Mario. Raving Rabbids. XCOM. Grant Kirkhope. Guns.
On its surface, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle appears as a bona-fide fever dream of a concept, a bizarre creation from a machine learning algorithm gone wrong. It’s the video game equivalent of watching your slightly mad friend mixing their signature cocktail, pulling from nearly every bottle on the shelf. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of Ubisoft Paris, Davide Soliani, the director of the project, must have had the strangest Venn diagram ever drawn upon a whiteboard. At the centre of this odd assembly of seemingly disparate pieces was Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, arguably the most peculiar video game I’ve ever come across.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a tactical game in the vein of XCOM, or Fire Emblem. The player controls Mario and two other characters as they try to navigate through a battlefield and best their opponents. Each character can do three actions every round: move a set number of spaces around the battlefield, use a weapon and use an ability. Combining the use of these three actions is the meat in the middle of this delicious, and surprisingly difficult combat sandwich.
What differentiates Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle from its counterparts is how kinetic and fast-paced the battles tend to be. There are no more confusing XCOM-style hit percentages to worry about – an enemy is either completely exposed, in half cover, or completely hidden. Each character can perform a dash attack on at least one enemy a turn, so if there’s an opposing Rabbid within range, you can charge forward for a free hit. The battlegrounds are littered with pipes and blocks to maneuver and take cover behind, and for added mobility, your playable characters can leap of the shoulders of one another to spring further ahead. It’s not unheard of for Mario to hurtle forward through a pipe, dash an enemy, leap upon the shoulders of Luigi, land on another foe and take cover – and that’s just your movement action for one character!
What seems like oversimplification at first blush will quickly reveals itself to be one of the smartest design decisions the boffins at Ubisoft came up with. By streamlining the hit percentage to just three outcomes, the game encourages the player to act bolder, and not hold back as much as one would typically expect from the genre. By varying the tropes of the past, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle forces players to alter their traditional approaches, and learn a new style of combat. It feels wholly unique and refreshingly different, in a genre that tends to stick to its central tenets.
This is all not to say that the game is a simplified cake-walk. What starts quite slow in the first world rapidly grows in difficulty and complexity. Each of the eight main characters (Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi and their four Rabbid cosplay-a-likes) has their own bespoke skill tree, weapon-style and special abilities which can be reset for free. Whilst Rabbid Mario is a shotgun-wielding front-linesman, Luigi is a sniper with his Steely Gaze, and benefits from finding high ground. Choosing which combination of three characters to take into each battle becomes a huge concern in the final few worlds, as team composition becomes increasingly important.
Each world is comprised of ten stages, most with multiple battles in each. In each stage, your health carries from one fight to the next, meaning you may be forced to change to a character with more health. At the end of each stage, your performance is graded for the battles you fought – if you failed to meet the par turn count, or if any character was knocked out your rewards will be decreased. Typically, you’ll receive coins to spend on new weapons for characters, and new skill points to spend as you choose. As you get better and unlock more abilities, so will the enemies you face. Choosing the right combination of skills and characters across the different styles of battles and missions becomes a huge concern, especially if you’re trying to get perfect results.
If all this seems a bit much, the game has an excellent Easy Mode built in to every battle. When selected, your team recovers and gains a 50% bonus to HP, as well as a strong damage reduction from enemies. Intelligently, the game does not punish the player for using the mode: When the level is completed, there’s no asterisk next to their score, or reduced rewards. The game wants to make sure you’re having fun, and that you don’t burn out before the end. The final worlds are no joke, so this was a very welcome feature.
In between battles, Mario and his team are led across a curious landscape by their pal, Beep-O. Due to a malfunction with the SuperMerge Helmet (It combines two things together, duh), The Raving Rabbids accidentally combined themselves and the Mushroom Kingdom. The result is a bizarre Rabbid-Mario hybrid world, filled to the technicoloured brim with zany sights and sounds. Your mileage on the Rabbids aesthetic may vary, but I love the damn things. Watching a Bullet Bill trapped in underwear, or a Rabbid/Piranha Plant hybrid yell and trip their way across a battlefield would get chuckles out of me constantly.
There are a number of simple puzzles and navigation trials to be found in the overworld between fights, but they are arguably the weakest part of the package. The solutions are often not so hard to find, and the puzzles tend to be everywhere. New guns, art galleries and parts of the soundtrack are typically given as a reward, but many of the puzzles are unsolvable without abilities from future levels. This backtracking to complete the puzzles is offset by an optional challenge mode on the previous completed levels, where an often much harder task has to be completed for some extra skill points and coins. These are a ton of fun, and usually require a lot more lateral thinking than the usual encounters.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a phenomenal showcase for the Nintendo Switch, and further proof of its capabilities. It’s a fantastic short-burst game, which makes the portability of the system such a huge bonus. Graphically, the game is faultless – despite being published by an outside studio, it retains as much polish and shine as one would expect from a traditional, first-party Nintendo title. The world is vibrant and colourful, the characters are wonderfully emotive and the menus are so well designed, you’ll wish more games could be so clear and concise with what they want from the player. The soundtrack is an absolute masterclass from Grant Kirkhope, filled with wonderful little allusions to Banjo-Kazooie and Viva Piñata. Even if you find that the game isn’t for you, I implore you to track down the soundtrack and delight in its bliss.
It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game that so thoroughly and completely won me over. I have an overbearing affection for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle the same way that I do about my all-time favorite films, or to my cat – I constantly want to extoll its virtues to the masses. I’ve been writing about games for nearly a decade, and this is possibly the best game I’ve ever reviewed. It looks brilliant, sounds great, plays like a dream and is an exceptional demonstration of the magic of the Switch. I recognize that the between mission segments are a little flat and that there are a few bugs, but these are far from deal breakers. Were it not for these small niggles, I’d be ready to fist-fight come Game of the Year.
My prevailing image of the 2017 E3 was of a man in a crowd, beaming with pride and weeping at the positive reception his game had received from fans, his peers and his mentors. That man was Davide Soliani, and I think he deserves to be proud of this miraculous, joyous, magical game.