Thanks to Cart Boy for edits.
Last month, I was quoted by The A.V. Club for a comment made on a review of the recent Ubisoft crossover Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. At the time, I’d played the game for about a day, and argued that to both its benefit and detriment, its qualities were entirely its own. The wonderful Grant Kirkhope score largely eschews classic Mario themes, the genre – a tactical strategy shooter not unlike X-COM – was something Nintendo only explores through its subsidiaries like Intelligent Systems’ Fire Emblem and Codename: S.T.E.A.M., and most notably it feels distinct from Nintendo games. The latter are often defined by an emphasis on not just play but their games being tactile and toylike; the world is something to push and poke and explore, and satisfying movement facilitates that. Partially for the benefit of its unique combat, Mario + Rabbids’ extensive exploration segments ignore that element, only letting you control Mario and friends through a side character who feels looser and less direct.
This is, to be upfront, not a bad thing; the game is still very good, and it has its own style and its own pleasures. Perhaps more than any other of Nintendo’s recent slate of bonkers, surprising crossover titles – Hyrule and Fire Emblem Warriors, Pokkén Tournament, Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE – it gets at the idea of two tastes mixing into something entire of its own, making it a genuine production of ambition and not merely commercial exercise. It does, though, mean the game is a Mario game that at least partially lacks the sensations that power the best Mario games. At least for me, those are sensations that makes coming back to Nintendo’s offerings again and again not only palatable but exciting, and it can be a disappointment to control Mario in such an indirect way.
However, as I continued to play the game I steadily came to the realization that there is one element I hadn’t been considering, one that very much does embody that toylike nature of Mario. It’s the Team Jump mechanic, in which your cast of heroes can use each other as a bounce pad to jump around the map. I’ve found it to be both a compelling gameplay function and something that draws wholly from the values and ethos of the Mushroom Kingdom.
It’d probably be best to explain the gameplay of Mario + Rabbids. Fitting a crossover seemingly no one either expected or particularly wanted, it moves away from the platforming and party games of both series to forge an identity entirely of its own. When you play this tactical strategy game (a genre that’s far afield of even the Mario RPGs, requiring you manage the positioning of your characters over a series of large maps) you’re playing one with Mario and a cadre of Rabbids, but you’re decidedly not playing either a Mario game or a Rabbids game. The concept of Mario and friends wielding cartoon guns behind cover while overcoming platoons of enemies is fairly unreal, and adds even more surreality to a plot involving a magical headset that can fuse any two or more things together.
Even the possibility of jumping – a Mario staple – isn’t allowed, at the request of Shigeru Miyamoto that Ubisoft make a Mario game unlike any he or Nintendo could ever make. The exception is Team Jump, a mechanic in which a character can leapfrog off a partner to another part of the map. It’s not something you unlock outside of a small forced tutorial section; it’s a central mechanic, and levels are built to accommodate it – even for ones based around moving from one point to another, there’s often high ground and wide spaces for teammates to use and exploit. And it’s a good choice on the game’s part to emphasize it, because it’s arguably the single best element of this very good game.
Firstly, it feels really good. That tactile sensation comes through here significantly more than in any other part of the game, with a satisfying sound and animation to sell the weight and speed of the jump. Throughout my adventure, I found myself using Team Jump even in cases where I didn’t need it, just to feel that “OOMPH” that comes up as one oddball hero leaps across half the map off the feet of another. That’s a feeling players rarely associate with tactical strategy, one the creeping soldiers of X-COM or Fire Emblem could never really provide. One of the few turn-based RPGs that capture this feeling are, perhaps coincidentally, the Mario RPGs with their Action Commands.
That gets along with the mechanical benefit, where leaping across the screen grants players a fairly wide array of actions and strategies. Characters may only be able to walk a certain distance, but they can use each other to vastly increase how far they can move. It can lead to setups involving suddenly positioning characters to make pincer movements, or using special skills to efficiently break through and entrap enemies. At times it plays almost like a puzzle game, albeit with numerous potential solutions instead of only one. Though the opposite approach is explored, too; a few particular bonus missions are based entirely around using Team Jump to solve a specific puzzle. It’s the sign of a good system that it can be used in a fairly sizable number of ways.
It should be noted that this isn’t just a crutch to make the combat easier. While Mario + Rabbids in general has a very manageable level of difficulty, it’s also a difficulty crafted under the assumption that players will exploit every technique at their disposal. That means using Dash Attacks to knock into enemies within walking distance, exploiting healing and buffs, constantly moving, and bouncing all over the map. It even means planning to counter your own abilities, which many enemy classes copy – later forms of the Ziggy can use the “Hero’s Sight” power that lets Mario automatically shoot enemies that come into range, for instance, while the Supporter tosses a similar kind of grenade to the one Peach and Rabbid Yoshi use. Several enemies almost require Team Jump to beat, from the Buckler (who can only be shot from behind) to the Smasher (who automatically walks to attackers and can be tricked through flanking). One enemy, the Hopper, even uses Team Jump as well, and the strategies for taking them down are eerily similar to ones later enemies use against Mario and his partners.
But then there’s this other, more amorphous element, that it’s a representation of Mario as a character, series, and design philosophy. It’s telling that while all the Rabbid counterparts of the Mario characters emphasize using those Dash Attacks, the latter are all based around Team Jump. Mario can use it to bounce successively on and off an enemy, Luigi can bounce off both allies, and while Peach heals everyone in range when she lands, Yoshi’s descent causes a large explosion. In other words, while Ubisoft wants players to use the mechanic, they especially want it as a way to reference things the Mario characters’ have done in other games, like Peach healing or Mario stomping baddies.
But while it’s clearly a reference to Mario’s storied history of leaps and jumps, I also think there’s another metatextual element to it. I think that, to an extent, the real “soul” of the Mario series, such as it is, can be found in this mechanic most of all. It has that physical sensation that mirrors leaping over brick blocks and pipes, but it also feels eerily similar to Nintendo’s tendency to experiment with seemingly odd ideas that, once implemented, feel incredibly natural. Using Team Jump to bypass choke points or flank baddies in a single bound is like climbing in Breath of the Wild or all the ways you can jump in Mario 64; they seem so obvious only after the fact. The game would be vastly less satisfying without the mechanic – as well as the energy you can feel from it – but it’s also something of an homage of the kinds of approach to game design that powers Nintendo’s best works.
Of course, this mechanic wouldn’t make sense for most turn-based tactical RPGs, or at least the more methodical, procedural ones that have defined the genre. It’d probably be a bit too silly to see Fire Emblem troops bouncing off each other to bypass forests and sneak into castles, for instance. It’s more suited to the lighter approach Mario + Rabbids provides, something that’s fairly rare for the genre. But it is tied to, and is successful in presenting, a tone and direction that could energize new ideas for strategy games. At the very least, it’s a good idea well executed, and I’d love to see it and ideas like it explored even further by Ubisoft, Nintendo, or any developer.