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Mario + Rabbids is a shockingly good Nintendo Switch strategy game

When images of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battlefirst leaked ahead of E3 this year, it felt like a joke. Here was Nintendo’s most important character paired with… a Minion-like rabbit taking selfies in Princess Peach cosplay? Things got even stranger as more details emerged. Not only was the mash-up real, it was a turn-based strategy game in the XCOM mold, complete with Mario, Luigi, and crew wielding laser-spewing guns. But the biggest surprise is that Mario + Rabbids isn’t just some strange cocktail of seemingly disparate characters and worlds. It’s actually a pretty great strategy game, and one of the best experiences to grace the Nintendo Switch so far.

The game starts out with a wonderful opening cinematic that feels a bit like an animated DreamWorks short. In it, a child genius and Nintendo fangirl is building a new device that can mash together any two objects. After a series of mishaps, her Nintendo memorabilia collection is merged with some invading Rabbids, smashing the two universes together in a strange new version of the Mushroom Kingdom. I’ve always found Ubisoft’s Rabbids to be a slightly more obnoxious version of the ubiquitous Minions, but somehow, their partnership with Mario is actually pretty charming. It reminds me a bit of the similarly hilarious Mario & Luigi role-playing series, a clever but strange take on Nintendo’s world. There’s some genuinely funny writing in Mario + Rabbids, and plenty of visual gags. My favorite might be the way Luigi’s meme-ified death stare has been turned into a combat skill.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

Just like in a typical Mario game, there’s an over-world where you can follow a path from level to level, and uncover secret areas with useful items along the way. But most of your time in Mario + Rabbids will be spent in battle. For the most part, the game plays like a smartly streamlined version of a traditional turn-based strategy game, those chess-like experiences where you and an opponent take turns making moves on a battlefield. In each skirmish, you’ll have a team of three characters to control, including familiar Mario faces and their drooling Rabbid counterparts. There are foes to contend with, and a particular goal to accomplish. Usually, your job is to defeat all the bad guys, but in some cases, you’ll need to reach an exit alive, or escort a helpless character to a specific area.

Battles play out like simpler, more family-friendly versions of XCOMfights. During each turn, your characters can move a set distance, attack a nearby enemy, and perform special abilities to increase your team’s strength or summon a protective shield. Most arenas have cover to hide behind — crucial for keeping your team alive — and as you progress, you’ll come across increasingly more capable foes. Over time, your fighters will gain experience and become stronger, and you can unlock new abilities and gear. It’s most of what you’d expect from a strategy game, but in a smaller, cuter package. Mario + Rabbids also introduces a few of its own wrinkles that add unique flavor to the experience. Characters can travel a greater distance by bouncing off the heads of their teammates, for instance, and they have a slide attack that gives you an extra combat option for nearby foes. These abilities are useful, but more importantly, they’re a lot of fun to play around with.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

Mario + Rabbids is a clear effort to make strategy games more approachable, with smaller squad sizes and simplified character progression. It also eliminates many of the frustrations inherent to the genre. Attacks all have a 100, 50, or 0 percent chance of hitting, so there are no annoying 95 percent misses. But what’s most surprising is that Mario + Rabbids still retains the depth that’s so important to a strategy game — and it also keeps the challenge. Some of the battles in Mario + Rabbids took me a dozen or more tries to complete, with respawning enemies that forced me to think carefully about each and every decision. Each time you start a battle, you’re given the option to play on easy mode — which gives you substantially more health — and it was always tempting after I struggled through a stage for the 10th time.

Like many games before it, Mario + Rabbids benefits a lot from being on the Switch. As beloved series like Fire Emblem and Advance Wars have shown, turn-based combat is a great fit for portable platforms. The slow pace and structure means it’s possible to play while somewhat distracted, like when you’re commuting, or watching mindless TV. Mario + Rabbids feels designed with this portability in mind. Most of the levels feel bite-sized, the goals are simple, and you only have a few characters to worry about at any given moment.

It’s easy to go into Mario + Rabbids with low expectations. It’s a mashup that doesn’t seem to make much sense, in a genre that feels counter to Super Mario’s playful spirit. But you should definitely look past the crazed, Rabbid-infused exterior. Mario + Rabbids isn’t just a great strategy game brimming with charm and clever ideas. It also joins the likes of Breath of the Wild, Arms, and Splatoon 2 in showcasing the best the Switch has to offer.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battles is available on the Nintendo Switch on August 29th.

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