“And again there are mornings when ecstasy bubbles in the blood, and the stomach and chest are tight and electric with joy, and nothing in the thoughts to justify it or cause it.”
The most significant thing about Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is that it was made by human beings, not corporations first, not business first, not contracts first. It is the stuff that dreams are made of. At least in part.
We’re hitting this beat right off the gate because this is a title which would otherwise be easily dismissed. There have been scores of Super Mario games since the icon debuted in the 80’s, so what’s one more Mario game? Where could they possibly take the character? What more could they possibly do with the overall’d hero who has appeared in so many genres of games?
Additionally, there’s the presence of the Rabbids. These are a constant reminder that this is not a Nintendo game, though it features many of Nintendo’s host of familiar characters. Mario + Rabbids was developed and published by French company Ubisoft, thus the presence of Ubisoft’s Rabbids in this crossover. The game comes off almost as a kind of fanfic for them.
At a glance, and even upon closer inspection, many are probably not going to find the Rabbids… palatable, or even enjoyable at all. If you’ve been irked by the meme-level ubiquity of Despicable Me minions appearing in everything from commercials to toys to snarky platitudes old people share on Facebook, then there’s more than the slightest possibility that you’ll find yourself annoyed to the core by the Rabbids. I knew little about them except for that analogy and I thought of the minions more than once during the game.
Ubisoft’s Rabbids hail from a series of games known as Raving Rabbids, Lapins crétins in French, or Idiot Rabbits. They are spin-off characters from the Rayman series, drawn to chaos and mischief. In some circles they’re apparently quite popular but there’s also a large group of individuals who turn their nose up at them.
The little anarchists appear in Mario + Rabbids via the convenience of a washing machine time machine, and they quickly begin abusing the game’s McGuffin: the SupaMerge, a pair of goggles some real life inventor invented which has the power to merge two objects together and create a new one. The Rabbids begin fusing all sorts of things together, even themselves (ew) and this snowballs into the Mushroom Kingdom which finds itself turned upside down by an invasion of Rabbids and merged objects.
Mario and his friends are separated in the chaos and our hero is forced to traverse an elementally changed Mushroom Kingdom in order to find the Rabbid fused with the SupaMerge, now named Spawny. He’s got to hurry, for certain villains are ready to use the SupaMerge for their own nefarious purposes.
So yes, in a nutshell, there are Rabbids all over this game, like it or not. But here’s the thing: having played through this whole game I can safely say that their presence is no reason to put you off playing it, unless for some reason you’re triggered by Rabbids. I get they may be annoying to you. Their humor is crude (and that’s pervaded the game), but this may just be one of the most surprisingly good games this year. By that I mean that many people didn’t expect it to be as good and as fun as it is! I was looking forward to it since E3 and I’m glad I had the chance to play it, despite the bombastic bunnies.
I think this is profound: remember at E3 during Ubisoft’s conference when this game was announced and being presented? Yves Guillemot brought on Shigeru Miyamoto (to the only standing ovation I observed at any presentation during E3) and together they talked about Mario + Rabbids.
Had the concept not leaked online previously, it would’ve been the most unexpected of moments. As it is, up until what happened next, I thought the idea was stupid. A Nintendo game not made by Nintendo, sullied by the presence of toilet-humor mascots? Nevertheless, as industry legend Miyamoto discussed the game in his native Japanese, the camera panned to the audience and I’ll never forget the image of Davide Soliani, the creative director, fighting back sobs. Here was the image of this burly, bearded, middle aged man with twinkling tears in his eyes and I can’t say I’ve seen too many images like it where a creator cries for the excitement, the pride, the honor of being able to create.
That moment changed my entire perspective on this game. It wasn’t business-like. It wasn’t “professional”, sleek and shimmering with talk of cutting edge tech or impressive graphics, but it reached out through my screen and laid its hands on my heart. The smallness of that gentle scene was astounding and unexpected. It was human. How could I forget there was a man behind this game? I had.
