When Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto and Ubisoft co-founder Yves Guillemot took the stage at E3, it was an unexpected sight for an unusual collaboration. Standing back to back, they held blasters and promoted a crossover game called “Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.”
Collaborations like this are fairly common in the Japanese sphere. Capcom and Bandai Namco have teamed up for role-playing and fighting games. Nintendo persuaded a slew of developers to bring their characters to its “Smash Bros.” series. “Mario + Rabbids” is surprising because it’s a rare partnership between East and West.
Ubisoft, a publisher based in France, got the go-ahead to make a strategy game with Nintendo’s most iconic character. The opportunity would make many developers nervous, but creative director Davide Soliani treated the project as an ode to Miyamoto, the designer who inspired his career.
The result is remarkable: Players can feel the sentiment behind every pixel, the consideration behind each gameplay mechanic and the joy within each puzzle. “Mario + Rabbids” is a careful game, one that successfully combines two disparate universes through humor.
It marries the precise mechanics that define Mario’s adventures with the chaotic nature of Ubisoft’s Rabbids. The two come together in a project that resembles the 2K Games’ “XCOM” series, but “Mario + Rabbids” reinvents that formula to make it flexible and fun.
In this world, disastrous circumstances cause the Rabbids to invade the Mushroom Kingdom and, in the process, corrupt it. A Rabbid called Spawny is attached to a headset with the ability to combine any objects he sees. If he spots a Rabbid and a paint brush, they turn into a mohawked foe called a Ziggy. That same Rabbid combined with a gorilla can turn into the Rabbid version of Donkey Kong. In the wrong hands, Spawny’s power could be devastating.
Players must venture through four worlds to restore order in the Mushroom Kingdom. Along the way, Mario and company pick up Luigi, Princess Peach, Yoshi and their Rabbid doppelgängers. All eight of the characters have their own strengths and weaknesses. Rabbid Mario excels in close combat with his explosive dash and boomshot. Rabbid Peach and Princess Peach are the healers who restore allies’ life points in different ways.
Because players can bring only three heroes into a battle, there’s plenty of strategy in devising the lineup. A squad of Mario, Rabbid Mario and Peach is an offensive juggernaut, but its weakness is long-range attacks. Players must take account of the diverse mission objectives and adversaries before deploying their team.
Once on the field, players will discover a liberating sense of flexibility. Unlike “XCOM,” there’s no fog of war and no requisite order of actions. Players can scout the map and form a plan to tackle the corrupted Rabbids. The beauty of “Mario + Rabbids” is that battles are comparably short, and the chess game of moving characters to outflank opponents is straightforward.
If there’s a clear line of sight, there’s a 100 percent chance to hit them. If a foe is behind cover, the percentage drops to 50. Still, cover breaks down, so players are forced to move and adapt to the skirmish. The brevity of the matches means that screwing up isn’t so bad, which eliminates the urge to save and reset if players make a mistake.
“Mario + Rabbids” lets players experiment and fail while giving them a chance to recover. The flexibility of the combat and progression systems bolsters that. The game rewards those who can squeeze every bit of damage from a turn through dashes and special abilities.
These refinements move the genre forward, but the concept of combination attacks separates “Mario + Rabbids” from its peers. Team chemistry is important because there are powers and weapons that complement each other. Mario has an ability called Hero Sight that lets him counterattack foes if they move within range. Players can activate it and force enemies to move by using Rabbid Mario’s Magnet Dance or a blast from Peach’s fire-based boomshot.
The secret to winning lies in layering these attacks to create a domino effect that cascades amid the mayhem. It’s a way of guiding the seemingly random chaos of the battlefield.
With a co-op mode and plenty of secrets scattered throughout the world, “Mario + Rabbids” has enough content to keep players busy beyond a weekend. It’s a collaboration that begs to be mastered, and brings the best out of both Nintendo and Ubisoft.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Rating >> Everyone 10 and up