Mario’s power as an icon is defined by his versatility. The plumber doesn’t just jump: he fights, he drives, he plays sports, he parties. He does it all, really, without ever looking out of place. And yet earlier in the year, the announcement of a Mario and Rabbids mash-up was met by some scepticism on the internet. Could an XCOM-esque strategy game full of weird rabbits, and the Mushroom Kingdom actually work? Actually, yes. Mario + Rabbids is way better than it has any right to be.
Mario + Rabbids is a Nintendo Switch exclusive created by Ubisoft Paris and Milan. It is a turn-based tactics game similar to, say, Fire Emblem or Advance Wars, except unlike most games in the genre, Mario + Rabbids combines humour with hardcore strategy. There is a story that involves a time machine and a device that can merge different objects together. That premise is an excuse to justify worlds clashing. It sets things up and never matters again: you are here to see the many ways in which the mischievous Rabbids wreck havoc, spark hijinks and impersonate your favourite Mushroom Kingdom characters. Mario and friends are just along for the ride, though, weirdly, they’re packing guns.
The game’s zones are numbered similarly to Super Mario Bros.’ in that there are worlds sectioned by levels—1-1, 1-2, and so on. Each area has its own Pixar-esque landscape, all themed in the most video-gamey way possible. Fire and ice world! Lava world! Obligatory starting-area-basic-forest world! It all seems crafted from clay. I don’t think I saw a sharp edge throughout my adventures; that cartoon aesthetic, combined with the top-down camera, made me feel like a kid mashing together dolls from different sets.
You can poke and prod some stuff around the overworld—there are some light environmental puzzles, and coins to collect—but just looking around is a joy. The haunted world, for example, is dotted with Boos, pipes stuffed with candles, and turbulent waters squeaking with rubber duckies. You move through these worlds controlling a party of three characters. I would run through everything and watch in awe as Mario stuck his arms out at top speed, Rabbids trailing behind him maniacally. The characters’ animations oozed so much personality that, dozens of hours in, I still stopped to appreciate them.
As you run through each world, you pass flags that mark the threshold to the next battle stages, where three of your heroes can fight enemies. Mario, who cannot be swapped out of your roster, is more of an all-rounder: he carries a blaster, a hammer, and can stomp on his enemies. Other characters, like Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Yoshi, bring a larger assortment of skills into the field, such as remote-detonated explosives, mini-guns, and even a shrill shriek that makes enemies run away.
Early on, I wanted a good mix of long-range, close-range, and mid-range offence, as well as some healing and defensive capabilities. I also felt wary about the new faces, so I mostly defaulted to the most boring choices: Mario, Luigi, and Peach (once I had unlocked the latter two, who aren’t available at the start). They are characters I already knew and felt comfortable with, so can you blame me? Rabbids initially doesn’t do a great job of telling you why you should include imposters, like Rabbid Mario and Rabbid Luigi, but with time, I grew to love their antics. Rabbid Peach is vain and can’t do anything without commemorating the moment with a selfie. When Rabbid Peach is critically hit, she has to stop and readjust her luscious blonde wig. Rabbid Yoshi wears a cute dinosaur hoodie and can barely contain his madness. I adored all of it.
Once on the battlefield, your team is placed on a grid. Each stage has a win condition, such as defeating all the enemies, escaping to the other side of the map, or most annoying of all, escorting someone to the end of the level. Complicating things further, some stages introduce environmental dangers, like Chain Chomps that run after you, or fireballs that rain down from the sky. Like similar games in the genre, you take turns with your enemy to manoeuvre around the field, attack, and take cover. As with any Mario game, running and jumping are key moves and give the game more of an action feel. The first major mechanic is that you can use jump on allies to extend your range, with some characters able to Team Jump on multiple allies in a row. Every Rabbids character can also “dash” through enemies for some extra damage. You are never locked into doing things in a particular order. You can attack first, then move around, and then trigger a special. Or you can trigger your special first, then move, then attack. All of that, combined with Rabbid-ised Mario pipes that teleport you around the map, make for elaborate turns with multiple phases. I felt like a genius whenever I orchestrated complicated turns.
You might, for example, tell a character to dash through one enemy, go into a pipe, dash another enemy in the midway zone, enter another pipe, team jump, and then stay put on the other side of the map, far from the active warzone. That character’s turn isn’t even halfway over—you haven’t officially attacked yet—and they’ve already damaged multiple enemies and trekked the entire board. Many attacks come packed with additional “Super Effects” that influence the action, too: you can ink enemies so they can’t attack you, or honey them in place so they can’t move.
Framing all of this is the cover system, which offers two types of protection: partial cover, or full cover. Some cover is permanent, while some cover can be chipped away and eventually destroyed, leaving characters vulnerable. Sometimes, what appears to be full cover chips away to reveal a box underneath that explodes on impact, thereby burning, inking, or pushing any schmuck standing next to it. Curiously, the likelihood of connecting an attack is mostly dependant on cover. Being very far away from your enemy doesn’t influence how likely you are to hit them, unless they’re entirely out of your range. Otherwise, you only ever contend with 0% chance (you can’t see them at all), 50% chance (they are behind partial cover) or 100% chance (you are flanking them.) Distance will not decay your hit percentage, though being on higher cover will add a bonus to damage.
Enemy types add another wrinkle. While there are stock adversaries, there are also foes that can heal themselves, phantom-types that can move regardless of terrain, heavies that move toward you after you attack them regardless of turn, and more. As you get further into the game, turns are about prioritising threats, and recognising that just because you can damage something doesn’t mean you should.
