Back when I was in high school, I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with math. By which I mean my impression of the class was based completely on the math I was doing. Algebra? Awesome! Geometry? Garbage. I loved fractions but hated decimals, enjoyed calculus but feared trigonometry. When I was particularly mad about doing math, I’d utter the same words that probably every high schooler has uttered at some point in their education: “when am I ever gonna use this in real life?” Now that I work in a job where I specialize in data analysis and standardization, I’m kicking myself for spacing out back then, and for taking the easiest gen-ed math class I could to get my credits in college.
“Ian, are you going somewhere with this whole math thing?” Of course I am, adventurers! After all, what is a crossover if not a complicated equation where you add two variables together to see what comes out on the other side? The crossover I’m talking about, of course, is Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, a turn-based grid-based strategy game where Mario has a Megabuster-style laser cannon and shoots Rabbids dressed as piranha plants. It sounds like a hot mess, and when I first heard about it I was pretty skeptical, even downright hateful. But the gameplay demonstration at E3 combined with solid pre-release reviews persuaded me to pick up the game and check it out. Today, I wanted to share my first impressions.
Mario + Rabbids really got me with its opening sequence in that I wasn’t really expecting how it played out. In retrospect I have no idea what I expected from the beginning of this game, but it definitely wasn’t a spunky inventor girl who is a huge Mario fan developing the next breakthrough in clean energy. Then come the Rabbids, this chaotic force of nature that appears from basically nowhere with no practical reason and starts messing stuff up. A little Mario memorabilia gets mixed into their time machine and the inventor’s merging device, and BAM – we jump right into the adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s a quick but compelling intro that makes about as much sense as the crossover itself, which is honestly perfect for this game’s atmosphere.
Mario + Rabbids wastes no time in throwing you right in the action, with the game’s tutorials integrated into battles that progress you through the first world, Ancient Gardens. You”ll learn how to move, shoot, and use cover early on, followed by more advanced maneuvers like dash attacks, team jumps, and character abilities. Then of course there are “super effects,” a skill tree system, height advantage – seem complex yet? Mario RPGs actually have a pretty good way of appearing simple on the surface but having interesting mechanics that keep them compelling. From the balance of Jump versus Hammer techniques and battlefield positioning in Paper Mario to reading enemy movements to perfectly time dodges in Mario & Luigi, Nintendo has demonstrated that “simple” doesn’t have to mean “effortless.” You need to use your brain to play Mario + Rabbids, because even outside of the challenge levels these maps can get pretty complex.
“Challenge levels, you say?” Yep, whenever you clear a whole world, you unlock a series of challenge levels offered by Rabbid Toads. These challenges are really unique in that they push you to approach maps way differently than you ordinarily would. Instead of your goal being get to the other side or beat up these dudes, you might have challenges like escort Toad across the map safely, get your characters to three separate points on the map, or defeat 14 dudes in only 3 turns. Just in the Ancient Garden challenge maps, I’ve had to use the super effects of enemy Rabbids in order to traverse the map in a single turn, survive three mid-bosses while surrounded by chain chomps, and escort Toad through a group of powerful enemies from later worlds in the game.
By defeating challenges, you get coin rewards and more power orbs. Power orbs are the way you upgrade your characters, a currency you can spend on valuable skills that help you fight better. Characters can increase their stats, unlock new abilities, or improve existing abilities by spending power orbs, so you want a ton of these things. I got something like 50 extra orbs by going through Ancient Garden a second time to face the challenges, discover the secret chapter, and locate chests that I couldn’t unlock until I had new field abilities. This is pretty worthwhile, as the game is more difficult than you might expect and the extra power helps you to keep pace with the enemies in the next world.
The skill system in this game is pretty similar to your typical skill tree. You have to buy skills at the base of the tree to unlock higher skills, and some skills even require a certain combination of skills in order to acquire. What’s different about this game’s skill system compared to any other is that you can re-spec between battles at no cost to you. This means that you can literally change a character’s entire skillset to suit a particular battle or challenge. Need to cross a large area quickly? Increase your movement range and team jump distance. Need to defeat a ton of enemies in one go? Increase your dash damage and the number of dash attacks you can perform. Being able to redistribute skills at no cost may seem “broken” in the context of other games, but in Mario + Rabbids it’s just part of the strategy. The same skills don’t apply in all circumstances, so taking the time to experiment will help you to achieve the best possible score in each battle.
Every character has a different skill tree. The skills each character can unlock are based on the role they fill in the party, and this compliments their weapon selection and character abilities. As an offensive specialist, Mario can do damage by jumping on top of enemies with the team jump maneuver, prepare an attack that happens during the enemy’s turn, and increase the offensive power of his allies. Conversely, Rabbid Peach is a defensive specialist, able to dash through multiple enemies, put up a shield to tank attacks for her allies, and heal the party. Because each character brings a different set of skills to bear, figuring out which situations they are suited for is an important part of the strategy of the game. In my experience so far, Luigi in particular suffers a lot if he isn’t on a map that’s really built to take advantage of his skillset.
One aspect of this game that I wasn’t sure what to expect from was the overworld. Sure, you’ve got all these tactical battles to play, but what do you do in-between? While the game’s overworld definitely does not have the classic Mario platforming, what you do get to enjoy are a variety of puzzles to solve. The puzzles are simple but satisfying, and push you to explore and experiment just like the strategy gameplay. What happens if I press this button? How do I get to this area with the bridge broken down? Sometimes you’ll have to return to a particular spot with a new ability, or you’ll find that you can reach a secluded area from a different part of the world you get to later.
Most of the puzzles I’ve experienced so far are pretty standard – switches, mazes, block-pushing, that kind of thing. But just because the puzzles have never made me stand in a puddle of my own confused drool doesn’t mean they aren’t fun. They break up the battles nicely and challenge your brain in a different way, and there’s still that “aha!” moment when you find the cannon or switch or whatever you need to get to that chest that was bugging you off in the distance. A particular puzzle type I’ve been enjoying are blue coin puzzles – you reach these by using a special cannon. You’re given a short time limit to collect a number of blue coins, and the collection is usually complicated by some sort of rudimentary puzzle. Figure it out fast enough and you get a new weapon for the party. These puzzles are simple but sometimes you have to mess up once to get them right, and the reward is totally worth figuring them out. The game also features red coin puzzle rings, and collecting the eight red coins within the time limit nets you a weapon as well.
So after playing through one world (and some change), what do I think of the game so far? I think this game is a surprisingly deep strategy RPG that challenges you in manageable chunks. The game can be pretty challenging for those who want to face the challenge – for those who prefer a more simpler experience, you can turn on easy mode at the beginning of each map so you can cruise through the game. The puzzles may be simple but they break up the battles in an interesting way to keep the game from becoming too monotonous. And if you really want to challenge yourself, the secret chapters and challenge maps push you to fight as strategically as possible and to carefully re-spec your skills while utilizing each technique in your arsenal in out-of-the-box ways.
Crossovers are always risky business. Sometimes, the equation doesn’t add up quite right, or you get some imaginary values thrown in that work on paper but don’t function quite right in practice. This game could have been the mess that I and so many others predicted in the beginning, but Nintendo put their money (and more dangerously, their brand) on this title and I think it has honestly paid off. Ubisoft did good work here and managed to create a game with a fantastic balance of simple mechanics and surprising strategy, much like the other RPGs in the Mario series. In my experience so far, Mario + Rabbids = Fun!