Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a strange amalgam of Nintendo characters and Ubisoft mascots in an XCOM-style tactics game. Primarily developed by Ubisoft, Kingdom Battle is proof that good things happen when Nintendo lets another studio take the reins, making it a perfect example of what Nintendo should be doing in its collaborations with other companies.
On the surface, Kingdom Battle is a premise that should not work for many reasons. The Rabbids are to video games what Minions are to film: vapid, overexposed, and overwhelming the (better) property that spawned them. Nintendo hasn’t seriously collaborated with another first party developer since Mario and Sonic went to the Olympics, and those games didn’t involve any weaponry. Mario is supposed to be a family-friendly franchise. Here, Mario has a gun, Luigi is a Sniper, and though the weapons are cartoonish there is no mistaking the implications.
And yet, the combination is effective. The Rabbids might be the biggest surprise. The weird rabbit-like creatures have been in 16 games since 2006 (good lord) and they still have the same perpetually dumbfound looks on their faces. Known as the Lapins crétins (Idiot Rabbits) in the original French, the Rabbids are the lowest common denominator for slapstick humour, zany for the sake of zany with no rhyme or reason. They were first introduced as a zombie-like enemy horde for Rayman. In Kingdom Battle, that same blandness makes them an excellent canvas for the construction of strange creature combinations. An early cutscene shows a Petey Piranha and Rabbid that get fused together to create the Pirabbid Plant, one of many elegantly designed enemy creatures. The game delivers Rabbid versions of Mario, Luigi and Peach, giving the Rabbids a charm that did not previously exist (at least for me).
The fact that Nintendo was open to such a strange collaboration is equally unexpected, since the company is famously protective of its properties. Outside of a few one-offs like Link in Namco’s Soul Calibur 2, the company just doesn’t like to share, to the point that the mere thought of a Nintendo collaboration is enough to make other developers pay attention.
“There are few times in my career that I’ve been as surprised as when I was watching that presentation,” said Firaxis Designer Jake Solomon in an interview with Venture Beat (Firaxis is the contemporary developer of XCOM). “Just like everyone else, my jaw dropped a little bit when I heard the phrase, ‘As you see, Luigi has taken half-cover.’ What world am I in right now? I couldn’t believe it.”
The thing is, there’s never been any need for Nintendo to be so afraid. The company’s previous collaborations have often led to some of its most interesting games. For instance, Squaresoft made Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, which later evolved into the successful Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi RPG games. Meanwhile, Metroid was successfully reimagined as a trilogy of immersive first person shooters after Nintendo saw the work that was being done at Retro Studios.
Kingdom Battle is an argument in favor of that kind of outside-the-box thinking. Nintendo characters using weapons and weapon upgrades is something I didn’t think I’d ever see, but it all works well here. The weapons fit the Mario aesthetic, allowing you to freeze, burn, or slow your enemies (with honey no less). There’s also a welcome inventiveness with certain character abilities, like Peach’s ability is to heal team members with her jump or Rabbid Mario’s devastating hammer and Rabbid Luigi’s Yoyo combos. It’s a great blend of goofy and tactical that feels like Mario even when you’re lining up a shot to kill your enemies.
Ubisoft and Nintendo have made a colourful and rich gameplay tapestry that serves as an engaging introduction to the tactics genre for younger players. If Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is what we can expect from the new Nintendo, then so much the better. Nintendo allowing other developers to remix its properties can help extend the longevity of those staple franchises for many years to come. I bought a Switch for Kingdom Battle’s charm alone. We can only hope that it’s the first of many such collaborations.