Admit it! When you first heard that Ubisoft had landed itself the Mario license to make a strategy game that starred its polarizing cast of insane "not-Minions" Rabbids, you just about burst a blood vessel in your brain. "Who do they think they are, messing with an iconic character in this way?" thinking, in some way, that Ubisoft was under Mario.

Well, I certainly didn't, but you should admit you did. Besides, Nintendo totally ripped off Ubisoft's open world, tower-climbing simulator design for Breath of the Wild, so it's not like the company doesn't look at its peers.

Up until the launch of the Switch, Ubisoft had been showing signs of it scoring a deal like this since the company praised the device more so than any other publisher in the world. No doubt, it wanted you to buy a Switch so you could invest a few bucks in the first original Mario game on the platform.

Just think about that for a second. The first original Mario game on this newest Nintendo platform… was made by Ubisoft. Is it worth it? Totally!

Super Mario XCOM

Like many of you, once the rumors of Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom were confirmed at E3 2017, the trailer left me stone cold. Could this game actually turn out to be pretty decent? It had been the butt of many jokes and cynical jeers in the weeks leading up into its official reveal, and following that official reveal, it became the butt of many "Super Mario XCOM" jokes.

The funny thing is those comparisons are not too far from reality.

Ubisoft knew exactly where to look when creating its first non-Anno strategy game in nearly a decade. The XCOM series is arguably the West's most beloved and consistent strategy series on the planet since its revival a few years ago, and Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom follows it verbatim.

Your characters will blast through a map of Rabbids, taking cover behind walls, planning strategies, and unloading laser blasts upon the enemy, sometimes being rewarded with a cinematic camera shot from the battlefield. The intensity and objectives vary a little bit, but each map boils down to "Destroy all enemies" or "Reach a certain point."

Unlike XCOM though, Nintendo does and prefers to keep this simple. Only being able to take three characters (Mario and two more) into battle makes sure that you'll never be too caught up in a deep, complex gun battle. Battles play out in a very Nintendo-esque manner, meaning they often feel more like a puzzle game than that of a true-blooded strategy title.

This comes to us thanks to a ranking system. If you're a completionist and froth at the lips when hunting down a perfect row of Gold Trophies or Gold Medals in your games, Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom's objectives quickly change from "Kill everything" to "Kill everything as efficiently and quickly as possible." Scores are handed out by keeping all of your characters alive and beating a map in under a certain amount of turns. Meet those two objectives, you're showered with coins and rewards.

Battles tend to be quick, fun, and very intuitive. Just when you start to feel the repetition and tedium set in, Ubisoft finds another way to throw a curveball at you. Be it in the form of a new map mechanic, a new ally in battle, or a boss fight with unique abilities, this strategy game remains fresh throughout.

Exploration in a strategy game?

Outside of battle, the game also shines. XCOM allows players to upgrade their soldiers after repeated victories, and Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom is no different. Each individual character has a role in the battle, for instance Mario being a close-range melee fighter and Luigi picking up the role of a sniper and robot technician, and their abilities upgrade as you see fit.

There's nothing really complicated or game breaking here. As an RPG, Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom is pretty light, matching the depths of its battle tactics.

The real fun in between battles actually comes from exploring. It might seem strange for a strategy game, but Ubisoft's maps are kind of genius in this game. Battlefields are built right into the levels, meaning you can freely run through them in between skirmishes, and they are loaded with secrets and obstacle courses.

My only complaint about running through these maps is that there is no Jump function. There is something totally off-putting about seeing Mario run around a map and not being able to jump. Even if it's just for aesthetics and doesn't aid the game in any practical way, there are two free buttons available when Mario is running around the world. Why not use one to add a simple jump?

After clearing out an entire world, Mario and his friends will gain new exploration abilities in addition to their new combat skills, and these open up older maps in the same sense that Metroid games open up. Revisiting old areas opens up puzzles, uncovers new weapons, allows for special challenges and even grants access to secret branching paths. At the end of these, you'll find extra battles that reap amazing rewards.

All this extra content is magnified when players unlock new game modes, combat options, and multiplayer. Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom's core game design is a strategy game, but the added layers of exploration rewards players in the same way that all Super Mario games reward those who break away from the beaten path by opening up more of the game you're playing.

A true Mario experience, don't dismiss it as otherwise

Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom is a funny, charming spin on a classic franchise and a somewhat reviled franchise in the gaming world. The Rabbids don't normally jive with my sense of humor, but when seeing their insane antics unfold against the deadpan, straight and narrow Mario crew, the contrast redeems them after a decade of obnoxious adventures.

Aside from the humor, mostly on behalf of Rabbid Peach, Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom has a pleasing aesthetic with a colorful representation of the Mushroom Kingdom and fun arrangements of all your classic Super Mario tunes.

Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom might not come from Nintendo, and it might not be a platformer, but deep down inside, it hits all the notes and is a true blooded Mario game. Like all of his other adventures, it supplies fun, accessible gameplay enjoyable for all ages, and the harder content lies beyond the boundaries for those willing to look for it.

The only area its lacking is the obsessive push for perfection that Nintendo always pours into its Mario games. You'll have to forgive Ubisoft for not falling into that pit for what's supposed to be a goofy spin-off.

Ubisoft nailed its first outing with Mario, hitting all the beats with its humor, story, music, and graphics. To say that it does Super Mario justice would undersell what the publisher accomplished. This is a Mario game through and through, and fans will love it.

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4 out of 5

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