Rabbids have invaded – no – infested the Mushroom Kingdom. Despite looking like harmless bunnies, Rabbids are annoying sociopathic gremlin-like creatures hell-bent on sowing chaos in everything they encounter. The only way to stop their chaos – and those who want to take advantage of it – is for Mario and company to team up with… Rabbids. They’re cosplaying as Mario, Luigi, Peach and Yoshi though, so it’s okay. Developed and published by Ubisoft for the Nintendo Switch, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle isn’t a typical Mario game. There isn’t any jumping or platforming, and you don’t really control Mario directly – instead you tell him and his friends what actions to perform in turn-based-combat.
Despite not being developed directly by Nintendo, developer Ubisoft’s love for Super Mario Bros. is obvious: care and attention to detail is plentiful in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. From the visuals, sound effects, and even the great soundtrack composed by veteran game composer Grant Kirkhope, everything Mario Bros.is represented beautifully with a nostalgic flavor injected into the unusual Mario gameplay. Now, Mario isn’t a stranger to turn-based combat (see Super Mario RPG for one example) but it’s never been quite so tactical.
In Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle you take the role of Beep-O, a sentient robot that bears a strong resemblance to a Roomba, to command a squad of three heroes against the Rabbids who have taken up arms against you. There are eight total characters to unlock through gameplay – Mario, Luigi, Peach and Yoshi, each with a Rabbid counterpart. While characters share abilities between them, the precise weapon and skill combinations are unique to each character. Rabbid Luigi, for instance, has a blaster that looks like a yo-yo as a primary weapon and a bazooka as a secondary weapon. Each character also has an extensive skill tree, which again, shares elements with other characters while maintaining a unique configuration to that character. This surprisingly adds a lot of tactical depth to a game that may sadly be dismissed due to its subject matter and art style.
Turn-based squad-tactics aren’t exactly hot-tickets in the gaming world. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is uniquely situated to introduce many to a genre that may be considered niche and hard to get into. Ubisoft recognized that this genre’s novelty may be overwhelming for new players and has dedicated the entire first of four worlds to an extended tutorial that does a great job easing players into concepts such as half-cover, line of sight, movement and weapons’ range. The subtle complexity of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle ensures that veterans of turn-based squad tactics have a lot to sink their teeth into, also. While not strictly another X-Com, Mario + Rabbids is mechanically sufficient to stand shoulder to shoulder with that series and provides a surprising challenge even to those who live and breathe turn-based squad tactics.
The meat of the gameplay consists of trying to defeat enemies while putting your characters in a position to be protected from their oncoming attacks. While comparisons are inevitable for a game that shares so many surface-level similarities to the X-Com series, Mario + Rabbids feels like its own animal. Movement in Mario + Rabbids is a lot more dynamic than in more traditional squad-based tactical games, with characters able to chain several movements together instead of moving from point A to B. For instance, I can tell Luigi to jump on Mario’s head, run through a pipe, jump on Rabbid Peach’s head and then dash through an enemy before ending up behind cover. Also, rather than just defeating your enemies, battles have different objectives – sometimes you’re told to “defeat all” but other times you simply have to make it across the battlefield, escort a vulnerable character, or defeat a certain number of enemies to succeed. There are also mini-boss and boss fights which can be both challenging and very different than normal encounters.
Surprisingly, turn-based tactics are only one side of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Between battles you have the chance to explore this beautiful rendition of the Mushroom Kingdom that has been overrun with Rabbids. Collect coins and find weapons, collectables and the many secrets that are packed into the world. Sometimes just progressing to the next area requires exploration and puzzle solving. These puzzles can be surprisingly complex and involved, often being more of a challenge than those found in actual puzzle-games. Beep-O, your Roomba avatar, accumulates skills, like block pushing, that you use to access previously inaccessible parts of the map – giving a bit of replayability for those who want to find every secret. Also, you can go back and replay battles to get a better rating or just to try them out with different combinations of characters. Peach’s castle grounds serves as a hub to enter each of the 4 worlds as well as a home base. Buildings open up as you progress through gameplay that give access to things such as weapon and skill purchasing, and even a cooperative challenge mode that you and a friend can play locally on the same Nintendo Switch.
You can’t play the whole campaign with a friend, but there is an extensive co-op mode that allows you to control two characters while your friend controls another two. Unfortunately, there are no modes which allow you to play versus another human – something that seems like a real missed opportunity.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is about merging not only the crazy antics of Rabbids into the Super Mario world but also the merging of squad-based tactical gameplay with the most unlikely of settings: the Mushroom Kingdom. Ubisoft obviously had a lot of love for this project, as it’s excellent in almost every aspect. If you own a Nintendo Switch do yourself a favor and check out Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, available right now.