The opening scene of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle depicts Nintendo’s hero as we rarely see him within his own series: as the real-world pop-culture icon that he is. To explain how Ubisoft’s mischievous Rabbids ended up meeting Mario and the gang, Kingdom Battle sets up a wacky story where an inventor in what appears to be our world creates a headset that can fuse together any two objects in its line of sight. She also happens to be a massive Mario fan who decorated her workshop with posters and toys. When the Rabbids show up in their dimensional-time-traveling washing machine, they start screaming and wrecking the place, as the Rabbids are wont to do. One of these heinous creatures puts on the SupaMerge visor and accidentally blasts their trans-dimensional vehicle, setting off a chain reaction that sucks all the Rabbids and some of that Nintendo paraphernalia into the machine, seemingly opening up a gateway to Mario’s video game world. One giant portal above the Mushroom Kingdom later, and the Mario crew has been sucked into an entirely new universe that fuses famous Mario imagery with random stuff from the real world. And the Rabbids are there, too, having become enemies and allies alike.
As far as contrived backstories for inexplicable brand mashups go, it’s a pretty cute one, but it’s also indicative of the game’s unique relationship with Mario. Kingdom Battle reduces him and the world of his games to iconography. It rightfully presupposes that everyone playing it is as familiar with the Mushroom Kingdom and its inhabitants as that genius inventor we see during the introduction. It’s not much of a stretch to view her as a stand-in for the developers themselves, especially director Davide Soliani, whose passion for Nintendo games drove him into the industry and turned him into an endearing internet sensation. This wasn’t just made by a studio outside Nintendo, it was made by Nintendo fans, and it has a willingness to engage with Mario at a distant meta level that Nintendo itself usually avoids. It’s novel and often entertaining, but there’s a whole lot more to Mario and his heritage that the game’s creators would have done well to learn from.
The world of Kingdom Battle is divided into several landscapes—grass land, ice land, Halloween land, lava land—all of which are dotted with corrupted visions of Mario items, like Question Mark Blocks and Bullet Bills that are blown out of proportion or crumbling or wrapped in underwear. Take those recognizable landmarks away and this could be any game, just Mario and a couple of idiots dressed like his friends making their way through vaguely themed cartoon lands. Instead, it takes all those familiar images and wildly distorts them with the toilet-humor of the Rabbids to nail that theme of hybridization on which the game hinges and tickle the audience’s nostalgia centers. The music, composed by beloved Rare songsmith Grant Kirkhope, pulls a similar trick. Themes from Mario and Mario-adjacent games, most notably “Inside The Castle Walls” from Mario 64 and “DK Island Swing” from Donkey Kong Country, occasionally show up as elements of larger tracks when appropriate. But outside of those few cues, the soundtrack is extremely Kirkhope-ian and distinct. There’s very little Mario in these aspects, and the game’s restraint goes a long way to making Kingdom Battle’s bizarre fusion actually balance out and work.
The Mario gang’s Rabbid lookalikes are an even more potent example of this mashup in action. They are twisted versions of their real counterparts, borrowing their iconic looks but warping their gentle personalities into obnoxious extremes. Mario goes from a squeaky-clean, quietly courageous hero to a squinting, toothpick-chewing Eastwood-style badass. Rabbid Peach turns the placid Princess into a rude compulsive selfie-taker (complete with Instagram). The game works when it sticks to those subtler parodies. When it throws the equilibrium out of whack and turns toward the camera to make more overt, winking references—like Bowser Jr. joking about repressing his “daddy issues” or an opera song that shoehorns in lame lines about Mario Kart and princesses in other castles—it starts getting too cute for its own good.
The actual battling in Kingdom Battle is the real draw. There, too, it’s a keen blending of Mario’s favorite activities, running and jumping, with the turn-based gunfights of XCOM. Combat gets surprisingly complex and chaotic, to the point that pulling off a flawless fight later in the game is tremendously satisfying, but it’s here that Kingdom Battle would’ve done well to take its Mario reverence deeper than surface level. It’s plagued by confounding spikes in difficulty, the kind of jarring, frustrating leaps Nintendo is always so careful to avoid. One necessary means of maintaining an edge is to always make sure your crew stays well equipped, but the only way to get weapons is to buy them and the only way to get enough coins to really stay ahead of the curve is to finish each encounter with a “perfect” rating. So in addition to these constant, soul-crushing difficulty walls, you’re also pushing yourself to complete battles in as few turns as possible and with less damage. If you’re anything like me, that means hitting the “restart” button as soon as things really start to go sideways, which is often.
Outside battle, the game deals in “adventure sections” that are full of collectibles and puzzles. They’re a necessary break from the action, but it commits another very un-Mario sin by making the majority of these interludes feel like boring filler that’s meant to pad the game out. The moment you realize not every treasure chest hides something as useful as a new gun is an absolutely devastating one. Instead, your findings are mostly of the useless concept-art variety—but you can’t skip them, because you never know when one might contain a bundle of experience points to spend on upgrading your characters’ skills. The tree those abilities make up is dominated by small incremental upgrades, important in the grand scheme of things but often breaking down to minor increases in percentage points that don’t feel like the important changes they should be. The same thing goes for your ever-expanding arsenal of weapons, the power of which makes big leaps when you unlock a few between each world but otherwise disappointingly flattens out when you’re discovering them on your own. It makes revisiting old areas to use your newly unlocked traversal skills—breaking blocks, lifting statues that act as keys—seem superfluous for any reason other than completionism, even if that’s the only way to find certain hidden chests and chapters.
The big lesson here is that there’s more to every icon than its iconography. It’s fascinating to see Kingdom Battle put Mario on a pedestal as an unmistakable piece of pop culture and somehow merge him into a surprisingly exciting strategy game. But below the music and the Chain Chomps and the jokes you could make about his weird relationship with Peach are the many fundamental truths about good, streamlined game design that have made the Mario series as enduring as it is. Every time I had to escort a slowpoke around the map—undoing the game’s emphasis on mobility, its combat’s greatest innovation—or push some blocks around on ice to solve a puzzle, I found myself wishing Mario + Rabbids’ developers would have looked beyond the overalls and mustache for some inspiration.