Crossover culture is incredibly popular in today’s media. You mostly have comics to thank for that, but video games have also embraced this trend for a long while. The Vs. Capcom series, Mario & Sonic and Super Smash Bros. are all games that have appeal in seeing two or more different series interacting with one another. In E3 2017, Ubisoft announced a surprise partnership with Nintendo to bring Mr. Video Games himself, Super Mario, and combine them with the minion spawn of Rayman, the Rabbids, in a bizarre X-COM like strategy RPG complete with guns, toilet humor, and more very un-Mario like ideas. So, did this bizarre clash of worlds work, or should it be flushed down the drain? Let’s a go.
While Mario may be the first name in the title, and the game is set in the Mushroom Kingdom, this game is actually set in the Rabbids universe. Set some time after Rabbids Travel in Time on the Wii & 3DS, the Rabbids use their time traveling washing machine to appear in the bedroom of a genius tech-girl who has quite the obsession with Mario and friends. Rabbids do what Rabbids do and end up abusing a device she made that allows two objects to fuse together. By fusing the time machine with a poster of Super Mario, the Rabbids somehow find themselves in the Mushroom Kingdom, fusing with many of its inhabitants and generally causing chaos. Beep-o, a small navigation robot created to work with the device ends up being saved by Mario, who teams up with a Rabbid version of Peach and Luigi, and they set off on a quest to find the Rabbid Spawny, who is behind all this mischief.
That plot is a lot more complex than your usual Mario fair and is represented in-game via cutscenes and text dialogue. There is voice acting from the girl at the beginning but once they enter the Mushroom Kingdom it’s all grunts and BWAAHS (except for one notable boss battle). This is fine; it follows usual Mario tradition. It also allows for the benefit of having natural cutscenes, which will change slightly based on who is in your squad at any given moment. This allows for greater immersion, which I will always support in any video game.
So, while the story was well-conceived, what about the gameplay? Well, it’s definitely different.
According to the developers, Mario’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto specifically forbade them from creating a platformer. Mario + Rabbids had to be a completely new genre for Mario, and boy did they go all out. Mario + Rabbids plays neither like a Mario or a Rabbids game and instead takes cues from other strategy titles like X-COM. It comes with all the usual strategy games tropes like cover, turn-based movement, a variety of weapons, enemy types and upgrades. It is different for the two series but it’s nothing new for the genre. It’s more like a “Mario take” on the tactical strategy genre.
So what constitutes as a “Mario take?” Well, jumping is a good place to start. Mario is known for his jumps and this game allows Mario et al to bounce off of each other to reach greater distances and also perform some attacks. Mario & Yoshi can damage people with their jumps, Peach can heal and Luigi can bounce on multiple heads in a row. The Rabbids can also use the jump but their benefits come from dashing instead, where you can physically attack opponents by running into them. It is very useful and you always have access to both as the game forces you to have Mario and at least one Rabbid in your squad at all times.
There are other ways to attack as well. Every character has a gun as their primary weapon which ranges from a sniper to a shotgun. Then each character gets a secondary weapon like a hammer or a rocket. Each of these weapons have special super-effects, like ink that stops opponents from attacking or honey which keeps them in place, so making sure what type of weapon you have is part of the strategy. This is where the customization stops though. Each character feels more like a class than X-COM’s blank slates. Each character has a unique combination so there are always benefits to who you pick and it works to keep things simple.
Keeping things simple is a big factor of this game. Mario has a wider appeal to consumers, and I can imagine that this would be many people’s first strategy game. Thanks to this, it needs to be kept simple. That does not mean it is easy, oh no. There were many missions where I just pulled through by the skin of my teeth. Rather, the simpleness comes from other factors like no perma-death for units and recurring simple mechanics. There are traits shared across all characters, like all the Mario characters having reaction shots and all the Rabbids having shields. All these abilities being so similar, just different in stats, makes it easy to keep track of and anyone can easily understand what is going on. The game is definitely accessible.
The combat is the main focus of the game but there is also the exploration mode. Here you control Beep-o instead as you run around the distorted kingdom collecting coins, solving switch puzzles and commenting on silly background details, often involving what the Rabbids are doing. It’s a nice breakup between action that this game needed and a good opportunity to just relax, take in the visuals and find some of the games various collectibles.
There are four different types of collectibles in the game, and they are all gotten from hidden chests in the world. You can access these from the Hub-world of Peach’s Castle, along with the Battle HQ, the amiibo mode, and the game’s co-op campaign. The co-op campaign isn’t as long as the main one but here you can use four characters instead of three. You and a friend take a Joy-Con each and play exclusively in battle maps. It’s only local but it is a nice addition to the game that helps to extend its length. What also helps in this regard are the challenges. Going back to any prior worlds gives you access to the game’s challenge mode where you can replay certain battles with additional requirements. It is all counted towards that 100% and offers hours of play.
Overall the gameplay is fairly solid. It plays very much like X-COM but more accessible and easier to manage. There are a lot of enemy types and the heroes each feel unique (even if Yoshi is acquired way too late into the game). So, that is two positive sections so far, but can the presentation keep up the momentum?
The presentation doesn’t quite have the same polish as an in-house Mario game, but that does not mean it is bad by any means. The world of Mario + Rabbids is wonderfully crafted and detailed. There is a lot going on in this weird take on the Mushroom Kingdom, but it all works in showing that the Switch can do graphics easily on par with the PS4, not on a tech level but in one of art direction. Mario + Rabbids could almost be mistaken for a movie at times with the way everything is directed. Presentation only really suffers in the transitions which feel a bit jarring at times, and the text bubbles which look a bit to clip-arty for my tastes. But the 3D models and the world more than make up for this.
On a purely aural level, this game is definitely a treat to listen to. The amazing Grant Kirkhope composed the soundtrack here, and you can tell. It feels whimsical and very much like his previous works, specifically Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. There are a few remixes of Mario tracks here and there, with the main Mario theme appearing as well as the Peach’s Castle theme, but for the most part it is all unique. This is a good thing, as it helps grant the game its own identity (something virtually everything else also enforces) but it does lead into one personal issue I had.
This point here is nothing against the game’s design or presentation, but rather something I was a little disappointed in. The opportunity for a crossover game like this allows developers to see how elements of the two worlds would interact but aside from a few moments, I feel like this is rarely used. There are some enemies that take advantage of this such as the Rabbid Kong, the Pirabbid plant and a few I will keep secret, but the vast majority are all unique. Almost all the standard enemies are just Rabbids with makeup or outfits as opposed to say, a Koopa Troopa Rabbid or a Hammer Bro Rabbid. The worst example is a Rabbid mid-boss that is on the back of a cloud yet has nothing to do with Lakitu. I want to stress again that this does not make the game worse at all, it is just a matter of taste. However, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.
If you had told me a year ago that we were gonna see Mario crossover with the Rabbids, I would have scoffed at the thought and laughed it off (heck I think that’s what happened when I first heard the rumour) but having seen the game and played it I am confident in saying this is a must-have on the Switch. It’s easily the best Rabbid game out there and, heck, it’s probably the best Ubisoft game I have ever played (maybe). The story is actually interesting, the gameplay is simple yet satisfying and the presentation is top-notch. Any complaint I have about this game is nitpicking or personal wishes of things I wish were in this game. Despite my complaints about the lack of Mario references in enemies and worlds, there are cool nods in the dialogue and reference you can only get in a western take on Mario. I had a lot of fun with this game and I hope that the upcoming story DLC will help to bring me back in the future.