I want artists to feel some pride in their work. I want creators to have that sense of release at the completion of some project they’d poured their soul into. I want developers to feel something for the work of their hands and their minds, regardless of whether these are masterpieces. I want them to want people to like what they’ve made. That moment at E3 was enough to move me to write an opinion piece on remembering the humanity behind video game creation.
I should note that the game prevents you from forming a party of Nintendo-only characters, with no Rabbid characters, which is possibly indicative of Ubisoft trying to promote its own chaotic vermin. You can be sure I tried to muscle the Rabbids out of my party at some point!
At that point in history, Mario + Rabbids went from a “meh” to a “hey I wonder what kind of a game it’s like?” And as the presenter went on to showcase the gameplay for a streamlined Tactical RPG that was cheerful but brainy, I knew I had to get this game day one. Did it move me to tears? Of course not, don’t be daft. I could sense its humanity, though. While that may not move you at all, not past the threat of obnoxious Rabbids on your Nintendo Switch, I admit that discovering real passion behind this game might not be enough to prevent one from dismissing it. So consider this instead.
When I see all the complaining and divisiveness, angry politicizing, console warfare, scorn-casting, character assassinating, bullying, and lack of excitement in this industry, sometimes I wonder: “Are games even fun anymore?” Does anyone actually take pleasure in making them and playing them anymore?
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle exists to remind us that yes, video games are still fun. They don’t need to have grimdark, arthouse storytelling, cutting edge technology, or massive anticipation to be fun. This game is a lighthearted but engaging experience with simple but exciting gameplay. It’s what video games can be, not what people think they uniformly need to be.
It exists because someone loved the magic of video games enough to develop a game about their favorite characters with their own wacky (if sometimes off-putting) creations thrown in. Davide Soliani has spoken in interviews about how Shigeru Miyamoto is the designer who inspired him to begin his own career in gaming. For him it was like meeting and getting approval from your childhood hero. This is the kind of game you or I would want to create if we could have permission to make our own Mario game, if we still had the eyes of children.
And that is perhaps one of the best ways to approach playing this game, though you’ll definitely need the mind of a discerning adult in order to best its at times brutal difficulty.
Mario + Rabbids is challenging. This is the second thing most surprising about it, beyond the shock of its quality. I adore video games like this in the vein of old Nintendo classics: the cartoonish façade masks a difficulty that goes all the way up to demanding gamers dedicate themselves to victory by mastering the game. This is an experience which doesn’t patronize players with kiddish fluff and stuff. Just beneath the cheery exterior lies more than a handful of skirmishes and boss fights that will eat your face if you dare underestimate them. There’s no playing casually through from start to finish. You’ll need to develop some real skill at strategy.
There isn’t a single boss in the game that I didn’t lose to at least once, minus the Rabbid Kong fight at the end of World 1. The first midboss in the game, flame-based Pirabbid Plant mopped the floor with me twice before I was able to beat it on the third attempt. The very next midboss in World 2 led me to the Game Over screen seven times! Beside the bosses, the regular bouts between them rapidly become taxing, especially when the late game enemy classes come into play.
I found that I had to be extremely careful about the limited options available to me. Mario + Rabbids is like an SRPG-lite. It’s been compared favorably to the X-COM strategy games. Since I’ve not had the pleasure of playing those, I’ll dispense with any further comparison with them, but characters in Mario + Rabbids only have the choices to move, attack and use support abilities. That’s it. So it’s a matter of deciding on the order you’re going to make those three choices in among the three characters in your party. It doesn’t sound tough but moving one character before another or implementing support tactics in an inferior manner can easily cost you a battle or several. You’ll also have to be smart about spending your coins on the best gear for your team and upgrading their skill trees.
With so much riding on video games today, with so much money involved, it’s no wonder that some of them play like interactive commercials, such as another recent crossover: Final Fantasy XV and Cup Noodles.
Other games take less risks as the pressure rises to bank on what’s successful rather than possibly lose out on replacing the mountain of cash that went into development. Still others treat gamers like they’ve never played a game before in their lives, and I’m not sure what the reason is for that. At times, games seem less like willful creations and more like entertainment necessities.
