The world wasn't jonesing for a mash-up of 'X-Com' and the Mushroom Kingdom, but it's getting one – and it's hilarious
Nintendo protects its prime characters like they're its children. You can count the number of times Mario has ventured into the jurisdiction of a rival publisher on one hand. So cross-pollinating with the Rabbids franchise – a handful of middling mini-game collections that Ubisoft has shoveled out for more than a decade – seemed like a galactically bad idea. When Yves Guillemot announced Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle at the Ubisoft press conference on Monday, he unveiled a freshly-drawn cadre of Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach, all brandishing their own particular guns. The first thing a non-Nintendo publisher did when handed the Mushroom Kingdom was to equip Mario with a frickin' gun. On the strength of that alone, it quickly became my least favorite game at E3, and I carried that disdain up until the very moment I sat down in front of a Switch, and made Mario dart past a chunk of mystery-block bricks to ice a Rabbid dead with one in the chamber.
It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a video game. Mario – the plumber who kart races with his buddies on the weekends – watching a Rabbid fall over through the smoke of his barrel. Mario + Rabbids might be the ultimate desecration of everything we love about video games, and right now it’s my game of the show.
The mechanics of Mario + Rabbids are airtight. It’s a perfect adaptation of X-Com’s frantic turn-based tactics. Your squadron (Mario, Luigi, and a couple of Rabbids dressed up as Mario and Luigi) run around an isometric battlefield replete with cover, strategic explosives, and the occasional neutral aggressor (in one scenario I played a Chain Chomp took a bite out of anyone nearby). Each character can move once and shoot once during their turn, so you’ll spend a lot of time running to a secure corner before taking a pot shot across the map – which should be a familiar feeling to anyone who’s played this type of game before.
To its credit, Ubisoft has cooked up a number of sneaky and smart wrinkles to that formula. If you run to a friendly character during your move turn, they can “bounce” you a little further for some extra mobility, which adds an extra level of strategy to squad placement. Sometimes you can find interconnected warp pipes on the map, which let you flank enemies in unexpected ways. Characters can coordinate by blowing enemies in the sky, and then land a well placed shot mid-air to push them into a specific, compromising spot out of cover. You can do some open-world exploring in between the battles, which really helps Mario + Rabbids feel more like a Mario game. At one point I found an honest-to-god Mario 64 red coins puzzle in the wilderness.
But frankly, a lot of the fun comes from the absolute obscenity of the premise. The tacked-on story chronicles a rogue faction of transdimensional Rabbids landing on Peach’s front lawn, which angers Mario and his friends enough to form a militia and purge them from their realm. So, there’s this hilarious meta-narrative of the Nintendo characters fighting for the purity and sovereignty of their canon. When Mario is pressed up against a wall he holds his pistol parallel to his head like he’s in Hard Boiled. It’s as if Ubisoft just dropped the animations from The Division directly into the Mushroom Kingdom. This all gives Mario + Rabbids a levity that’s hard to find in other strategy games. Like sure, maybe Ubisoft is presenting its Tom Clancified conception of Mario completely earnestly, but I think it’s far more likely that they understand the inherent humor in framing a Nintendo game as the world’s leading exporter of grim military fantasies.
Anything with the Rabbids name on it usually boils down into artless Wiimote-shaking flotsam designed specifically to entertain drunk house parties for five minutes at a time. So, to find a genuinely thoughtful strategy game inside Mario + Rabbids was astonishing. Ubisoft really didn’t have to try this hard, but it honestly feels like it's dreadfully afraid of letting Shigeru Miyamoto down. We enter E3 every year looking for something to surprise us. I patrolled the Ubisoft booth and found a beautified Assassin’s Creed, an aging design document in the form of Far Cry 5, and The Club 2’s mea culpa. Mario + Rabbids, for all of its sinfulness, left me floored. It’s a bizarre collaboration between two franchises on vastly different ends of the cultural spectrum, and it’s also a tactical killing machine.
Towards the end of my demo I lead my troops past a Rabbid sitting peacefully on a giant rubber duck. “I have SO many questions here, perhaps they’re better left unanswered,” said BEEP-0, the Roomba-like robot that accompanies Mario on his journey.
They could put that quote on the back of the box. Mario + Rabbids is the best bad idea ever. I have no idea how it turned out to be this fun but perhaps the less we know the better.