By Jeffrey Mizrahi
When the concept for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was first leaked, I initially thought it was a typo. A Mario RPG? Sure, it’s been done before, nothing surprising there. But the Rabbids? I don’t get it. Why are they here?
While I never shared the animosity towards these little Minions predecessors that many gamers seem to have, I was always indifferent when it came to them as mascots. I’ve only ever played the 2009 Wii title, Rabbids Go Home. Even then, I was mainly turned off by the endless searching for hard-to-find items in order to progress gameplay – certainly more than I was creeped out by the creatures’ bug-eyes that scared me away. However, within the first few hours of Mario + Rabbids, I found myself actually chuckling at Peach Rabbid’s selfie aesthetic and Luigi Rabbid’s irreverent yelling (at least I think he’s yelling. Maybe laughing? Could he be crying?) rather than rolling my eyes at their inclusion. In Mario + Rabbids, the rascals are genuinely funny because they are consistently taking well-timed jabs at Super Mario tropes and cliches rather than resorting to the toilet humor seen in their other games.
The main premise in Mario + Rabbids is that in the Rabbids world they stumble upon an augmented reality helmet, the SupaMerge. Things get chaotic when the Rabbids start fighting over who gets to use the helmet and begin zapping Mario toys in the room, which leads to them getting sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom and getting mixed up there. Somehow a little A.I. Roomba-like device called Beep-0 gets created (there’s a lot of suspension of disbelief here). Beep-0 begins to help Mario and friends fix the situation by searching for the Rabbid with the SupaMerge still attached in hopes to reverse the mess.
The elevator pitch for the gameplay is simply Mario meets XCOM with Rabbids sprinkled on top. The player takes turns moving three characters across a grid playing field, then chooses one of two weapons to use as well as one of two passive abilities. The half cover/full cover indicators from XCOM are one of the many borrowed ideas, but don’t expect to see any permadeath here. The game features eight status effects that can ail you or your enemies during a fight. Plus, there’s good amount of character and weapon statistics that are easy to understand at first glance while still feeling complex. During movement, you can extend your reach by hopping off the backs of teammates. You can even slide into enemies on your way to cover in order to knock off some of their health before you blast them from a safe distance.
One of my favorite moments in Mario + Rabbids is when I activate Hero Sight with Mario, an ability that puts him on alert and shoots any enemy that comes within range even when it’s not his turn. Then, I have a well placed Rabbid Mario lure several enemies in with Magnet Dance, an ability that forces nearby enemies to approach him. As the enemies get in proximity of Mario’s blaster, it triggers the plumber’s ability.
I watch as he picks them off one by one in slow motion. It’s a very common and simple maneuver but makes me feel like a tactical mastermind when I pull it off. However, there were a couple times where no matter what strategies I was using I’d keep failing and I was reduced to trial and error until I got through to the next level. While the core combat in the game is heavily satisfying more often than not, the game is rife with pacing issues that hinder the experience.
The slow and easy start threw me off a little. Is this really just a “My First Tactical RPG” moment, I thought while making my way through the simple introduction. However, the game unexpectedly takes a sharp turn and amps up the difficulty a few too many notches a little too fast. Mario + Rabbids is divided into four worlds, each with nine chapters and a final boss in each. Within each chapter there are two to three battles with minor world exploration after each fight. One battle would take around ten minutes to complete. Then, the next would take near an hour of going at it with different line-ups until I eventually got lucky enough to get a critical hit on an annoying enemy.
Strangely, the bosses in the game are easier than most of the stages that precede them, although I did find their design highly endearing. There’s a late game Phantom of the Opera-esque Rabbid that is now one of my favorite Mario villains due largely to his fantastic musical number in which he references Donkey Kong, Mario Kart and other random tidbits from Mario’s past. He’s one of many characters that signify how much creative control Ubisoft had on the game, which is surprising coming from the usually protective mother Nintendo. It’s clear Ubisoft must have proven themselves to Nintendo even back in the early concept stage.
Mario + Rabbids pours so much love into each of its eight characters. The attention to detail put into each fighter’s animations really go to show how special this game is. Rabbid Mario leans against cover in a nonchalant manner that says “I’m Mario, I’m too cool for this” – even though he’s clearly not. Rabbid Yoshi spits out his weapons from his mouth before using them. Rabbid Peach’s insistence on taking selfies after scoring a nice kill is worthy of a smile.
With such lovable characters, there’s bound to be a bad apple in the bunch. While I adore Beep-0’s offbeat references to things like “Thriller” or Baroque architecture, controlling him between battles in the world exploration areas was confusing and clumsy. For some reason he is the leader of the pack and the three squad members all follow him, meaning if I want to enter a pipe, I have to line Beep-0 up with the entrance, not Mario. After years of training my brain to focus on controlling Mario, I often end up trying to hit A to enter a pipe while the friendly plumber is standing right in front of it. I just didn’t realize Beep-0 is stuck in corner behind the tube’s entrance.
Another gripe I have with the exploration is that it’s too simple and too boring. I hope you love basic sliding box puzzles because Mario + Rabbids has TONS of them. None of them are even real brain teasers. They pretty much just act as unsatisfying obstacles and time wasters between battles. There’s no immediacy in Kingdom Battle’s exploration; it all feels like the “puzzles” are just there to exist. The red coin rings make a return. But after the third or fourth time you chase the eight coins down in the allotted time, the fourth, fifth, and tenth times just feel extremely stale. I understand Shigeru Miyamoto told the developers that they can’t have Mario jump in this game. But what they put instead just wound up being limiting filler.
Yet, while the gameplay in these segments may be boring, the worlds themselves are compelling. Along your travels you can inspect the scenery and Beep-0 gives you a little comment on what he sees. Most of the times it’s a Rabbid doing Rabbids stuff. Other times it’s either obscure Mario items like the Spike Bar from the old 3D series, or dormant baddies like a Bullet Bill with panties on their faces. The team also recruited Nintendo veteran Grant Kirkhope, known for his work on Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, to do the music. It features some of my now favorite renditions of classic Mario tunes.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is not only an enjoyable game, it’s a working experiment. I really hope this is Nintendo turning a new leaf and they continue to give more of their cherished properties to different studios to see what magic they can conjure. Imagine a Metroid developed by Bungie? Or a Star Fox by CCP Games? Even if this is the last time we see a third party studio work on a Nintendo game, I hope they continue to be this wacky with future titles. At the end of the day, I just played a game that stars Mario, has the gameplay of XCOM, and had the Rabbids make me laugh. Looking back, I’m pretty happy that that leak was legitimate.
Jeffrey Mizrahi is a New York Videogame Critics Circle writer/intern.