Hands-On: Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is Nintendo's XCOM

Mario is starting to run out of new game genres to make his debut in. From his long-running dominance of both 2D and 3D platformers and puzzle games, to the Smash Bros. series and countless sports titles, Mario is one of the most versatile and talented video game characters on the planet. In fact, did you know that Yoshi even got his own first-person shooter on the SNES? The Mario brand has crept into almost every other corner of the video game world and now, thanks to Ubisoft, not even turn-based tactical battle games are safe.

At Ubisoft’s E3 2017 press conference, the company did a joint announcement with Nintendo’s very own Shigeru Miyamoto, who made an appearance onstage for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. After seeing the demo during the show and then playing it for myself late last night, I can’t decide if I’m more surprised by the fact that the game got made in the first place or by the fact that it’s actually really fun. I guess a bit of both?

A Rabid Crossover

In Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle you control Mario and his party as they embark on a quest to see what’s happening to the Mushroom Kingdom as it’s invaded by the rabbids. The exact plot is unclear, but a few rabbids appear friendly since they dress up just like Team Mario.

Even though the artwork for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle leaked way ahead of E3, that doesn’t mean the announcement is any less of a surprise. The rabbids, while adorable, aren’t exactly on the same level as Mario and crew in terms of public perception and awareness. In fact, I’d even say that their inclusion was initially off-putting, despite the fact that the game’s premise was appealing to me.

With a turn-based tactical strategy game there is usually a heavy focus on expertly maneuvering around a battlefield and almost always a punishing sense of difficulty. The cutesy rabbids don’t exactly instill the same ideas.

That being said, it works better than you’d think. Their humor is a welcome addition and adds a great deal of levity to the otherwise bland cast of Mario characters. I’d love to see more Nintendo characters make an appearance (Donkey Kong is teased at the end of the trailer) and I would go as far as saying that an entirely Nintendo-focused roster of characters would have been even better. Just take the Mario Kart 8 or Smash Bros. Wii U rosters and adapt them for this game. That’s at least a good DLC opportunity.

Turn-Based Warfare

The demo I played had me wandering around an overworld for a few moments at first, collecting coins before I eventually entered a battlefield. The screen then shifted and it was now clearly in battle mode. Instead of freely moving around like before, I had to issue orders to everyone on my team. Since this was still so early in the game, the only options were to move, do a melee attack, or use an arm-mounted gun ability. Every character had a slightly different weapon.

During my demo, I got a small taste of the game’s promising combo ability feature as I could have Mario launch one of the rabbids in the air for expanded movement beyond just the normal range. You could also combo this with a melee attack. This worked by having a rabbid do a melee attack on an enemy, then get launched by Mario to escape and hide behind cover. I asked a developer if there would be further combos and the ability to do follow-up attacks and he alluded to the possibility being in the final game.

What really makes or breaks games like this, though, are how they evolve over the course of playing them. The core mechanics are solid, animations are great, the humor is there, and all the pieces seem to be falling into place for the world’s cutest and most accessible tactical strategy game, but only time will tell if the final game can live up to expectations.

Unanswered Questions

After my demo, I asked an onsite representative from the development team about multiplayer. He didn’t outright confirm the feature would make its way into the game, but told me that, even though it hasn’t been announced, I can “make a guess” about its inclusion based on the gameplay mechanics. That’s basically a confirmation.

Additionally, as fun as the demo was, it was obviously very shallow. I still have a lot of open questions about how progression works, how many environments there are, how varied each character’s abilities are, and what the real balance between exploration and combat is like. All of those questions will be answered in the next couple of months since the game is slated to release so very soon.

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Mario + Rabbids is coming exclusively to the Nintendo Switch on August 29. Interestingly, that’s the same release date for XCOM’s upcoming expansion as well. Let the battle begin.