Time is the enemy of any developer, especially when it breaks their game.
The team behind Ubisoft’s latest collaboration, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, wanted to push the boundaries of what a turn-based strategy RPG could be. So they experimented with new mechanics, like Sparks, a new equippable that gives characters temporary special powers, like reflecting attacks or dealing poison damage.
Creative Director Davide Soliani says the team initially hoped to implement a Spark that allowed players to control time, but quickly realized it was too powerful, fundamentally altering the entire combat system. So it was unceremoniously scrapped — just another casualty in the constant cycle of game balance.
“We’ve been working on balance from the first day till the last,” Soliani tells Inverse. “The game cannot be broken all the time, or else we made some error on our side.”
A New Mushroom World
In 2017, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle united the worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom and Ubisoft’s eccentric bunny mascots in an oddball turn-based RPG that shut down dissenters with its tight gameplay, fun story, and deep customization.
Despite its many successes, Kingdom Battle did have some limitations. Movement in combat was strictly confined to a grid and levels were very linear with little exploration. The sequel takes more risks, ditching the grid system to allow players to explore full, lush worlds full of side quests, discoverables, and side missions.
“In order to do Sparks of Hope, we went back to the drawing board, we changed a huge piece of it,” Soliani said. “We wanted to bring a new relevant experience, since it's easy to go into sequel mode. But at the end, you aren't bringing something new, which is a pity.”
Reinventing turn-based combat isn’t exactly an easy feat. (There’s a reason that the core gameplay of the Pokémon franchise has barely evolved out of the “you take a turn, then I take a turn” loop in more than two decades. But Soliani and his team were focused on innovating, not doing more of the same. They just had to convince Nintendo it was a good idea first.
“We prefer to surprise our players and make it risky.”
Any project that features Mario and other iconic Nintendo characters is closely scrutinized by Nintendo. And Soliani says convincing the Japanese developer that having freedom of movement in a tactical genre wasn’t easy. Without their previous success, it’s unlikely that Nintendo would have given the green light.
“We’ve gained their trust,” Soliani says. “If we started with this idea in 2014, we wouldn't have been able to convince them."
A Speaking Rabbid
The worlds of Sparks of Hope are full of life, puzzles, and wacky characters. Whether it's the immaculate garden of Princess Peach’s castle, or the frozen tundra of Pristine Peaks, there’s a variety of vivid environments to explore.
There are nine playable characters, each filling one of three archetypes: bruiser, support, and crowd control. You can bring three into combat, each with their own unique set of abilities and skills. For example, Mario Rabbid can punch his way through anyone close by, while Princess Peach can apply a shield that negates a few instances of damage. Knowing how to mix and match characters is a core part of the strategy.
Rosalina Rabbid is making her debut, and Edge is a new character in the main game, a Rabbid with a large sword that was inspired by classic Japanese RPGs.
“She has two emotions: with a sword and without,” Soliani says. “She’s super stubborn.”
In Kingdom Battle, Ubisoft had their own guidelines that the Rabbids were not allowed to speak. But with the trust earned from the previous title, the French developer became more lax on that restriction. Now the whole squad of Rabbids have a full range of dialogue, even when there’s nothing more unsettling than hearing a Rabbid with a mustache shout Mario’s catchphrases and insisting that he’s “your guy.”
One of the wildest inclusions coming in the game’s DLC is Rayman as a playable character. The star of many platformers and Ubisoft’s oldest mascot has spent the past decade in relative obscurity, only appearing in the Rayman Legends game that’s been rereleased multiple times. For Soliani, this was a dream come true, since the first game he ever worked on was Rayman on the Game Boy Color in 1999.
All of these changes are meant to surprise players and give them something to tinker with.
“If you aren't bringing something new people will get bored,” Soliani said. “We prefer to surprise our players and make it risky.”
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope comes to Nintendo Switch on October 20.