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'Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle' tempers insanity with charm

Sean Buckley

When I first stumbled across the rumor that Nintendo and Ubisoft had teamed up to make a Super Mario Bros. and Raving Rabbids cross-over, I chose to live in denial. It just wasn't something I wanted to be real. The very idea of allowing the banal, annoying humor that defined Ubisoft's screaming mascots into the Mushroom Kingdom just felt wrong to me. I told myself it had to be a joke, because if it wasn't, I was either going to have to play a Rabbids game -- something I'd avoided for over a decade -- or skip the first original Mario title to release on the Nintendo Switch. I was wrong. It's real. And you know what's weird? Not only is Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle actually pretty good, but the mascots I primed myself to reject, completely steal the show.

I may be here to eat my words, but I stand by my initial apprehension. The Raving Rabbids are the virtual embodiment of all of my least favorite comedic tropes: inane slapstick, body, toilet and underwear humor, juvenile antics and -- more than anything -- the screaming. The Rabbids' iconic screaming "bwah" feels like the most overused joke in video games, and I didn't see how a repetitive annoying noise could improve Mario's world in any way. When I resigned myself to my fate and actually played the game, however, almost everything I'd grown to dislike about the Rabbids simply wasn't there -- or rather, what was there had been tempered by the Mushroom Kingdom in a way that brought Ubisoft's sense of humor in balance with the world of Nintendo.

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The game's opening cutscene starts out with pure Rabbid chaos -- complete with toilet humor, physical slapstick and even a brief iconic scream -- but it doesn't linger on this havoc; instead, it uses it as a vehicle for the game's barebones story. Traveling in a combination washing machine/time machine, the Rabbids stumble upon the workshop of a young inventor who has created a device that can combine any two objects into a single hybrid object. They then accidentally use it to merge themselves with all the Super Mario Bros. memorabilia in her room.

It's an opening that embraces everything about the Rabbids that drives me crazy, but as soon as Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle settles into its narrative, everything kind of balances out -- largely because the Rabbids we follow in the game aren't part of a chorus of generic and insane mascots, but four wholly unique characters dressed up as slightly twisted versions of Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Yoshi.

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Despite donning the Nintendo character's iconic threads, each Rabbid has its own personality distinct from the character it's dressed as. Unlike the Princess, Rabbid Peach is sassy and hilariously vain. Similarly, Rabbid Mario isn't a joyful beaming hero, but instead a reckless, gruff macho man. These new personas help Ubisoft's characters get away from the tired body-humor gags and aggravating screams and allows them to far more interesting character driven humor.

The flipside to this, however, is it makes Nintendo's classic characters seem almost dull in comparison. The Nintendo-ified Rabbids burst with personality and life -- they're constantly stealing the show with gags and over-the-top reactions. Mario and friends, on the other hand, play their traditional roles with strict rigidity. There's nothing wrong with that, but in the shadow of a burly over-confident Rabbid in a red hat, the squeaky-clean corporate image of Super Mario seems just a little less colorful.

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The exception to this contrast, fortunately, is Princess Peach. She spends the first few sections of the game dutifully filling out her stereotypical role as a helpless royal before crashing the narrative at a key moment to save Mario's bacon. Peach enters the story as a complete badass that somehow retains all the poise and grace of her traditional damsel persona, and it's glorious. It's been too long since we've seen the leader of the Mushroom Kingdom play the heroine.

How she plays that role may be the most unconventional thing about it. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a game unlike either of the series that inspired it. It's not a minigame collection, a platformer or even "comedy adventure." Like Rabbids Go Home -- it's a turn-based tactical RPG. At E3, the game drew comparisons to titles like XCOM and Fire Emblem. That comparison isn't wrong, but it feels a bit inaccurate. Like both of those games, Mario + Rabbids puts your team on a grid with enemy troops and destructible cover, but the battle system is a lot less hardcore. Distance doesn't play a role in the player's chance to hit an enemy. For instance, if an enemy is in unobstructed view, he has a 100 percent success rate. Shooting at an opponent who is hiding behind cover? Drop that down to 50 percent -- and only take it to zero if he's fully behind a wall.

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Mario + Rabbid's statistics game is simplified, but that doesn't mean the battle system doesn't have its own complexities. The game encourages players to create chain and combo moves from the character's array of skills. One could activate Peach's "Royal Gaze" move, for instance, to automatically attack an enemy who moves within his line of sight ... and then use Rabbid Mario's Magnet Dance attack to force enemies to activate the attack. It's still very much a basic tactical battle game, but it's still robust and challenging enough to keep the attention of seasoned players.

Sadly, the same can't be said for the game's overworld. When the player isn't in battle, she'll be exploring the Mushroom Kingdom on foot. This mostly amounts to walking from battlefield to battlefield, but the game breaks things up from time to time with an overworld puzzle. For the most part, these are simple, dull, box-pushing puzzles. It might be a suitable challenge for younger gamers, but for adults, these puzzles get old fast. At least the overworld is filled with humor and fun to explore -- there's usually a set of Rabbids performing a gag in-between each battlefield. They're often legitimately funny, too.

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I still can't believe Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle exists. Despite both fitting into the family friendly category, Nintendo and Ubisoft's brands just aren't two I ever saw working together -- but I'm happy to be wrong. Kingdom Battle isn't just a legitimately fun tactical game, it's one that bleeds with a passion for Nintendo's mascot. It's a game that feels like it's fun to play because someone had fun making it. It has some glitches, rough edges and a few woefully boring puzzles, but if you can't wait for Super Mario Odyssey and want a completely different kind of Mario game, consider checking it out. It's surprising, fun and a bit of an odyssey in its own right.