Mario + Rabbids is not a masterpiece but it’s a great game that reminds us what games can be. They can take risks. They can be fueled by the passion to create. They can reinvent old franchises. They can demand more from the player. They can remind us that it’s okay to be enthusiastic about and enjoy silly things once in a while. They can still be fun.
The 8-bit Review
Caveat right at the beginning: I’m not inflicting a below average score for Visuals because these aren’t “realistic” graphics.
Let’s start with the good before getting to the bad and the ugly. Just because your game is a labor of love doesn’t mean it’ll automatically turn out to be technically perfect. However, it should be noted that the developers came up with the character models based on the Nintendo icons from scratch and these were so accurate that they even impressed Shigeru Miyamoto.
Ubisoft’s Super Mario is less textured than the way he appears in Nintendo’s upcoming Odyssey, but the developers captured his expressive charm and innocence throughout. I’ll go out on a limb and say that crystallizing the essence of this character, his hopefulness and cheer, was more important for this game than simply depicting a visually accurate fat man in overalls. Mario almost always appears in good games but there must be something more to the enduring nature of the character than that alone. Further, the personalities of all the Nintendo characters that pop up in this game are authentic in lieu of how they’ve evolved over the years. Numerous trips to Kyoto must have ensured that the developers understood the Mario universe from those who created it themselves.
Unfortunately, there’s the bad: the game frequently stutters with frozen screens that can last up to two seconds long. I’d say it happened to my game about two dozen times, which is quite a lot considering Mario + Rabbids is no 100-hour RPG. One glitch in which Luigi (of course) got stuck when trying to follow the rest of the party into a cannon caused me to have to reset, but the freezing was at most an uncommon annoyance (occurring for me while I played in TV Mode). I’d hesitate to say the game was “plagued” with it for that reason. I’m not sure if this is going to be the nature of games appearing on the Nintendo Switch but visual flaws like this were a little disappointing, especially when I reached the ending cutscene and couldn’t help but blurt out: “Wow look at that frame rate drop!” It’s not that I’m consumed by the thought of perfect graphics. It’s that these annoyances cut into an otherwise smooth game.
Though the characters looked funny and dynamic with some really fluid animations, they attained a kind of flatness when cast in dim lighting. The caves, clouds, and cliffs which block light in the game made characters look as if they were made of flat segments of color, suddenly 2D in their 3D environments. You can catch a bit of that in Yoshi’s green in the image above, though the problem is compounded when the camera is zoomed out, especially when the cast and setting are set against drab backgrounds.
Fortunately, most of the game is bright and well-lit. The environments are lush and detailed, generally overstuffed with things to see, including the surreal results of the Rabbids tinkering with mad science. Giant toilets and plungers, arid deserts encrusted with ice, familiar Nintendo objects like question mark blocks and chomp chains merged with strange and very un-Nintendoish circumstances are all a part of the bizarre happenings in Mario + Rabbids and these add to the unsanctioned fanfic feel of the game that’s just short of irreverent.
The appearance of familiar songs rearranged for a new soundtrack is a delight for Nintendo fans. How could one not recognize the theme from Super Mario 64 that plays in Peach’s Castle? These are the highlights of the soundtrack. With so rich a tapestry of musical references to draw from, I’m thrilled but at the same time let down that they didn’t include more classic Super Mario music in the game. It could have been a unique opportunity to revisit themes from Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World or Super Mario Galaxy with a whole new set of instruments, maybe contribute to the sense of chaos brought by the Rabbids by changing up the musical timing or the genre of these songs.
Instead, composer Grant Kirkhope opted for a soundtrack you would anticipate for a funny SRPG. I would hazard a guess that this British musician was told to make music for a tactical game as the first word on the project. The music is occasionally militaristic and dramatic, conveying a sense of the danger and awe of battle. At other times it’s a xylophone of carnival tunes but only a few of these “filler” tracks are memorable. The midboss theme has a frenzied sound to it lifted from one of the motifs in the game, and I had a big grin when the final boss theme began to play (one of the best tracks in the game, easily), but these don’t occupy a lot of the soundtrack’s space.
