Mario's Delightful Latest Features Gunplay, Tactics, an Infusion of Raving Rabbids

Nintendo/Ubisoft mashup 'Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle' is as fun to play as it is to look at

Mario's Delightful Latest Features Gunplay, Tactics, an Infusion of Raving Rabbids

Mario's got a gun.

So does iconic plumber’s brother, Luigi. As does Nintendo's usually amiable egg-laying, everything-eating Yoshi.

Not to be outdone, Princess Peach carries a massive shotgun.

Coming to the Nintendo Switch on Aug. 29th, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a bizarre mash-up game that smashes together Nintendo’s brightly colored universe with Ubisoft’s slightly dark, slightly crazed mayhem-centric Rabbids.

The game brings with it many firsts. It is the first direct Nintendo and Ubisoft collaboration. The title is the first turn-based tactical game starring the Nintendo cast. And, most notably, it is the first time the lovable, cartoon cast of Nintendo's many family-friendly games are packing heat.

Fortunately, it's the sort of game that manages to so gimmick up the weapons that they seem rendered less harmless than the stomping, hammer swings and star power of Mario's more common abilities.

The result, I found after playing an hour or two of Kingdom Battle, is a game that masks its relatively hardcore tactical gameplay under splashy, delightful graphics, character animation and silly computer-driven behavior.

The whole thing started as a sort of internal passion project at Ubisoft, Davide Soliani, the game's creative director, tells me during a recent meeting and demo of the game in New York City.

The idea of Nintendo and Ubisoft teaming up on a game had long been in the air, Soliani says. After all, Ubisoft has faithfully supported Nintendo's increasingly innovative, sometimes risky gaming systems with strong, original games created to highlight the best in each platform. Games like Just Dance, Red Steel and Zombie-U were all big original IP created essentially for specific Nintendo systems like the Wii and Wii U.

"It was always in the air to propose something cool to them," Soliani says. "We thought we should propose something new, something they're not doing"

So Soliani and a few others started unofficially playing around with ideas and pitching concepts to one another.

They knew from the get go that they wanted to use their company's own, cartoon rabbids because they seemed to best fit with Nintendo's art style and the Nintendo universe, according to Soliani. "We knew we needed to come up with a new idea, or a new visual or new mechanics," he says.

Over time, a group of five people came up with 13 ideas. "We started to scratch them out, one after the other," he says. "We went through a musical game, a first-person shooter game; but really the team is composed of mainly tactical fans."

So the team decided to try their hand at creating a tactical game in the Nintendo universe that would be centered around combat and exploration. After settling on the idea, the team decided to pitch it internally before they invested too much time on it.

"We went through a musical game, a first-person shooter game ..." Davide Soliani, creative director of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, says.

Instead of relying on a typical slide presentation, the group designed a massive poster, the sort you would see in store promoting a game that is weeks away from going on sale.

That original image, which showed the rabbids and Nintendo characters fighting each other surrounded by their dual universes, was what sold the first people who heard the pitch on the idea, Soliani says.

The initial idea, he says, was of the two universes colliding and the inhabitants of both warring with one another, but then as they started to develop the game, the group quickly saw that it made more sense for the universes to unite.

After three-and-a-half weeks of work, Soliani and team got a chance to present their idea to Shigeru Miyamoto, both Nintendo's creative fellow and the father of some of the company's most beloved characters, including Mario.

"I said, 'We can’t go with the poster and present the game to him,'" Soliani explains. "We must go with a prototype. We must go with something that can show the game."

The team worked night and day to come up with a small playable prototype.

Soliani credits Miyamoto as one of the reasons he got into video games. It was Miyamoto's games that inspired him to not just play games, but to strive to one day create them.

After finally working his way into the game industry, Soliani got a chance to meet his idol. He'd recently finished work on his first game – Walt Disney's The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Wild Adventure, for the Game Boy Color – and he brought a copy of the game with him in hopes of getting Miyamoto to sign it.

