"This is not the game we asked for, but a game that more than deserves to exist."
When I first heard of the leak surrounding Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, I thought to myself, "Nintendo has finally lost their marbles." Mario teaming up with gaming's equivalent of Despicable Me's Minions?! I facedesked (instead of your palm meeting your face, a desk meets your face) and I wanted to storm into Nintendo's headquarters and demand to know who approved this ridiculous idea. However, as Ubisoft continued talking about the game alongside Shigeru Miyamoto, who approved the idea (whoops!), I went from skeptical to interested. After the gameplay demo, I went from interested to "I need this game right now." Affectionately referred to as "Mario XCOM" by the Internet, the game went from being almost universally hated pre-reveal to everyone's darling and E3 award winner post-reveal. The game defied our expectations before release, but how does it do as a complete product?
The game begins with a human girl — who happens to be a big Mario fan — working on an experimental headset, the SupaMerge, that is able to merge two objects together to create something new. She's having overheating issues. One night, she puts it down and heads to bed, forgetting to turn it off. While she's away, the Rabbids teleport into the room with their signature Time Washing Machine and begin destroying the place. Her assistant, Beep-O, tries to stop the Rabbids to no avail. One of the Rabbids puts the SupaMerge on its head and begins to merge things together. However, the headset is still malfunctioning, and in the merging confusion the Rabbid shoots a beam into the Rabbids' Time Washing Machine, causing the machine to go berserk and create a portal that sends the Rabbids into Mario's world. Beep-O arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, meets Mario, and asks for his help in stopping the rampaging Rabbids. A couple of the Rabbids, Rabbid Luigi and Rabbid Peach, are good guys and assist Mario and Beep-O. The objective of the game is to find the Rabbid with the SupaMerge headset (whose name is Spawny and he's adorable) and get him to restore everything to normal.
As you might expect, Mario and company don't always have the most involved stories, and it's the same here. Beep-O constantly reminds you of the story at hand, but it never really feels like you're progressing all too much. It's basically a cat and mouse game with Mario's party chasing Spawny. Ubisoft does have a bit of fun with the story, though — they mock various tropes in Mario games like constantly having to deal with Toad/Toadette, Donkey Kong losing his mind over bananas, and most of all, Mario himself. One of the most fun surprises, though, is how much I liked my Rabbid allies. Ubisoft gave each Rabbid its own distinct personality, and they felt like legitimate team members that I could rely on to get me out of jams.
You control Mario and two allies in various locations around the Mushroom Kingdom. The game is broken up into worlds and chapters. Each chapter usually contains 1-3 battles, and your health is not restored between fights. The only way to recover health outside of battle is to find mushrooms around the world which recover a small portion of your health. You are scored based on how quickly you beat the level and if you manage to keep all of your team members alive. Getting the best scores net you more coins, which you need to buy weapons. If you ever do run into trouble, there is an Easy Mode option that pops up at the start of each fight. Activating Easy Mode restores all party members' health bars and gives you 50% more health for the fight. Power Orbs, obtained by beating chapters and finding chests between battles, can be used to unlock skills. You can retool your skills at any time, allowing flexibility if you need different skills for a particular level. In addition to the regular story chapters, there are extra challenges that pop up after you beat a world. These challenges reward you with money and extra Power Orbs.
For whatever reason, you must have a Rabbid on your team; you can't have a team with exclusively Mario characters. This limits potential team-ups and also means you can't use a specific Mario franchise team that might be the best solution for what you're confronted with. The Rabbids are all competent, so it's not a huge loss, but it would have been nice to have that option. You can explore the maps between battles to collect gallery items, extra Power Orbs, and weapon blueprints. You usually have to solve a small puzzle in order to get the reward, or look for hidden areas. It's a nice distraction, and it's good to get your mind off the fights for a while.
The game does have a few flaws. For one thing, there are a few difficulty spikes. If you thought Mario + Rabbids would be easy because of who its characters are, you would be very wrong. Each world upgrades its enemies significantly, and if you spend any excess gold, you might find yourself very underpowered for the world ahead until you catch up. Even within the worlds themselves, some maps are much more difficult than the previous map or even the one that follows it. There is also an issue with the controls. Instead of moving using the grid, you control a cursor on the grid itself. This might seem fine, but the cursor snaps onto the nearest tile once you let go. You might think you're on a certain tile, but the game might snap the cursor onto another tile. If you're too quick with a button press, all of a sudden you've made a wrong move. In a game where positioning is key, being even one tile off can be catastrophic. In addition, unlike other tactics games, the game doesn't ask you if you want to confirm the move and offers no way to rewind. In addition, using the game's "Tacticam" isn't very helpful because it doesn't show you enemies' attack ranges if they were to move to a different location.
The music of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is composed by the extremely talented Grant Kirkhope, who became famous in the Nintendo 64 era for scoring a lot of Rare's music, including Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007, and Donkey Kong 64. A few of my favourites in this game are the remix of "Peach's Castle Theme," the Spooky Trails background music, and "Rabbid Kong," the latter of which brought me back over a decade to Donkey Kong 64. Kirkhope's soundtrack in general oozes nostalgia from its core, and that makes this longtime Nintendo fan very happy. One of the standouts here is "The Phantom of the Bwahpera," which features an opera-singing Rabbid who roasts Mario over an open fire in his song. It's similar to The Great Mighty Poo's song from Conker's Bad Fur Day. One thing that helps add to the atmosphere is the environment dynamically going along with the music. In World 1, plants blast out the music; In World 2, creatures jump on a drum to the beat; and in World 3, plants play a tune on ghostly strings. The sound effects are also quite good. There is the classic coin sound from Mario games when you pick up coins, squishing Rabbids with your hammer produces a satisfying sound, and the guns produce an enjoyable sound effect when they fire.
The world of Mario + Rabbids looks really good on the Switch. Backgrounds pop out, the environment is busy, and the characters look great. The world that Ubisoft has created here is unique, and it feels like a good mix of classic Nintendo design and Ubisoft's own creation. The cinematic camera shots when you perform particular actions are one design choice I like a lot. It's a world I enjoyed exploring to see what Ubisoft could add to the familiar Mushroom Kingdom. The factors that bring it down are that a few textures are blurry and the game has a few framerate issues.
Xavier Manzanares, the producer, said at E3 that this is a game "made with passion, with our hearts." I can feel that passion come through. Ubisoft treated this game with the respect that a franchise like Mario deserves. So while control issues plague what might have been an absolutely amazing experience, this is still a game that Switch owners should really consider picking up. This is not the game we asked for, but a game that more than deserves to exist.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.