How Nintendo's Iconic Mario Met the Rabbids for Ubisoft's 'Passion Project'

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The enemies of "Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle," a Nintendo and Ubisoft collaboration. Nintendo/Ubisoft

When concept art of Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle first leaked for the Nintendo Switch, the Internet recoiled. There are few figures in gaming as instantly recognizable as iconic Italian hero (and former plumber ) Mario. Mario has starred in dozens of Nintendo games, many considered classics: Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 2 , Mario Kart, Paper Mario, Mario Party, Super Smash Brothers … the list goes on and on.

Then we have Raving Rabbids, a spin-off from the Rayman series of platform games. The Rabbids are mischievous, rabbit-like creatures who scream "BWAH" and speak mostly gibberish as they scamper about causing chaos. While nowhere near as recognizable as Mario (is that even a fair point of comparison?), Rabbids has sold more than 14 million units worldwide. With their simple, blocky forms and buggy eyes, the Rabbids have often merited comparison to the ubiquitous minions of Despicable Me.

At first glance, pairing Mario with the Rabbids seemed insane. The concepts are too disparate and the Rabbids are too crazy, cried the Internet. Some considered the infusion of Rabbids a near-desecration of Mario 's venerable history. But according to Ubisoft Creative Director Davide Soliani, the contrast between the two properties is what helps Kingdom Battle achieve a magic of its own.

"We decided to use the contrast between those two universes to leverage a new way of creating humor, new visuals, new game mechanics, new experiences," said Soliani in an interview with Newsweek. "Those two universes seem very far from each other, but ... they are cartoonish, they are colorful and they are fun. Those are characters that can make a lot of people happy through humor and gameplay."

When the Ubisoft team started brainstorming, they avoided the genres Nintendo had already perfected, such as platformers and racing. "We wanted something new, and we said, okay, we need to propose something that they will never do on their own, and something that they're not already doing, because they're already doing super well on many things," he said.

That left a wide swath of possibilities. The concepts for 13 different Nintendo/Ubisoft crossover titles are still out there somewhere, from rhythm games to a first-person shooter, but the team was most captivated by the promise of a tactical game in the spirit of XCOM or Fire Emblem. The chaotic Rabbids were like a blank slate for friendly chaos, a bouquet (or bwah-quet) of opportunity. The Ubisoft team tested the strength of the game's concept by polishing and presenting the idea internally before submitting it to Nintendo.

"It was not like, they're not doing this so let's do this. It was more, we're really into this game, let's expand it. Let's see if our idea during the brainstorming will convince us for good that it is something that we truly want to propose to Nintendo," said Soliani.

Of course, Nintendo had rules for how Ubisoft could utilize their mustachioed superstar. Shigeru Miyamoto, the mastermind behind Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda and other classic Nintendo properties, had two commandments for Soliani: don't make a platformer and don't make Mario jump. Soliani kept one rule, but broke the other. "[A]t the end we made Mario jump, but with the rules of our combat system and the rules of our game. And they were very happy about it," he said.

One of the greatest challenges Soliani's team faced was depicting Nintendo's iconic characters and universe in an authentic, respectful way. "You know, Mario's jumping, something so iconic, exists for over 30 years and you cannot change it. Because people will say, hmm! The little coin sound should be exactly the Nintendo sound," Soliani explained. In the final game, there are over 1200 animations per character for combat alone. "You can imagine that the animation was a big package in term of our work," said Soliani. "But we had a beautiful relationship."

Soliani describes the collaboration between Nintendo and Ubisoft as "super smooth," thanks in large part to everyone's commitment and passion. "We worked like crazy on small details, small things that you can find here and there that are really not needed from a production point of value, but because this is a passion project, people were spontaneous, adding all the love," he said.

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The Rabbids side-by-side with the original Nintendo characters. Nintendo/Ubisoft

Soliani's deep respect for Nintendo's history and characters is the beating heart of what makes Kingdom Battle so successful. "Our game tries to have that kind of nostalgia for the Golden Age of the video game," said Soliani. "We wanted to stay true to the Mario universe. Being lost in those beautiful worlds, searching for treasure, solving puzzles, finding new areas to help you throughout the game but also facing new enemies."

That respect is borne from Soliani's personal history with Nintendo. Soliani has been a Nintendo player "since the very beginning," so he's very familiar with the nostalgia he sought to evoke. "I'm not young anymore. I started really from the first Mario through all the games they did throughout their history. Miyamoto's games especially really inspired me," he said. "For me, Miyamoto-san was like a second father, telling me bedtime stories while I was about to sleep."

Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle launched on Aug. 29 for the Nintendo Switch with a Metacritic score of 85%, or "generally favorable" reviews.