Soliani was so nervous meeting his idol that he simply walked up to him, handed him the game and a pen. "He looked at it and probably thought, 'That's not my game,' but he signed it anyway," Soliani says. "I couldn't say anything."

Now, year's later, Soliani was getting his second chance to meet the famed game maker. He and the team of developer flew to Kyoto, Japan, to Nintendo's headquarters, to present their idea directly to the company's top people.

"I entered the room and he was there, sitting on the right side," Soliani says. "I was so nervous I was shaking. He was the creative director who inspired my whole career. I was divided in two: I had the urge to ask for an autograph and at the same time the need to present the game."

The team presented the game and Nintendo's people were impressed. Miyamoto, in particular, was curious how Ubisoft had unofficially so exactly created the looks and movements of Mario and Luigi in the demo.

"We made them from scratch," Soliani says. "We knew we needed to translate the essence of those characters into our prototype. At that point [Miyamoto] saw the passion and creativity in the team and at that moment we earned their trust."

Despite that positive first meeting, it took many more flights to Kyoto and meetings with Nintendo before they got the final, official go ahead.

The core tenant of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is that Ubisoft's rabbids have somehow invaded the Mushroom Kingdom of Princess Peach, Mario and Bowser and "twisted it."

The game, which the designers design as an exploration-based adventure tactical game, has the player's team of characters journeying around the Mushroom Kingdom to see just how bad things have gotten thanks to the rabbids.

During their journey, the group runs into enemies and gets into battles, which switches the game from a sort free-roaming gameplay to tightly structured, turn-based tactical combat. While visiting New York City, Ubisoft allowed attending press to play through two sections of the game and spend some time on the standalone cooperative missions included with the title.

The game opens with players selecting which three characters they want on their little band of explorers. Each character comes with their own weapons, abilities and gadgets. Luigi, for instance, is essentially a sniper, a character that can do a lot of damage to far away targets but can be quickly taken down in close combat. Mario is a well-rounded character who comes equipped with a pretty standard cartoonish gun and who can eventually unlock the ability to head-stomp enemies for added damage.

From the get go, players are allowed to choose not just classic Nintendo characters but also rabbids cosplaying as those characters. So, for instance, you can choose to play as Mario or as a rabbid dressed up in a silly costume to look a bit like Mario. Both have different abilities. As you play, you unlock more abilities, powers, gadgets, weapons and characters to play with.

Fans of strategy games, and in particular of turn-based strategy games, will find the gameplay of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle very familiar.

Once you drop into a tactical encounter, the game essentially pauses. Players are given the option to quickly look around the land that will frame their upcoming combat before the fight starts. This allows a player to scope out terrain, possible goals and routes. In many of the battles, the goal of the encounter isn’t to take down the enemies, it’s to survive getting to some marked end point.

Gameplay starts by dividing the terrain around your selected character into movement squares and color-coding them to show how far your character can move before they're done. If you move within range and sight of an enemy, you can then shoot at them. You also need to worry over things like full and partial cover, which makes it harder for you to hit an enemy or the enemy to hit you.

One interesting twist in the gameplay, is that characters can move on top of each other, allowing them to jump up in the air and move even further. This bounce, jump move is a key component of the game, as is the ability to slide into an enemy if you get close enough for damage, and then continue your turn.

As a fan of tactical games, I found the XCOM-like gameplay satisfying, made more enjoyable by the antics of the characters, the meticulously detailed animation and colorful characters. While playing, you can unlock abilities for each character in their skill tree or swap out who is on your team, but Mario always has to be the leader.

The game is divide into four different worlds, each of which is divided into ten chapters and each of those chapters have different maps for gamers to play through.

"It's a big game," Damien Jamet, international brand manager for the game, told me.

My time with the game started in the relatively easy Ancient Gardens, an area designed to allow players to grow comfortable with the game's play. Then I moved on to Spooky Trail, a much more advanced world in the game, to get a better sense of the campaign’s deeper mechanics.