Kirkhope is known for his work with Rare on the N64, and more recently for scoring Yooka-Laylee, but it seems as if his achievements were more distinctive back in the 90’s. Here I’m almost reminded of “family comedy” movie music. It occasionally evokes bumbling slapstick.
When the creators of Mario + Rabbids got the greenlight from Nintendo, they were given the challenge to do something different with Super Mario, the flagship of flagship characters. Everybody has seen Mario jump and platform, play sports and race karts, a billion times over. Ubisoft had to come up with something unique and they went with guns.
The use of projectile weapons straight away sets Mario + Rabbids apart in the Super Mario canon. Whether this game is officially canonical or not is beside the point (though I hope it is). The other day I was talking with a coworker about how many different ways Super Mario has been reinvented over time, and my peer asked “Has he ever been in an FPS?” Not that I could think of. And also, come to think of it, Mario hasn’t really had a game where using guns was an emphasis. Cue Mario + Rabbids which sets all of its characters in shooting matches that stretch out the distance between them, eschewing the typically melee attacks associated with the jumping plumber. Additionally, weapons in Mario + Rabbids have Super Effects to make the battles more interesting. These can bounce characters backward, root them in place, absorb their HP, or even petrify them.
After traversing the hub that is the exterior of Peach’s Castle, which features a weapons kiosk, a two-player gym, a time machine for revisiting fights, and a museum, Mario explores each world separately by following a fairly simplistic field map. These three-dimensional spaces are simplistic with only a few pathways and clearings to familiarize yourself with, but the odd row of coins as well as cube puzzles, buttons, pipes, and treasure chests keep them interesting.
You won’t be able to grab every collectible on your first playthrough. These range from trophy models to concept art to secret weapons, but you’ll have to come back for them after unlocking contextual abilities when completing each world. A contextual ability is something as simple as being able to push an object or break apart barriers.
As for the treasures themselves, the models and concept art and even collectible tarot cards are all uninteresting to me. There are no expendable items in the game so what else could you put in treasure chests? The odd unique weapon find is a plus but for the most part, item hunting in Mario + Rabbids is fairly blaise. Even should you come across a few extra coins while exploring the field for treasures, weapons cost so much (500 coins at the start and well over 1500 by the end of the game) that picking up even a dozen coins on the field seems pointless. Still, I suppose there had to be something for players to do between fights.
The primary and secondary weapons themselves are plentiful and punny
In the field of each world, Mario and his companions will run into separate chapters leading up to a midboss and then a world boss. Each world has several chapters and each chapter involves several skirmishes as the party progresses through the simple story. The skirmishes themselves are set on an isometric plane and victory is framed in fluctuating terms: defeat all enemies, defeat a specific amount of enemies in waves, reach the goal at the other end of the arena, escort an NPC, and so on.
Given the limited options available to your three party members (again that’s movement, primary or secondary attacks, and support abilities), you’ll have to make good use of local topography and seek cover from enemy fire. Dastardly bosses and many advanced enemies use some devastating AOE and on top of that, some cover can be destroyed if it sustains enough fire.
That’s where staying mobile comes into play and the dynamism in the mobility department is unlike anything I’ve personally seen before in an SRPG. Different characters have different mobility skills but generally they can all leapfrog off of their allies to gain extra ground, or jump on enemy heads to do the same. Certain characters can trip up an enemy, leapfrog off an ally, and end up quite a ways across the arena. It’s much more engaging then merely advancing forward in a restricted, chess-like match.
Another aspect of strategy comes in choosing which characters to bring into combat each round, which the game lets you decide before the match begins. You’ll have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each character as you acquire them before just throwing them into battle willy-nilly. That’s a great way to get mutilated.
Luigi specializes in long-distance attacks and long range movement, Rabbid Mario has some powerful close-range perks, Rabbid Peach can heal and provide support, and so on. Mario is the one constant in your party as its leader, so it’s wise to focus your expenditures on keeping him well-armed and upgraded. Often I could tell I was going to lose a fight in the first few rounds, in which case I would restart the bout, check to make sure my characters were well-equipped and that I was using the best of the cast for that specific map.
