Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope – Galactic Absurdity
Real-time strategy games have never really been my thing. Despite playing almost every Mario game released during my three decade long life, I wasn’t going to pick up the first Mario + Rabbids game when it was released in 2017. In the end I played it, because it came bundled with my Switch (we all have a game like that), but it never captured my heart the way many Mario games do. Apparently I’m on board with Mario diversifying his portfolio to being a pro golfer, a reckless driver, or competing at the olympics, but not with him hanging out with mutant rabbits and dual-wielding pistols? Anyway. Whatever the reason, it felt like it was missing something – that Mario ‘spark’. But the addition of some open world elements in the sequel, along with some more classic Mario characters, had me intrigued by Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. And truly, after playing a preview just over a month ago, my feelings could be neatly summed up by that title – and now that I’ve spent a lot of time with the whole game, I can’t say I’m disappointed.
Mario and the Rabbids are such a weird combination of characters. I’ve now spent over 20 hours watching them fight side by side on the battlefield, and I still believe that deep within my soul – It turns out you don’t get used to it. But somehow, it’s also a charming combination. Juxtaposing each character we’ve grown to appreciate over the years with a version of them that pokes fun of their core personality is a great way to lighten the tone of the game and spice up characters who can weirdly otherwise take themselves so seriously. Mario is not that interesting to me as a character, but apparently the way to make him appreciate him more is to put him beside a deeply cooked version of him who talks about his biceps and has a strangely proportioned moustache. Rabbid Mario is very creepy, and I would stay away from him at a party.
Luckily, the other rabbids are pretty great. Rabbid Luigi is a goofy cool guy with a backwards cap who sometimes whips out a breakdance, and we all love social media bitch Rabbid Peach who has definitely ghosted at least a hundred people in her lifetime. New in the sequel is Rabbid Rosalina, who matches the grace and poise of “normal” Rosalina by calmly rolling her way drowsily across surfaces, clearly deeply intelligent and also entirely unphased by literally everything happening around her. I aspire to the kind of chill that allows someone to casually take a nap against cover being used in an active gunfight. She’s my new idol.
The rest of the roster is made up of the rabbids’ matching heroes, Luigi and Peach, and a few special guests. Bowser, who decides to fight on the side of “good” because the villain Cursa has inconvenienced him more than Mario has in this specific instance, and Edge, a mysterious punk rock badass who shows up to help the heroes but who clearly has a ~hidden past. Each of the heroes has their own fighting style and their own unique weapons to go with it, so while the urge to build a team based off of your favourite personalities may be strong, it’s worth fighting it to give yourself the best chance on the battlefield. Luigi, for example, is a long-ranged sharpshooter who deals greater damage the further he is from an opponent, while the deeply cursed Rabbid Mario does his best damage when fighting up close. Some battles will require you to use predetermined heroes, so even when you form the team that works best for you, you’ll sometimes need to step out of your comfort zone – so you have to work out how to play to everyone’s strengths.
Each hero can also be paired with creatures called ‘sparks’ – fusions of rabbids with Super Mario Galaxy’s Lumas – who will grant them special abilities. The sparks are on the run from the game’s villain, Cursa, who seeks to absorb them and use their energy for nefarious purposes, so they will gladly join up with you and your team on your journey as you help them with tasks or prove that you’re not also evil. When a spark is going to join your team, they will often visit you at the beginning of a battle and say that they’ll be able to join you if you win, but it doesn’t really make it explicitly clear why this is the case. Maybe they’d literally prefer to be in hiding forever than be associated with a bunch of losers? I really don’t know. But each spark has a unique ability related to one of the game’s elements like shock or burn that can be used on the battlefield as one of your hero’s actions. These sparks can also be levelled up using star bits (like those collected in Super Mario Galaxy) or special potions, and they are also just extremely adorable.
What sets this game apart from its predecessor (apart from our new queen Rabbid Rosalina) is the inclusion of some more open world elements. Each overworld has its own questline to follow to bring you closer to defeating Cursa, but there are also plenty of ways to get distracted. All of them come with their own side quests (some bigger than others), as well as challenges similar to those found in other Mario games like red coin challenges or baby penguins who need rescuing. There are also environmental puzzles and riddles that take some brain power, plus secrets that can be revealed by interacting with parts of the world using the abilities of your robotic companion Beep-O. Many of these are pretty basic, but they also bring a lot of charm to the world and have allowed the inclusion of a heap of fun side characters, all with their own issues to solve. Maybe it’s because again, strategy games aren’t usually my thing, but these exploration elements were the parts of the game I enjoyed the most, even though they often only served to break up the many battles you’ll still have to take part in.
The battles themselves, while occasionally a little frustrating and repetitive, can be enjoyable and create opportunities for some real strategic thinking. Each battle involves enemies with varying weaknesses and resistances, so sometimes you’ll need to change up the sparks you have equipped on the fly, even if you don’t want to change your heroes. I found some of them challenging, even on the easier setting, and those who don’t play a lot of these games might feel the same. Though if you get really stuck there is an option to turn on ‘invulnerability’ mode which stops your heroes from taking damage if you just want to breeze through and enjoy the story. It’s also a great option for getting kids involved, because the game feels like a great entry point to the genre – plus the humour is ridiculous and kids would be all over it.
At the end of the day, the entire concept of this game still feels incredibly strange and deeply unhinged. But maybe in a good way? It certainly brings a unique angle and some fresh mechanics to both Mario games and now to strategy games with the inclusion of these open world mechanics. I think it’ll struggle to find an audience with die hard fans from either side, but it will go down well with those looking to dip their toe into the strategy genre, or who are introducing their kids to those games for the first time. While at times it was frustrating, I had a lot of fun with it, and plan to spend some more time wandering around the overworlds finishing up those side quests even though the main story is done. To me, that’s the ultimate sign of a good game – even if it is a game that has me constantly questioning whether or not it’s trying to reference that cursed time we all used words like ‘smexy’ on the internet.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a code kindly provided by Ubisoft.