Mashups are hard. Mixing two unlikely things together is often a failure because it takes a bit of wild magic for a combo to go wombo. This is especially true in video games, where established characters and the fandoms that love them depend on consistent world-building to provide proper context (looking at you, Yoda in SoulCalibur.) So if you took a beloved franchise, mixed it with a lesser-known spin-off and plopped it in a new genre it’d be a mess, right?
It certainly started out that way for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, which debuted at E3 2017 riding a wave of hate thanks to a concept art leak that had many fans tweeting with full snark. Mario is a legend; the Rabbids are a curiosity at best. What the hell was this?
What it turned out to be was the most-successful third-party game to date on Nintendo Switch (Ubisoft is the publisher, not Nintendo) and the greatest strategy game on the platform. It’s an unlikely success story, which is the best kind. Mario + Rabbids became a hit because no matter how weird it seemed, the moment players got their hands on it they were hooked.
The game works on so many levels. For starters, there’s the obvious appeal of the mashup. Mario has endured plenty of cameos over the years, but nothing quite like the Rabbids. These ugly, oddly cute cretins shouting BWAH! actually fit perfectly in the Mushroom Kingdom. They don’t seem that out of place in a world of Blarggs and Thwomps. And the Rabbid-ized versions of the iconic characters have the good-natured appeal of a roast joke.
Under this silly hood is a strategy game that goes toe-to-toe with the serious contenders in the space. If you’re the type of gamer who lives for XCOM and spiritual successors to Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics, you might be put off by the gimmicky topcoat here. Goofy Rabbids and children’s characters can’t possibly deliver a harrowing, white-knuckle challenge, right? Wrong. Mario + Rabbids manages to be both dynamic and complex while remaining simple and accessible.
It’s no mean feat, but Ubisoft pulls this off with some sound game design. You build a party of three heroes from a roster of eight (Mario, Luigi, Yoshi and Peach plus a Rabbidized version of each). You begin the game with Mario and two Rabbids before unlocking more characters as you go. It’s a slow burn that acclimates you to the mechanics before delivering serious challenges.
Each character has primary and secondary attacks, plus a skill tree. Everyone on the roster earns XP regardless of whether or not they were part of the battle, a smart choice that makes different characters viable later in the game. You’re not suddenly screwed because you never bothered to develop your healer until it was too late. There are also movement-based attacks, which are unusual for the genre.
Typically, strategy games focus on positioning soldiers and then attacking, but Mario + Rabbids incorporates dash and jump attacks during movement that effectively double the action. It speeds up battles tremendously and adds a mechanic that feels fresh on its own.
The story itself isn’t anything spectacular, but doesn’t need to be. A flimsy invention-gone-wrong prologue leads to the creation of this unusual world thanks to a Rabbid wearing the SupaMerge, a visor that mashes things together in comical, cartoonish ways. (There’s lots of appliance-based enemies.) It actually works well because it makes you confront the fact that our beloved Mario games don’t make much sense either. A plumber rescuing a princess from a dinosaur feels equally plausible here.
The pace and replayability of Mario + Rabbids is a big part of what makes it a success. Battles are bite-sized affairs, meaning you can play one or two in an hour or binge all night long. There is a fair/good/perfect rating system that scores how quickly you complete battles, and rewards you with coins to spend on weapon upgrades. It takes about 20 hours to play through the main story, but about 40 if you’re trying to go the completionist route. It should come as no surprise, then, that a sequel is on the way, promising to deliver even more of the madcap action that won over skeptical fans.