Jamet tells me that Spooly Trail is about three-quarters, or about 15 to 20 hours, of the way into the game.

The most defining moment of the game for the public, perhaps the most defining moment of both Ubisoft's E3 press conference and even E3 as a whole this year, was when Soliani cried.

By the time Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was ready to be presented to the public during Ubisoft's showcase this past June, it had been almost three and a half years since the team started working on the game.

Soliani says that as he sat in the audience he could feel the pressure of this first full reveal of the game building.

He was aware that Miyamoto would be on stage alongside Ubisoft president Yves Guillemot, presenting the game. But he didn't know that Miyamoto, his childhood hero, would be calling him out to praise the work he and his team had done. And then it all happened: The game was unveiled, Miyamoto took to the stage and mentioned Soliani's work and years of pressure combined with extreme pride crashed together, bringing Soliani to tears. "It was a roller coaster of emotion and I crumbled," he says.

Later, as E3 opened its doors to the public and press, the reactions to the game were overwhelmingly positive. "People were queuing up to six hours to play and they were happy," he says. "I felt it was the most beautiful reward the team could have."

The game's main campaign, despite featuring four characters controlled by the player, only supports single-player gaming. However, the game also comes with something called the Coop Challenge. This mode supports two players and includes 18 unique maps designed specifically for cooperative play. The challenges can each be played in one of three different levels of difficulty.

In the challenges, one player controls two of the characters in a team and the other player controls the other two. Players take turns controlling their two characters until their turn is up and then the enemies get to move.

A button press allows a player to quickly between their two characters, or to hand-over control to the other player and their two characters.

While the maps are unique, the play isn't, not really. It's hard to understand why Ubisoft took this approach to designing cooperative play, when it seems at least at first blush, that the method of shared control could have been built into the entire game.

That design choice aside, the cooperative play is fun. It just seems that with only 18 maps, it won't take long to work through.

The creation of the game was a true collaboration, Soliani says. While the Ubisoft team did the development, there were regular meetings with Nintendo.

And there were some specific things that Nintendo became much more involved in, like making sure Ubisoft got the iconic poses of Nintendo's characters just right and tinkering with some of the sounds and design elements. Ubisoft pushed on a number of Nintendo design elements, like the fact that neither Nintendo characters nor Rabbids can speak.

"I knew that Nintendo characters cannot speak and that Rabbids cannot speak," Soliani says. "But no one told me they couldn't sing. I waited 20 years to make that boss."

There's a moment in the game where one of the villains of the game – a villain who can't speak – sings a song, trying to upset Mario with the lyrics. The team was worried that Nintendo would kill the song, but they ended up approving straight away. The same couldn’t be said of the game’s most sensitive design element: the inclusion of guns.

"It was a topic that we knew was quite sensitive," Soliani says. "We acted with a lot of common sense. We know Nintendo very well, so we acted like a first filter. We created tons of sketches, kilos of papers of sketches."

"[Guns] was a topic that we knew was quite sensitive."

The trick, he says, was to come up with weapons that were colorful, funny, but also something that was recognizably a gun. In the end, the hard work paid off and Miyamoto approved the weapons. The team also worked very closely with Nintendo on the combat.

In the combat of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and only in the combat, each character has more than 140 animations, all of which were created from scratch.

"That included some that really belonged to Mario and those animations needed to be spot on," Soliani says. "Nintendo helped us with getting those poses right."

With the game due out later this month, Soliani and his team have essentially finished working on what will go on sale on August 29th. But that doesn't mean they're done with the game.

The nature of the game – its reliance on specific maps, enemies and scenarios to create turn-based combat missions – makes it a likely target for post-release downloadable content. The cooperative missions, in particular, seem like a good place for the team to fill out what’s included with the original release. But Soliani declines to say whether that will happen.

"Let's just say," he says, when I press him on the issue, "that we have the will to support the game as much as possible."