How Mario and Rabbids created the unlikeliest crossover

Opposites in videogames attract.

In the early days of Nintendo, Mario was the undisputed king of crossovers and cameos. He was the pilot in Alleyway (Game Boy). He was the construction crew worker in Wrecking Crew (NES). Most famously, he was the referee in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (NES).

As Nintendo's flagship character, the mustachioed plumber validated and added prestige to any title he was in. He was a guarantee akin to Nintendo's iconic golden 'Seal of Quality.'

Ubisoft's latest game, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, is the latest Mario crossover; it's coming to the Nintendo Switch later this month. Initially, fans were skeptical, if not downright derisive, of the title. The Rabbids are the histrionic stars of casual party games -- typically more style and silly humor than substance. How could they blend into the Mushroom Kingdom while still upholding their anarchic brand of fun?

But then, at this year's E3 conference in June, Ubisoft debuted the first gameplay footage of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. The game was neither a platformer, like a classic Mario title, nor a free-for-all mini-game collection, like a Rabbids title. Instead, it was a turn-based strategy game -- a tactical adventure in the vein of XCom or Shining Force.

The game's in-game battles take place on a large map, formatted in a grid, against an AI opponent. During a turn, players fortify positions behind barricades; attack, either with melee weapons or ranged attacks; and cast effects, such as healing or buffing offensive capabilities. Player create three-character teams to fight battles; each team member has his or her own specific skill set and powers. Mario, for example, has Hero Sight, which allows him to automatically fire at enemies who cross his field of vision, even if it isn't his turn. And each member of the crew is upgradeable, to acquire different skills or strengthen existing ones.

The response from E3 attendees was positive. How did Ubisoft and Nintendo create what could turn out to be the crossover hit of the season? According to game director Davide Soliani, the trick was to sublimate neither creative property in service of the other.

"Those two universes are very different from each other," said Soliani, speaking with Zam at an exclusive play session in Manhattan. "And we wanted to embrace this difference to come up with new game mechanics, visuals, storylines, and humor."

"The game has a lot of humor that comes from parody," Soliani continued. "There's a use and misuse of iconic elements, and the Mario world is filled with iconic elements. It looks like the Mushroom Kingdom, but it's not exactly. Whenever you have a difference, you should make the difference -- the contrast -- its own strength."

Ubisoft began internal conversations concerning Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle in 2014. The team traveled to Nintendo headquarters in Kyoto multiple times to solidify its understanding of the Mario-verse. The final art direction certainly looks more Mario-esque, although the humor has a distinctive Rabbids flavor.

I had the opportunity to play two segments of the game at the Manhattan session: an early, grassy, sunny area (think Super Mario Bros World 1-1), and a later area inspired by Mario's ghost houses. There were two types of missions during the playthrough -- the first was a typical, kill-all-enemies scenario. The second required the player to traverse the map to reach a goal. The enemies blocking the way spawned indefinitely, requiring the player to keep moving or be killed. Before each mission, the player could select the team best suited for the mission, and, if there were enough coins, upgrade the raw stats and weaponry.

The gameplay is challenging; beyond knowing each character's specific abilities, the game requires a player to maintain situational awareness at all times. The three characters can interact with one another so long as they are in close proximity. They can hop off each other's heads for a boost to higher ground. They can heal each other. They can increase each other's defensive power.

Opponents are smart -- smart enough to apply the same tactical strategies and flank a player who is caught unaware. The Boos were most infuriating enemies from my playthrough; they could transport the player, immediately, to any area of the map, out of position from the rest of the team.

The game definitely has a learning curve. But the development team has put considerable effort into streamlining the menus and interface -- often the most intimidating aspects of tactical RPGs like this one.

"We wanted to bring this genre game out of its niche, and share it with as many people as possible," Soliani told me.

"Within the movement phase, you can do many different things," he continued. "You can select Mario and dash on an enemy, jump on a partner, take cover, and shoot from the cover. The combination of these actions creates new tactics and situations in a genre that can be very static. One of the first games I had in mind while brainstorming this game was Mario Kart. I thought, 'How cool would it be to bring the fast-paced action of Mario Kart to a combat system?'"

Soliani described Nintendo as generous and receptive to the team's ideas during the development process. And some ideas, which Soliani fully expected to be edited or removed, were permitted.

"There is a boss battle where a giant Rabbid is singing, and through the lyrics, he is trying to upset Mario. When I was proposed the idea to Nintendo, some of the lyrics were quite punchy. And I thought, 'They'll never accept it.' But in the end, it made them laugh."

At the E3 presentation of the game, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto singled out Soliani, who was sitting in the audience, for his hard work on the project. Soliani was visibly overcome by emotion; this game has been a passion project since its inception.

When I [first] presented the game to Miyamoto-san, he said, 'Please don't make this game a normal platform game,' And the second time, he said, 'Show me how crazy you can be.'"

"At Nintendo, you never have to restrain yourself," Soliani said. "It's always better to dare."

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle releases on Nintendo Switch on August 29th.