Hands-on preview with Mario + Rabbids
Mario’s arms are pinned back like an airplane, anime-style, as he runs around the Ancient Gardens that surround Peach’s castle. In front of him is a Roomba-like disc floating friction-less like a hockey puck. Occasionally it stops to read him email in cutscenes, but while running around the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario is bound to follow the Roomba. Behind him are two white rabbits. One is wearing a pink dress and a wig; the other drowns in a green snuggie. Ubisoft’s proto-Minions, here, are cosplaying Princess Peach and Luigi.
I am controlling the disc — its name is Beep-0, a joke I don’t get and will willfully misinterpret as a slur for Italians — as Mario and the two Rabbids follow dutifully behind. In the background, an over-sized Goomba is smiling and kicking its feet in the air as it is propelled skyward by a jet of water. To the layman, a gag: clearly a massive enema. But to this wizened writer: European/Japanese collusion to create a propaganda piece that will put a bidet in the home of every American. I support the effort.
We’ve come a long way from clowning on leaked promo art featuring classic Mario characters pointing fistfuls of custom-painted, Chinatown knock-off Buster cannons. It seemed embarrassing, then. Desperate. Like a slightly less weird version of BioWare — of Mass Effect fame — making a Sonic the Hedgehog RPG. Then Ubisoft and Nintendo showed off Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle at E3 and everyone’s tune changed. It’s just colorful XCOM! It looked dope. And after playing it for a few hours, I can confirm: it’s dope.
Some plot device has sent the world of Rabbids careening into Mario’s, with warp pipes replaced end to end by rabbit mouths and buttholes, things of that nature. Mario, with the help of series regulars (Luigi, Peach, Yoshi) and Rabbids dressed as their alternates, must fix it. The aforementioned Roomba helps guide this quest, unlocking abilities, providing exposition, and acting as a cursor in the game’s turn-based, strategic battles as well as leading the pack during exploration.
You’ll run with a pack of three in Kingdom Battle, Mario plus two characters of your choice, depending on your playstyle. Luigi, for example, is a great sniper at long range. The sexpot that is Rabbid Mario clobbers at close range with a hammer, attacks that hit a wide berth, and an ability that sucks enemies towards him. I played what Jordan did at E3 and was a bit worried. The game was gorgeous. There were wrinkles in movement that elevated things beyond being a turn-based cover shooter. You can extend the number of spaces a character can move or get higher in elevation by spring boarding off a teammate. You’re also encouraged to move into any enemy in range, triggering a tackle that does a little bit of damage and allows you to move back into cover and loose an attack after. But the early level did feel simple.
Then I played in World 3, Spooky Trails. In that jump, a character-specific skill tree opened up, as well as secondary weapons, and I was able to pick up some new weapons. Rolling a green team (Rabbid Luigi and regular Luigi accompanying Mario), I started to see what kind of depth was on offer. Various paths up the skilltree opened things up. Now Mario has a stomp. Luigi can jump on two teammates in a single turn. Rabbid Luigi has a leeching ability for HP. Characters have, in XCOM parlance, an overwatch, albeit one tied to a cool down. There were Boos littered like traps across the map; once stuck to any character on the map, they would randomly teleport them somewhere else during their turn. Suddenly things got difficult and I had two party members go down — there are no revives, though there are characters with better healing moves — and barely got my third to the finish line.
I was impressed with how many actions there were to string together and various ways the distinct party members’ abilities worked in conjunction with one another. Coupled with the later co-op stage — each player controls two characters in this local mode — that wiped us out immediately, I’m much less concerned that the final game is going to play like a super simplified XCOM. It’s got its own thing going on, with a lot of focus on movement, which ends up feeling appropriate given the cast. It is weird, though, navigating around the (very pretty!) environments with that Roomba, though. It does feels like playing with a cursor. And there seem to be decent amounts of areas to run through while controlling it, in between combat sections. There are also secrets to find and the odd coin or two scattered around the map, as well as story-gating puzzles and little side challenges (hover around and collect your eight red coins).
While I’m optimistic about things on the combat side, I’m also pretty happy with things on the shared-universe and writing side. It is easy in this 2017 hellscape of wine moms posting million-view Minions memes that, through their awful artifacting, warn us not to bother them before they’ve had their coffee (The Minion pictured doesn’t even HAVE a cup of coffee? How does this relate to the caption!?), to forget: the Rabbids are good. They are mean, violent slapstick rabbits that remind me of Matt Groening’s Life in Hell strip by way of Itchy and Scratchy. And they’re French, so they’re horny. And not in the desexed, abstract way something like a Minion might display horniness, by wearing a comically polka-dotted bikini and vogueing or some bullshit. I’m talking real, European horndoggedness. Just look at Rabbid Mario. That dude is clearly ears-deep in Rabbid trim.
Beep-0 helps Mario and company along by feeding you emails from a mysterious “F.B.” who signs them “Your biggest fan” while referencing Odysseus (as an aside, the text boxes themselves kind of suck; they’re too big and blank). At one point his email gets obviously hacked by Bowser Jr., whose direction led me to my first boss fight, against an enormous, operatic singing Rabbid with a phonograph in his stomach and a powdered wig on his head. In the cutscene that opens the battle he calls Mario fat, insults his mustache, bitches about getting tagged by a blue shell in Mario Kart. It rules. And the fight itself was well-designed, requiring to make your way around the map to destroy the stage lighting that makes him invulnerable while dealing with common enemies and the boss’ own powerful medleys.
I was pretty jazzed for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle going in and it lived up to those expectations in the few hours I had with it. Provided it’s as delightful and engaging the whole way through, my biggest problem with it is probably going to be buying myself a Nintendo Switch before it comes out at the end of this month, on August 29.