In video games, Mario, the intrepid princess-saving plumber, does not usually pair up with anyone outside of the Mushroom Kingdom.
There are exceptions for special events, like Mario teaming up with Sonic the Hedgehog for the Olympics, but generally, the most iconic video game character doesn’t use backup.
The Mushroom Kingdom is in danger from an outside force in “Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle,” a new video game for the Nintendo Switch gaming console. Mario and friends are getting help from the Rabbids, crazy rabbit-like creatures who speak in gibberish, yelling "BWAAAH!" very often, from another gaming company, Ubisoft.
Creative director Davide Soliani said he and his team wanted to bring something to the Mario universe of games that no one had seen before, and using the Rabbids and their penchant for chaos and slapstick violence provided the perfect injection of new ideas for a bold take on Mario. He said there is a familiarity in the overall look and feel of the game, but surprises are waiting around every corner.
“We used these contrasts as a focus to bring new ideas, new game mechanics, new environments, and that’s why you are in the Mushroom Kingdom, but it is twisted,” Soliani said.
“Mario is very well known as a hero, a brave guy. And the Rabbids are quite the opposite, quite different. How cool it could be if Mario, throughout the game, teaches to the Rabbids how to become heroes? And Mario learns from the Rabbids how to crack a joke, to take it easy.”
Mario is joined by his friends Princess Peach (no rescuing needed this time), Yoshi, and Luigi. They team up with four Rabbid heroes who mimic their Nintendo idols, taking costumes to look like the original gang. In the campaign, these characters will form teams of three to find a way to fix the Mushroom Kingdom by visiting different worlds and battling enemies.
“We wanted make something that Mario players would recognize, like jumping and stomping,” Soliani said. “But at the same time, we were using the Rabbids to inject in those mechanics new ways to spice up the combat, new ways to spice up the Nintendo characters as well.”
The development team at Ubisoft specialized in tactical and strategic games. Making a new game with such beloved characters presented challenges, but Soliani said a turn-based strategy shooter made the most sense to maximize the divergent ideas of gameplay and abilities in the game.
“We should try to stay true to the Mario universe and mix tactical phase, combat phase, which is more in line with the Mario world,” he said. “Finding treasure chests, collect coins to buy new weapons, meet new heroes and be challenged by new enemies.”
When he came up with the idea for the mashup, Soliani knew he would have to not only convince his own company, Ubisoft, he would have to sway Nintendo to allow him to use their characters. He met with Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who created the Mario character, originally called Jumpman, in the classic video game “Donkey Kong” in 1981.
Solaini said presenting his idea to “the most legendary game designer in the world” was intimidating.
“When we first presented the game to Miyamoto-san, we had only three weeks in-house to come up with a prototype. When we presented the prototype to Miyamoto-san, he was surprised that we had, in our prototype, Mario and Luigi.”
Miyamoto asked how Solaini got the character designs for Mario and Luigi in the prototype. Solani told him his team made them from scratch for the presentation, impressing the Nintendo game designer.
Early reviews of the game have been very good, mentioning the different elements of gameplay and the creativity used to bring Mario and the Rabbids together. The style of combat is reminiscent of another turn-based shooter, X-COM, with a variety of weapons and the use of cover for defense.
However, Solaini said their inspiration came from another popular game.
“I’m a big fan of X-COM, the original one from Julian Gollop and the new one from (Jake) Solomon,” he said. “But our reference was not X-COM but Mario Kart. We wanted to bring the dynamics, the surprise that you have in go-cart racing to our combat system in a strategy game.”
With delightful and recognizable characters, whimsical environments and dialog, and a battle system that combines movement and shooting into strategic combat, Solaini and his team were proud of what they accomplished.
“Those were the basic foundations that we built up for the rest of the game. When we did that, we said, OK, I think we have something very strong, something that we should explore even more.”
He invited all fans, including diehard Nintendo fans, to experience something different.
“Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle” is available now for the Nintendo Switch. It is rated E+10 for everyone 10 years of age or older due to cartoon violence, comic mischief, and mild language.