When things go your way, it’s satisfying to mesh all of these mechanics together for maximum effect. It’s also miserable when enemies receive lady luck’s favour. You can’t always rely on Super Effects like blinding ink and immobilising honey, because they are tied to your critical hit chances. And sometimes, Super Effects only introduce more chaos: you might plot something out, only to have one enemy accidentally set another one on fire, moving it out of range, or you might push an enemy into your own ally, injuring them both. I found myself screaming “BULLSHIT” whenever an enemy got a critical, and smirking whenever I got a Super Effect. It’s technically not unfair because it’s equal-opportunity—plus, this wouldn’t be a Mario spin-off game without introducing some element of randomness.
Once you start getting the hang of things, you can start comboing all of this together. There might, for instance, be a tough enemy that you can’t defeat even if every ally attack it. So, you can tell Mario to pop his “M-Power,” which is one of numerous unlockable abilities in the game and which increases damage by 20%. Then you would tell each character to dash through that enemy once to chip away some health. That once-mighty enemy that would have taken multiple turns to kill can now be downed with a single attack or two. Or, you might tell Mario to buckle down and attack anything that moves. Then, you might use another character with an attack that pushes enemies on impact and therefore sparks Mario to take a shot. Boom, two attacks in one go, all without waiting for the enemy’s turn to trigger Mario’s reaction.
As you might expect, final world stages always have a big boss, though you’ll also find some midbosses along the way, too. While these battles were the toughest Mario + Rabbids had to offer, I always looked forward to seeing what adversary the game threw at me next. Each one had to be defeated in a special way, or introduced new mechanics you wouldn’t see anywhere else. The first world ends with a giant Donkey Kong-inspired Rabbid that heals himself with bananas, and they only get more absurd from there. While these stages were the source of most of my deaths, they are by far the most memorable.
At the end of a level, you are graded depending on how many characters survived to the end, and how many turns you took. Your damage carries over across multiple battle levels in a stage. While it’s possible to beat some stages in a kamikaze blaze, you’ll screw yourself over in the longer haul. The game sometimes throws health-replenishing mushrooms your way, but you have to learn how to conserve your spirits for prolonged periods of time. After anywhere from one to three levels, the stage reaches its end. The more people alive at the end, and the fewer turns you took, the better your coin and Power Orb payout, which you can use to buy more weapons and skills.
At the end of each world, you are rewarded with a new contextual action, which you can use to explore new areas of the map. If you’d like, you can go back to older worlds to seek out places that were previously out-of-reach. You might find artwork, music, 3D-models, or better yet, more coins and orbs. I didn’t do much backtracking for goodies, but I did dabble the “Challenges” that unlock when you beat a world. As the name suggests, challenges are trials that ask you to complete unique tasks, like killing a certain number of enemies under a set number of turns, or finding a way to move to a remote area of the map. These act as potent little puzzles that test your understanding of the game’s mechanics. More importantly, Challenges teach you how to be a more effective player, and if you nail it, you get more orbs to boot. It’s a sweet deal.
Because this is a Switch game, you can play it at home or on the go. I’ve used my Switch almost exclusively as a home console and find it too big to comfortably use as a portable, but there was something about this game that made me enjoy taking it on the go. The format helps. Turn-based battles lend themselves wonderfully to abrupt pausing as I’d catch a few more rounds between subway stops.
Going from the whimsical overworld, and then jumping into the hardcore tactics of Kingdom Battle made for some whiplash. At times, Mario + Rabbid’s seems like a children’s game, with poop and underwear jokes galore. Once things get rolling, though, Rabbids feels way too tough for kids, though it does perpetually remind you that “Easy Mode” is but a single button push away. Other times, Mario + Rabbids navigates the potential dissonance beautifully: yes, Mario is technically using a gun-like blaster, and his friends have grenades and remote-detonated bombs, but nothing is framed so crudely. Mario’s blaster looks like a Tanooki head. That grenade is actually an adorable rubber ducky. And that remote-detonated bomb, well that’s actually just a car made out of cookies and ice cream. I felt giddy whenever my arsenal expanded, because I always wanted to see what I’d get next. Every new weapon is just a reskin of the overall weapon type, but it didn’t matter. The colour designs and flavor text were so good, and the weapons were so cute, that upgrading never felt as utilitarian as it actually was.
I should not have been surprised that Mario assimilated so easily into a new adventure. He does it all the time, what’s another game? I was more struck with Rabbids, and how their shenanigans made the Mushroom Kingdom crew look dull and boring. The Rabbids are entertaining throughout. By the end, I even resented it a little bit that the game didn’t let me kick bland old Mario out of the party.
Mario himself might not have been my favourite part of the game, but the reverence with which the game’s creators hold Mario and friends was evident in every inch of this adventure. And it helped make the game come together so well. Almost everything in the game is a reference to something in the wider Mario universe, from the music to the weapons to the enemies. Somehow, none of it feels forced. The game starts out by telling you that the invention that mashes objects together was created by one of Mario’s biggest fans, and in a way, that feels meta. When I noticed small details like the fact that Luigi’s Mario Kart death stare is a special move in this game, or that his sniper rifle is actually the vacuum cleaner from Luigi’s Mansion—one of which is named “Hmm, Let’s A Go”—my mind flashed back to that now-famous moment at E3. There’s the game’s lead designer, Davide Soliani, tearing up upon hearing Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto talk about how wonderful Mario + Rabbids is. I feel a lump in my throat and think, yeah, superfans made this.