Mario is under siege. Two hooded enemies flank him, rocket launchers cocked and ready to blow the moment he steps out from cover. His target is straight ahead—a glowing rectangle of terrain situated at the battlefield’s end zone—but a large brute wielding a coffin for a cudgel blocks the way. Mario’s health is critical; if those rockets don’t put an end to him, the bruiser surely will.
I survey the field of operations, looking for an acceptable outcome. It’s not that I necessarily need Mario to survive this one—death is meaningless in this candy-coated game of war—but it’d sure be nice to get that bonus for keeping my entire squad alive. I could have him spring backwards to the open drain pipe sitting behind him and cross my fingers; if he makes it through the pipe, he can reposition under higher cover, gaining an elevation bonus to his attack power and clearing out some of the rabble. But no: a good commander does not take such risks, and Mario’s not fast enough to outrun rockets.
Peach is nearby; maybe if I launch her upward off the back of one of her squad mates, she could land near Mario and grant him enough of a health boost to see him through to the end zone. It’s a safer gamble than the last option, but again, too risky: with those launchers trained on anything that moves and either one of them capable of dealing critical damage, I might just as well have handed out poison mushrooms in the ready room.
There is another option: that irascible fellow with the mallet and the mustache calling himself Mario. No, not the Mario—we’ve already established the pickle he’s in. This is another Mario: a gibberish-spouting, mandolin-plucking pretender with a hat to match the part but overalls two sizes too large. He’s a recent addition to my crew; a hitchhiker I picked up on my bizarre journey through a Mushroom Kingdom unlike any I’ve traveled through before: a lush, vibrant landscape that’s become twisted, polluted, and overpopulated by rabid cosplayers who’ve deluded themselves into thinking they’re the real deal heroes, despite having obviously gotten their attire from the popup Halloween store on November 1st.
This other Mario—Rabbid Mario, we’ll call him—might not be the hero we deserve, but he’s the one we need, because he can do something the real Mario can’t: he can take the enemy off its guard, clearing the path ahead for Mario to reach the end zone and complete the mission. I give the command, and Rabbid Mario breaks out into song; the hooded enemies, curiously attracted to his nonsensical warbling, holster their weapons and wander off the critical path. I can’t believe that actually worked!
Er… what I mean to say is, yes, well, of course it worked. Ahem. A good commander surveys the battlefield, weighs his options, and chooses the most effective solution to the problem.
With the path clear, Mario is free to rush forward, but there’s just one more minor issue: he won’t quite reach the end zone with his current range of movement. Luckily, Peach still hasn’t used up any actions, and a solution forms in my mind: I send her toward the brute, signalling her to stop directly in front of him. He turns and roars, his slavering lips flapping at the force of his breath. Gross. It’d be the end for her, but again, all I need to do is get a single unit to the end zone, and it’ll all be over. With the pieces in place, I give the go-ahead, and Mario rushes straight for the princess, hopping onto her shoulders, then leaping off her, launching several extra spaces forward and landing directly in the glowing target area. Mission accomplished, and everyone’s still standing.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is at once the most intense Mario game I’ve ever played, and the most wondrous. That’s because it’s not really a Mario game at all—it wasn’t even developed or published by Nintendo, in fact, but instead by a passionate team at Ubisoft led by Mario mega-fan Davide Soliani. It’s an unlikely mix of presentation and play styles: a peculiar but pleasing jumble of characters and locations from the Mario universe, turn-based tactical battles ripped straight out of XCOM, and a whimsical Grant Kirkhope score that might just be his best work since Banjo Kazooie. And lest I overlook the importance of Ubisoft’s own IP in this equation, let me just get this out of the way: I’ve never played a Rabbids game before, and Kingdom Battle has me wondering why. These rascally rogues tie the whole thing together in hilarious fashion, making for one of the funniest games to land on a Nintendo platform in years.