After a battle, you’re allotted a score based on whether you won in under a set amount of turns and whether you lost any party members or not. Your reward is a hefty chunk of coins, by far the only reliable way to get the gold in the game, and also you’ll get skill points for use in the skill tree. Some skill points can be found in treasure chests, too. The skill trees are where you begin to say “Aha, so here’s the character growth”, though it’s really only half of the coin with a lot of character growth coming from upgraded gear.
The skill trees are different for each character but they essentially include upgrades to movement such as how many times a character can dash into an enemy, upgrades to attack such as unlocking secondary weapons, upgrades to technique such as supporting abilities and cooldown times, and upgrades to standard HP and movement range. One thing I found really interesting about the skill trees is that you can reset them at any time outside of battle and reallocate skill points for any given situation. I am certain this adds a smaller layer of strategy in customization but in fact I found that it was easy enough to ignore that feature and use the “auto fill” to automatically assign skill points to each character’s tree. At that point, I just treated each party member as having strictly dedicated uses.
The field maps between skirmishes are mostly boring and playing the game for too long in one sitting makes it feel like one battle after another after another after another. I read that Mario + Rabbids was designed with the hybrid Switch in mind and the game was intended to be played in shorter intervals. This became less an issue later in the game after acquiring more characters and more abilities. Then the battles really get exciting.
The first time I accidentally juggled an enemy in the air with a regular attack from Mario that bounced the foe, then a snipe strike interrupt from Luigi’s Steely Stare, then a third shot from Mario’s Hero Sight… I giggled like a giddy schoolkid. These support abilities by the Mario Bros. themselves really helped me survive late in the game!
While not a narratively robust video game by any stretch, understandably so given the characters and universes involved, I’ll do you the common courtesy of throwing up a SPOILER warning for this section of the review. If you’d like to skip it, please Ctrl+f Challenge to jump to the next grading.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle may possess unexpected attributes in terms of its substance of gameplay and difficulty, but nobody ever believed that it would have the same narrative gravitas as other RPGs. It feels less epic in proportion compared even to Super Mario RPG, a predecessor I couldn’t help but think of while playing this game, but of course it pales in comparison to the pseudo-history of Final Fantasy Tactics or the massive worlds of MMORPGs.
Smallness and simplicity in story doesn’t automatically equate to poor storytelling, though. For a game about all-too-familiar Mario characters smashed suddenly together with annoying Rabbids, there is at least a premise and a goal. With the SupaMerge merged Rabbid, Spawny, on the loose, Mario and friends soon find themselves butting heads with Bowser Jr. The villainous scion captures Spawny and begins forcing the poor reluctant Rabbid to merge all kinds of things together, further warping the world and bringing monstrous amalgamations to life!
It isn’t until World 4, the Lava Pits, that BEEP-0 (a resident of the real world) and Mario and co. are able to rescue Spawny, though the Rabbid wanders out of their grasp. Turns out all of the chaotic merging going on has empowered some kind of entity in the sky, the MegaBug which grows with every defeated foe. At the end of the game, the MegaBug soars down from on high and merges with Bowser, who conveniently returned at that moment from his vacation, forming the ultimate boss: Megadragonbowser! This boss fight is truly epic (and tough!), and it was great to have a battle to sink my teeth into right at the end, but with Bowser and the MegaBug defeated, everything begins to return to some semblance of normalcy in the Mushroom Kingdom once again.
Normalcy itself is out the window for most of this game. Not only is it new ground to tread for Super Mario characters in the context of gameplay, but it’s a game which fundamentally pokes fun at and plays around with Mario conventions. Seeing these traditions and characters turned on their heads is amusing and one of the best parts about playing this game as a Nintendo fan.
It’s pretty awesome to see Princess Peach suddenly show up and save Mario like a boss. That was one of my favorite moments in the game. Mario and his party are frozen solid by the Sherbet Desert world boss when suddenly a pink parasol drifts idly toward them. Peach looks all innocent and cute as ever but she’s wielding a massive blaster this time! Mario treats her like the princess that she is but now she’ll fight by his side.
