Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle defied all expectation when it launched in 2017. Leaked just prior to E3 that year, the initial response was sceptical at best, hostile at worst. For a start, Mario was holding a gun, and he was surrounded by Rabbids – Minion-esque cartoon jokes that seemed as far away from the polished thought through games and worlds that these beloved Nintendo characters belonged to. A Mario turn-based, XCOM style, strategy game was not something people thought they wanted.
How very wrong we all were. Following it’s official unveil at E3 (led by a laser cannon wielding Shigeru Miyamoto) opinion quickly took a swift 180. Yes, it shouldn’t make sense – but it worked. Not only did it work, this package was also – even stripping away the characters and setting – a satisfying, inventive and addictive game in its own right.
Kingdom Battle has the charm and thorough polish of Nintendo’s best flagship titles, but with a distinctly European flavour and sense of humour. This feels very much like the joint venture between Kyoto and Ubisoft Milan that it is in the best way possible, and this creates such a unique atmosphere to what could have been a simple XCOM clone. The Rabbids play as a perfect foil to Mario and his pals – their humour doesn’t become overbearing and straight-man Mario never gets too serious. You are led through your adventures by BEEP-0, an autonomous hovering disc robot (the story makes absolutely no sense, but it really doesn’t need to), who is a funny and charming protagonist. On more than one occasion I actually laughed out loud and captured certain text to share with my friends – something I definitely didn’t expect to be doing when this game was announced. The little touches you expect from Nintendo are present, such as Mario putting out his arms like a plane when he runs, seamlessly mixed in with moments of down-right slapstick with the Rabbids.
The gameplay itself is similarly satisfying and polished, and surprisingly varied. The 10–30-minute battles (generally lengthening as you make progress through the game) lend themselves perfectly to the Switch’s style of play. There are 4 main worlds interspersed with mini and full bosses, and with constantly changing enemies and objectives there is rarely any sense of repetitive gameplay.
Your party is made up of 3 of the Mushroom Kingdom’s finest, or their Rabbid equivalent, who you gradually unlock throughout the game. While you always have to include Mario, the other characters can be constantly swapped around and you are encouraged to do this – health doesn’t always reset after each battle so swapping a damaged character out for a fresh one could be the difference between success and failure in your next bout.
Equally, each character has differing strengths – Peach can heal others, Rabbid Mario is a big damage dealer while Luigi (playing on his perceived cowardice) prefers to hang back dealing out damage with long-range weapons. They all have primary and secondary weapons as well as skills that can be activated between turns – such as shooting any moving enemies or attracting foes towards them and out of cover – which adds an extra layer to combat. This variation helps keep things from getting stale and adds genuine excitement as you unlock different characters.
There is also some character building, as you choose which weapons to unlock and which skills to give your characters as you earn money and skill points from victories. While limited, this customisation does lend itself to you creating your own play-style or mixing things up between battles, which further helps to keep things fresh.
Despite the colourful setting, this is by no means an easy game. There is a steep learning curve, sometimes to the extent that it can feel unfair, but victory is always possible and highly satisfying when it is achieved. Re-starting a battle is quick, and often experimentation is required to find the best solution or team combination to pass a particular objective.
Adding to this difficulty are extra challenges – ranging from laughably easy to fist-poundingly hard but they are optional and add entertaining post-game content. This is a deep game, with around 20 hours of fun to be had here and a whole museum full of collectables and extra challenges to seek out. You also get a ranking after each level, (Fair/Good/Perfect), depending on how quickly you completed objectives and if you managed to keep all of your party standing, and going back and ensuring a perfect score in each one provides some replayability. However, often by the time you revisit these worlds your characters and weapons have been upgraded to such an extent that getting a perfect score requires simply going through the motions. It would have been nice to be able to revisit the worlds as your original character levels, but this is a minor quibble.
There are other more stand out weaknesses, however. For a cover-based strategy game, some enemy types are ridiculously manoeuvrable, meaning finding cover can sometimes feel like a fool’s errand as you are almost guaranteed to get outflanked. Additionally, while the skill tree is key to winning certain battles, you cannot reallocate points manually having instead to re-set yourself to 0 and re-allocate every single skill point – which can get very tedious later in the game.
Overall Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a surprisingly deep, varied and difficult strategy game suitable for first-timers to the genre or XCOM vets. The mix of Nintendo’s flagship plumber and the Rabbids not only comes off but provides a unique and hilarious backdrop to a seriously well-designed combat system and a set of intricate, ever-changing, levels. The variety of enemies, objectives and worlds stop this game getting stale and the post-game content keeps you coming back for more.
While sometimes the difficulty curve can seem unfair, and there are some niggles with how to replay challenges and the skill tree, there are 20 hours or more of fun to be had in this stand out title from 2017.