My initial reaction to Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was a bit like turning on a vacuum cleaner around a dog: I got real freaked out and wasn’t sure why. The game, produced by Ubisoft, sees Mario getting mashed up with these cartoon rabbit things called Rabbids that, per Wikipedia, are very popular in Europe. And the gameplay looked to be a mash-up of the turn-based tactical game XCOM and/or SteamWorld: Heist. So Mario and Luigi and Princess Peach now have guns, but then they’re also like bizarro Rabbid versions of themselves? It was a lot to take in.
But after spending the last week cramming every spare moment I could into playing through Kingdom Battle, I’m a believer. I won’t try to explain the full story, because it would read as if I took some Ambien right before writing this, but the basic gist is, various bits of junk in a Rabbids’ basement have invaded the Mushroom Kingdom, wreaking unintentional havoc. The Bowser family gets involved, as do more of your favorite Mario characters — and, again, their odd Rabbid-mash-up versions.
The meat of the game is turn-based tactical battles. If you played the 2012 remake of XCOM or a Fire Emblem game, you’re in familiar territory. If not, the game is good about holding your hand initially. You pick three team members and take turns moving them to better positions, dashing into enemies to knock them over, taking shots with blasters and various explosives, and gaining even better cover, usually by using a teammate to leap into a better position.
It’s Kingdom Battle’s emphasis on continued movement and chaining attacks together that makes it special. Every fight will see just three of your team taking on many, many more enemies; each battle quickly becomes a puzzle to solve. If I run one teammate through a pipe here, dash and shoot this enemy there, then follow that up with a double-dash move through another two enemies here, I can then use Peach to launch Mario into the air, where he can stomp a separate mêlée bruiser, and finish him off with a hammer. Throw in secondary weapons and characters’ specific powers that can force enemies out of cover, and you get a game that has the colorful sheen of a children’s game, but with a surprising amount of tactical depth.
Indeed, while the first few levels are relatively easy, by the end, I was hard-pressed to finish each level. Luckily, unlike XCOM, you aren’t punished heavily for failure — you can restart any battle that’s going badly, and every fight has an “Easy Option” mode that gives all your characters 150 percent extra life. You can also go back and play earlier levels for more coins and “Orbs,” which allow you to gain new character abilities. The game isn’t a cakewalk — there are a couple of later battles I found myself beating my head against repeatedly — but it does an admirable job of creating something that players of almost any skill level can enjoy.
The game’s one weakness is in between battles, where you do very basic overworld traveling, solving very simple puzzles, and collecting coins (which you use to buy guns, not extra lives — again, it’s a very weird Mario game!). You can also go back to past stages and take on challenges, some of which require some interesting use of the mechanics you’ve learned so far (and, because it’s an Ubisoft game, there are dozens and dozens of collectibles to find). None of this is handled badly, but compared to the fun of the battles, running around collecting coins or doing simple color-coded switch puzzles feels like a letdown.
The game this reminded me of the most is nearly over 21 years old now, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, a Super Nintendo title that, much like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, should not have worked. It borrowed heavily on the tropes from other games, but was able to make it defiantly its own thing — both of these are odd Mario games, but they are Mario games.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is the first time I found myself making sure my Switch was in my bag with me at all times, and I had a spare portable battery back in case juice ran low. It’s a testament to both Ubisoft’s dedication to getting so many small details right and the essential pliability of the Mario brand — in his nearly 40 years, he’s been a doctor, a kart racer, a mêlée brawler, and a hotel magnate — that Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is such a blast to play.