It can’t help but be pointed out that Ubisoft gets a hold of these characters and they take Nintendo’s female lead and really make her a fighter after all these years. I engaged in that conversation by mentioning that Peach joined your party back in Super Mario RPG, but someone had the astute observation to recall that that game was a non-Nintendo produced game as well. It was developed by Square. So we’ll have to go back further and stress that the precedent for Princess Peach being more than an object to be saved began in Super Mario Bros. 2, where she was a playable character, even if that game was just a dream.
The game’s parodies and corruptions of familiar Nintendo characters is the most hysterical part in a game where the intentional humor either falls flat or comes across as rough. Seriously, most of this game is full of dad jokes and puns. We all know those aren’t very funny, unless you truly laugh while frowning after the punchline. Observations like watching a Rabbid spin around on a gear while BEEP-0 says “he’s getting his butt in gear” doesn’t exactly deserve the praise of being “hilarious” that you can see in takes from mainstream journalism.
No, the funniest parts are the corrupted cameos. I was not expecting to see Rabbid versions of Waluigi and Wario as midbosses toward the end of the game, but that was a real delight. Same thing with Rabbid Kong. In fact, I wish the game had done this more often! Where’s my Rabbid Rosalina? Rabbid Birdo? Rabbid Geno? Rabbid Shy Guys? Rabbid Kamek? Frickin’ Rabbid Tatanga?!
Well, at least there’s the sly confidence of Rabbid Mario, as well as real Mario’s look of disgust:
Deceptively simple visuals and characters mask a sinister level of difficulty, specifically for the boss fights. Challenging is losing two of your three party members in the first round of combat in the second world of the game. Challenging is easily being wiped on the game’s first mini-boss. Challenging is having to sit and stare at the screen for minutes on end in a regular battle trying to sort out who takes what turn in which way and what they do and how they do it and in what order. Challenging is having no obvious way to abuse over-leveling. Challenging is making it through the game with your coattails smoking and realizing that there are even more grueling tasks that yet await! Don’t be fooled. Don’t underestimate. Mario + Rabbids is a beast.
Two elements in the game can stave off the steep difficulty and these are Easy Mode and going back to previously cleared areas to search for more coins and skill points. Easy Mode is something you can trigger before each battle begins, granting you restored HP (since your party members won’t always start with full health) and 50% extra health. I really wanted to make it through the game without using Easy Mode, no matter how many times I died, and I made it to the end of the story without having to seek its aid. I also decided to wait until beating the story to go back for more treasures, coins and skill points, since I wanted all the contextual abilities when backtracking. It is definitely possible to beat the game without these helps but it’ll take some patience.
I’ve often bemoaned the lack of real difficulty in modern gaming. Interactive stories where progression is more important than risking game overs, tutorialized boss encounters, auto saves every second, the emphasis on accessibility over substance… there are a lot of games which flirt with either side of the fence on this issue. As a whole, when I think of really hard games, I think of the older titles from the 80’s and early 90’s. And Dark Souls. But I only think of that because of its many ridiculous references. By the way, Mario + Rabbids is the Dark Souls of Super Mario games.
Haha! Except to see this game over screen quite a few times.
There’s quite a bit of post-game content to check out ranging from backtracking for collectibles and finding sets of ten challenges in each world. These challenges range from very easy to tearing out your appendix with your bare hands hard. The “ultimate” challenges involve things like fighting tons of bosses at once.
One of the most surprising games of 2017. A friend of mine paused to wonder if there are a lot of people eating their words right now. Surely, not the people who refuse to play this game, of course, out of some misplaced sense of snobbery. The people who are playing it are however reportedly and self-describedly being surprised by its challenging and engaging gameplay.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I caught myself smiling a handful of times while playing this game. It honored the essence of Nintendo games by capturing that joy. While the humor falls very short more often than not with gimmes less funny than your average dad joke, the passion trickling down from being a game that someone actually wanted to make made Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle a game I actually wanted to keep playing. How ludicrous a statement? Well, how many games feel more like digital chores and checklists than, y’know… games? A lot of them. Rest assured, however. I can safely report that there still exist at least some games which are still fun to play.
Aggregated Score: 7.4
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Categories: Game Review