When Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was first announced in 2017, it was met with near-universal criticism. Fans disliked Ubisoft’s Rabbids, and believed Nintendo was tarnishing its brand by allowing Mario to go along for the ride. But when the game finally launched, its incredible twist on XCOM-style tactics, mixed with gorgeous worlds to explore and a biting sense humour quickly won people over – to the point where it’s now regarded as a classic, and one of the best iterations of the turn-based strategy genre. It’s even spawned a sequel, Sparks of Hope, which is set to launch in October 2022.
In the eyes of Davide Soliani, creative director and co-creator of the Mario + Rabbids series, this upcoming sequel is a real miracle. ‘I was completely, completely surprised,’ Soliani told GamesHub of the success of the franchise. ‘If you remember, a few months just before we were going to reveal the game officially, and the game leaked, people started to hate the team and the idea of this collaboration. Then they changed their mind when finally, the game was ready … but first of all, I was completely scared.’
As players slowly got their hands on Kingdom Battle, they began to realise just how unique, colourful and creative the world of Mario + Rabbids really was. In the initial stages, the fever pitch had Soliani and his team worried about whether players would appreciate the effort the Ubisoft team had put into the game, given it was ‘leap of faith’ to try something new – but ultimately, the game was heralded as a success.
‘It was, I think, a life changer for the whole team – not just me – because it gave us a boost in confidence.’
The success of the first game also paved the way for Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, a game that aims to expand the world of Mario + Rabbids by introducing new worlds and inspirations, and importantly, a brand new combat system. For Soliani and the team, the challenge in creating this sequel wasn’t necessary to go bigger or better, but to expand the game’s universe, and build on the strong relationship the Ubisoft development team had forged with fans.
‘We listen to the community, and we try to think what could make them happy, and at the same time, what will make us happy,’ Soliani said. ‘[Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope] is a completely new game, but has been built on the foundation of Kingdom Battle … our goal was to surprise players.’
Soliani states that one of the primary inspirations for Sparks of Hope is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a film and TV property that spans multiple stories, characters and worlds while telling one coherent story. While the game is also inspired by elements of Super Mario Galaxy, Soliani made clear that Sparks of Hope is all about exploring the unique Mario + Rabbids universe in depth – a realm filled with colour, beauty, and intrigue, but one that is separate from the main ‘canon’ of Mario tales.
Setting the game in a different, more cosmic universe allowed the team greater freedom to experiment – and to incorporate new forms of gameplay and exploration across wilder locales.
One of the key differences between the Mario + Rabbids universe and other Mario titles lies in its depictions of violence. While not an overtly violent game, Kingdom Battle was notable for featuring firearm-based combat, with Mario, Luigi and friends wielding various types of toy guns, and taking out enemies with cartoonish explosions.
Nintendo has previously been delicate about depicting gun violence outright, with the Mario franchise largely designed to be family-friendly and accessible. To that end, Soliani and the team had to work hard to incorporate creative combat that was seen as joyful, rather than outright scary – a core focus as the team moved from working on Kingdom Battle to Sparks of Hope.
‘The topic of making sure that the guns were not looking like real guns, but like toys or water guns, is a topic that we faced when we started to work on Kingdom Battle back in 2014,’ Soliani explained. ‘We were aware of [it] – but our approach in terms of development has always been okay, this is a game, first of all, and it’s a fun game … so if everything is colourful, if everything is as humorous as in Kingdom Battle, then the design of those toy guns should follow [Nintendo’s] guidelines.’
Soliani believes the team was able to ‘nail’ the game’s whimsical aesthetic early on, with joy superseding the ‘scariness’ of gun-based combat. ‘There is nothing in our game that is really scary,’ he said. By maintaining a lighter tone, Ubisoft was able to please Nintendo, while injecting Mario + Rabbids with ‘jolliness’ over terror.
This edict remained a focus for Sparks of Hope, which features brand new weapons, accessories (like Bob-ombs, which are used for long-range explosions, chain reactions, and traps), and a fresh combat system. While Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was heavily inspired by the tactical cover combat of XCOM, Sparks of Hope is breaking away from the grid to forge its own destiny.
‘The combat system is one of our major changes,’ Soliani told GamesHub. ‘We really wanted the player to feel the freedom of combat … This time, I really wanted to feel as [if] I was able to go anywhere, to test everything, before making a decision – and even be able to change my mind … [The changes] are making the combat system way more fluid, and quicker.’
In this iteration, players will be able to move anywhere on the battlefield during their turn, with choices beholden to individual character abilities and combat capabilities. Some characters have large weapon ranges, while others are quite limited, and make up for it in fast or heavy-hitting attacks. While the game still appears to be turn-based, the strategy elements are now less rigid, with players able to make a number of unique moves to better position themselves on the battlefield.
Tactics still play a key role, but players will need to be playing a form of 4D chess to watch for opponent moves, and plan how chain reactions can work to their advantage in battle. ‘It’s expressing my desire of freedom, that I wanted so much compared to the first [game],’ Soliani explained.
As the team worked remotely during the coronavirus pandemic (and as a result of multi-studio input from around the world) the combat, creativity and weirdness of the game was allowed to grow, with Soliani at the helm. Iterating new systems, character designs and worlds not only helped to improve the sequel – it also helped to create a positive atmosphere behind the scenes – one that Soliani is proud to call ‘weird’.
‘We always try to make people laugh,’ Soliani said. ‘Years ago, I was collaborating with Nintendo on another game … and one of our Nintendo colleagues told me, “If we could build a laughing machine instead of a console, we will build the laughing machine.” When I started work on Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, I told myself, “okay, this needs to be a laughing machine.”‘
With brand new Rabbids and plenty more lighthearted antics on the way, the franchise is already well on the way to achieving this goal.
When Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope launches for Nintendo Switch on 20 October 2022, expect it to be just as colourful, imaginative and full of passion as its predecessor.