As a lifelong fan of XCOM (nee X-Com), I’m struck by Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle’s cutesy twist on one of the darkest, most gruelingly difficult series in all of video gaming. And make no mistake: despite its rainbow-kissed aesthetic, this tactical RPG will challenge even the most grizzled commanders. The difficulty starts off fairly enough, curving gently up as it introduces players to its many systems and rules, then quickly spikes into unforgiving territory near the game’s midway point. Even if you’re experienced in the genre, you may reach a point where you fail over and over again until finally stumbling on the right strategy for a given battle. Post-engagement, you’ll be awarded coins for buying stronger weapons, orbs for unlocking character abilities, and, if you’re good enough, an HP top-up. The value of this bounty is tied to your performance, so it becomes increasingly crucial to wrap up as quickly as possible, and with as many soldiers still standing as you can muster. It may seem impossible to complete some battles with the best rank, and for all I know, it is… at least during your initial playthrough. Once you’ve completed any of the game’s worlds, you’re able to revisit them with better weapons and more experienced units, so if you’re having trouble with later battles, it’s worth retracing your steps for the extra experience orbs and cash.
You’ll begin the game with a squad consisting of Mario, Rabbid Peach, and Rabbid Luigi, but as you explore the world between battles, you’ll pick up additional units along the way. Each of the game’s eight characters has a unique set of abilities, meaning some are better suited for specific battles than others. It’s a marked departure from XCOM, where each generic soldier can be customized exactly as the player sees fit, and as a result, it behooves you to study each map ahead of battle to figure out the best squad makeup. It’s easy to fall into the trap of picking favorites, which can lead to a number of issues—not the least of which is going into battle with units that aren’t fully healed because you couldn’t find any mushrooms on the overworld.
Mario is a strong offensive unit with great movement-based attacks, but as he’s required for every battle, it can be a struggle to keep his HP up between engagements. Because of this, it’s typically a good idea to have a healer on your squad, and Peach and Rabbid Peach are your go-to gals for restorative abilities. Luigi, as the resident sniper, is fantastic for dealing death to those pesky ranged enemies who like to keep your party distracted while you’re trying to manage more immediate threats. Rabbid Mario specializes in distraction and destruction, while Rabbid Luigi is a capable defender with a talent for elemental attacks. Yoshi and Rabbid Yoshi are tricky: with an unpredictable primary attack that can be devastating or completely ineffectual, it can sometimes feel like a roll of the dice using them. No matter who comprises your squad, you’re limited to three characters only—Mario, plus at least one Rabbid—so get used to shuffling your lineup regularly.
Although Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle rarely deviates from the XCOM formula in its tactical mode, the strategic layer is another story entirely. You won’t find any base-building or deep resource management here; instead, R&D is limited to unlocking character abilities via experience orbs, and collecting more powerful weapons as you progress through the story and explore the overworld. Most weapons have a bonus status effect that is granted when you land a critical hit, and they’re as goofy as you’d guess for a Mario game: honey glues enemies in place, ink blinds them, springs bounce them off the field of battle for extra damage, etc. The world itself is gorgeous: Ubisoft’s interpretation of the Mushroom Kingdom is a slightly foreign (but no less familiar) interpretation of Nintendo’s own efforts in titles like Super Mario 3D World, complete with a fantastic homage to Super Mario Land 2’s Pumpkin Zone. You don’t actually control Mario directly—this isn’t a platformer, and there’s no jumping outside of battle—instead, your party is guided around the map in single file by a Roomba-like robot named Beepo, JRPG-style. Aside from the occasional puzzle, there’s not actually much to do on the overworld, but it’s all so pleasing to explore—especially when you come across the many Rabbids scattered throughout, engaging in absurd acts of physical comedy—that the relative lack of interactivity between engagements feel like a welcome reprieve.
When I first dove into Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, I wasn’t sure what to expect. At times, I found myself missing XCOM’s strategic layer: there’s just something so satisfying about barely holding it all together from month to month while the future of the planet hangs in the balance. But on the other hand, I love inhabiting this world. I love how easy it is to play a quick co-op battle with my wife. And I love most of all knowing that so many players are now enjoying a style of gameplay they might never have otherwise experienced, all because Davide Soliani saw two things no developer ever thought to put together and said “hey, who’s got some duct tape?” Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is an utterly charming take on the Mario universe, an unlikely XCOM homage that swaps doom and gloom for self-referential humor, and a standout exclusive on a console that’s seen the best launch-year lineup in history. I simply cannot recommend it highly enough.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is based on final retail code provided to us by Ubisoft. The game launched on Tuesday, August 29th, 2017.