Partway through my demo of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle I knew I was in over my head. "Yes, yes, I think I got it," I told my guide from Ubisoft helping me through an expansive new preview build of the game. I was lying a little. Every time I thought I got a handle on the game, Mario + Rabbids would show me something I didn't expect. This was part of Ubisoft's core mission for the game: always be surprising, so surprising even the designers at Nintendo don't see it coming.
"It started in 2014 when we were looking for something fresh and new in Rabbids," Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle lead producer Xavier Manzanares told me at the preview event for Ubisoft's upcoming Mario game (weird sentence right? Weird game too). "We had a strong relationship with Nintendo, but even though we wanted to do something potentially with Mario we had to come up with a good idea that would be surprising enough so they would accept it."
So Manzanares and a small team at Ubisoft began to work on a pitch, and eventually settled on the idea of a turn-based strategy game. "We thought about making a super accessible game, but that's deep enough that it would be interesting for Mr. Miyamoto and his designer. We started working on a prototype and then went to Japan [to pitch the game]."
Three years later and the pitch was landed successfully, surprisingly even as Mario + Rabbids was leaked prior to its official unveiling at E3 2017. Even then, it took some hands-on time to convince us that this game was more than just a gimmick collaboration. We even awarded Mario + Rabbids a Game of the Show award.
For good reason too. Mario + Rabbids doesn't work like you would expect a typical strategy RPG would. Mario and the Rabbids constantly break convention by giving players extra opportunities for movement, extra opportunities for attack, and creative special attacks that aren't always so easy to master. If you think it makes for an easier experience, it actually challenges players to rethink what's possible in a turn-based strategy game.
Which was weird because despite having a mandate to surprise Nintendo ("Hey, you need to surprise me on and on," was apparently an order Manzanares received from Nintendo) the Mario company already had a few Nintendo SRPG examples in the form of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars.
"We have a lot of inspirations, we knew about Advance Wars—about Fire Emblem," Manzanares replied. "So this crossover with Rabbids and Mario was pushing the limits of what we could do [with SRPGs]. You know, using weapons, and a lot of the thing syou saw today with super attacks... the discussion we had with Nintendo was that this is only something you could have done with Rabbids. Because you're breaking the rules of what we're potentially able to do with Mario." At the same time, Nintendo aren't just gatekeepers, but inventive game designers themselves.
"[Nintendo was] pushing us to to the extreme and we didn't know how far we could go," Manzanares said with a little laugh. "But every time we saw them they were going, "Please go, go!" so it was really something we liked playing with."
The new build of Mario + Rabbids I saw featured a couple new worlds and a local co-op multiplayer mode I played with a dev from Ubisoft. The game looks gorgeous, delivering the first true look at what a 3D Mario world running on the Switch looks like, only with a little Rabbids mixed in. I was told that the game wanted combine the exploration of a traditional 3D Mario game, but as a SRPG the game was a bit more streamlined. While the introductory area had some hidden secrets it was mostly a straight shot. The new spooky world however, opened up like a full RPG overworld and surprised me with its scale.
"You know, we wanted to turn a page on what we did so far with the party games," explained Manzanares when he knowingly talked about the Rabbids property. "We felt it was enough. Doing all those games every year was a fun multiplayer experience... but we felt it was time to do something with more content, deeper, a gamer game." Manzanares and the team wanted to "show that the Rabbids could do something else as well."
So with that in mind, the team set out to try and go straight for working on a Mario game. "Mario has those rules, those accessibility and deep aspects and the all the designers who worked on Mario have some really strong rules. And they were were happy to see the Rabbids just come in and break those rules."
Mario + Rabbids does break rules of course. The turns feel less constricted, the weapons are more destructive than you'd see in Mario games, and special attacks like drone mines and healing feel a little all over the place. On the flip side however, you don't feel so limited when moving, which frankly just feels really liberating and good.
There was some pushback of course, which is to be expected when a team tackles Nintendo's biggest property.
"[Nintendo] started by saying, "It's your game, it's your vision, it's your design. We're here to challenge you with what you're doing with Mario and challenge you as designers as well as as players,"' recalled Manzanares. He told me of an early mechanic they came up with called "Fumble" which was ultimately left out of the game after talking with Nintendo and as the team considered whether this was accessible enough for players.
Fumble was apparently a mechanic where you could actually miss your attack, so instead of successfully shooting an enemy, "the gun exploded in your face." "We thought it was like Rabbids," Manzanares said, but it was a bit too chaotic and random for Nintendo to consider it accessible. "Even if it sounded cool on paper, when you play it you say, "awww man I was about to defeat the enemy but I got this fumble." It's funny one time, but not funny the second time."
Ultimately, it appeared to me during our interview that Manzanares and the team at Ubisoft wanted two things: to work on a Mario game, and to make a deeper Rabbids game. Nintendo then came in with a third objective: be surprising.
"We really wanted to do a game with Mario, and the proposition [for Nintendo] was for a Mario game. The heroes you here—Peach, Luigi, Yoshi, from the very first prototype this was the direction we wanted to for... We love Mario and we wanted to see the contrast between Rabbids and Mario... we didn't want to have either Mario or Rabbids stronger than the other. It's really about our crossover," said Manzanares. "It's even in our title! It's one plus the other, and it was really a work of finding the right balance between the two."
Nintendo on their part encouraged Ubisoft every step of the way. Nintendo didn't just want a studio to pay respect to their property, they wanted a studio that would build a good game around their IP. "Everything is super important when you work with Mario, and at the same time [Nintendo] wanted to see this craziness and that really was the focus from the very start."
Naturally that meant I had to ask about Rabbid Peach. Was that part of the craziness? The initial pitch? According to Manzanares Rabbid Peach was there "From the very first prototype."
"Rabbid Peach was one of the very first characters we had in the game, but we wanted to proved it was more than costume," he said. "If it was just a costume it would just be visual, it would not be that interesting and it was not interesting for us. So we wanted to show Rabbid Peach as a hero, as an archetype, as a character with a strong persona."
Although it helped that Nintendo thought Rabbid Peach was funny, hilarious even. "We had some strong laughter so we thought, "Hey! This is the beginning of the concept so it should work."'
At the moment, the team is solely focused on finishing Mario + Rabbids. It's too soon to talk about any future collaborations between Nintendo and Ubisoft (no Metroid + Beyond Good and Evil or anything like that). As for future DLC for Mario + Rabbids, Manzanares told me that while it's true that Ubisoft tends to support a game into the future, it's "too soon to talk about that."
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is set to release on the Nintendo Switch on August 29.