April Fool’s joke, and even went as far as offering pre-orders, collector’s editions, and even sending out review copies to people like me.
Okay Ubisoft, I get it, the whole world is in on the joke and you want to see if I’m foolish enough to put the cartridge into my Switch? I’ll play along. Let’s see how challenging a Mario-with-guns turn-based strategy can be when you add in the absolute annoyance of those idiotic BWAH-ing Rabbids.
M+RKB sets the scene with a young scientist (who is also a total Nintendo fangirl) working with a new invention: something that can combine two completely separate items. Before long she’s called out of her room, and the Rabbids arrive via time-travel washing machine (?) and ruin everyone’s day. They trash the girl’s room, grab the device, merge a bunch of stuff together, and then get sucked back into their machine along with all the Mario memorabilia.
The Rabbids arrive in the Mushroom Kingdom, with the device now melded to one of their faces. They plunge the land into turmoil, prompting Mario to give chase. Amidst the mayhem, some Rabbids are merged with Luigi and Peach figurines.While your standard Rabbid doesn’t stray far from the annoyance they’re known for, these hero Rabbids seem a little more subdued, a lot more likeable, and infinitely more hilarious. Before the game even starts, it’s hard not to already be taken in by the charm on display, and the amazing soundtrack by Banjo Kazooie’s own Grant Kirkhope.
It eases you into the turn-based XCOM-style gameplay with stages you’ll beat quickly and without much fuss. Each character gets two actions (an attack and a special), movement, and a unique set of skills that can be unlocked as you progress. Mario can learn his signature head-stomp after using a teammate to get extra distance, and Ubisoft double down on Luigi’s death stare by making him the sniper of the team. Some characters have the ability to go into this game’s equivalent of “overwatch” (the ability to take a free shot if an enemy in your sightline moves), and others unlock grenades and small remote controlled explosive devices.
Sniper rifles, grenades, and remote controlled explosives don’t sound overly Mario, but their designs help disguise that. In fact, the highest compliment I can give Ubisoft for M+RKB is that the entire game is decidedly Nintendo in every way. While Nintendo obviously had their eyes on the project from start to finish, the people at Ubisoft have designed everything here with a love for both IPs. This was clearly a passion project with triple A money behind it, and it shows.
Stages vary from having to destroy all enemies to escorting characters to a certain point of the playfield. Each world is broken up into 10 stages, and each with their own unique mid- and end-stage bosses. If you’ve seen any of the marketing footage there’ll be no surprises as to who the first end-stage boss is, and like everything in this game, he’s an absolute joy to behold.
As you progress you’ll collect your typical Mario coins, as well as power orbs. For the first time Mario coins matter as you’ll need them to unlock new, more powerful, weapons. There are a lot to buy, and you’ll never have enough to ensure you’re always using the most recent ones, but that’s part of the joy. Choosing how you spend your money matters, and selecting your team comes down to who has the right weapon for the current situation.
Orbs are used to unlock abilities, and can make each character one that you’d like to use for the next fight. Perfecting a character’s skill tree can be as challenging as choosing which gun to adorn them with. Should you make the wrong decision, a simple button press gives you back any spent orbs, and lets you choose again without penalty.
One of the only downsides to M+RKB is the small pool of characters. By the end of the game you’ll have eight characters to build your three-man team with. From a narrative perspective it makes sense; you have four from the Mario Kingdom, and their four Rabbid counterparts. In-fact, it might only be those that have played numerous turn-based strategies that will have this complaint. Those that see characters as classes might enjoy the risk of losing a Rabbid Luigi, and enlisting a newer, different looking Rabbid to take its place. Thankfully, the hero Rabbids have unique personalities that come alive in every cinematic and animation.
On the surface, M+RKB looks like XCOM-lite, but it doesn’t take long for it to show its true nature. You'll get a perfect score for the first few stages and scoff at the “Easy Mode” prompt you’re given. But within that first world that rating will drop. Then it’ll happen again. Before long you’ll be scraping by, and even taking losses.
While you don’t risk losing a team member for good, once they’ve been taken down to zero health, they’re gone until the next fight. What starts as basic run and gun becomes a much slower paced, strategic battlefield. This involves making sure you’ve placed Mario behind the right kind of cover, have set him to overwatch, sent in Rabbid Peach’s remote controlled device, and used Luigi to anger a larger Rabbid from a distance. You then watch as it is wiped from the Mushroom Kingdom in a series of explosions and gunfire.
M+RKB is designed around replayability. Whether it’s doing your best to get a Perfect on each stage, finding and unlocking the hidden stage of each world, or running through a second time to take on the challenges for Power Orbs, there’s plenty to see and do. Should you want to share some of the action, simply pass a JoyCon to a partner and head into the Buddydome for a selection of co-op challenges.
Nintendo’s Switch has had a steady flow of amazing titles since its March 2017 release, and having Ubisoft buddy up to create a game like this is another feather in the console’s cap. It has all the graphical charm of a Mario platformer, an amazing soundtrack by an industry legend, the backing of two big studios, and the rarest thing of all: hilarious Rabbids. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is simply no joke.
Reagan received a physical copy of Mario + Rabbids from Ubisoft for review.