How a small team’s passion convinced Nintendo to let chaos reign in the Mushroom Kingdom
There is, even now, a note of disbelief in Davide Soliani’s voice. As he talks about the game that has consumed the last four years of his life, he can’t stop referring to it as “a dream”. Indeed, you sense the creative director of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is still pinching himself, having spent so much quality time lately with a bona fide video game icon, a character who had been part of his life “even before he had a name”.
Yet it was in the N64 era where Soliani’s love affair with Mario began in earnest. “I remember arriving at the video game shop in Milan by motorcycle, dropping it on the floor without even caring about parking it, and then running inside and seeing Mario on screen in 3D for the very first time,” he says. “Holding this strange controller, moving the analogue stick and seeing him moving accordingly on screen, it was crazy. I could never have imagined that one day I’d be able to work on a Mario title.”
That opportunity was handed to him by Xavier Manzanares, who in 2013 was brand producer for Ubisoft’s Rabbids series. “My goal was to think about the games ahead for the Rabbids. In the past, we’d had very good discussions about the party games we did with Nintendo, talking about ideas and things that could work or not, but we’d never really put something on the table.”
At the end of the year, he decided it was time to propose something new and different: a reboot of sorts for the Rabbids series. “We wanted to take a risk and make something that no one expected. So I contacted three creative directors working within Ubisoft at that time.” Soliani, of course, was one of the three.
Super Smash Bros.
Manzanares’s outline was fairly loose: it had to be a game that combined the Rabbids and Mario in some way, but beyond that, there were no rules. It was now February 2014, and Soliani and four colleagues cloistered themselves in a small room at Ubisoft’s Milan studio, brainstorming ideas across a range of genres.
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“We eventually came up with a list of 13 different games, spanning from racing games to firstperson shooters, because for us it was an exercise to see how many ideas we could come up with around the concept of Rabbids and Mario together,” Soliani explains. “One common point was to basically use the contrast between those two IPs to create a parody. We were basically trying to surprise ourselves.”
Manzanares was certainly surprised by the result. “I was just waiting for a proposal, and had given them only a few weeks to do it,” he recalls. But that wasn’t Soliani’s style. Instead, he sent Manzanares a huge mock poster, with fake screenshots and snippets of text. “We have it here – it’s almost like something you would put in a museum,” the producer smiles. “It was really weird as a proposal, but it was made with so much passion that I decided to stop working on the brand, refocus my attention on this game and start the adventure with Davide and his team.”
If the idea of combining these two brands seemed unlikely, the notion that they’d join forces in a turn-based strategy game was even more fanciful. “OK, Rabbids and Mario might seem very far from each other,” Soliani adds. “Well, for us it was the key. To use those differences to propose something completely new.” But why a strategy game? “Because we wanted to propose something new in a genre, and do complex stuff in a very simple way,” Soliani says.
“Most tactical games are fun to play, but they look very sad in terms of their colour palette, and their complexity scares away players really easily.” Soliani and his team spent a lot of time discussing ways to make something that was deep yet accessible for all types of player. The defining moment came when the game’s movement abilities – the dash move that lets players slide-tackle enemy units, and the team- jump that lets friendly units use one another as springboards to bounce over gaps and cover greater distances – were conceived.
“Straight away, players could do complex stuff with a single click,” Soliani says. In fact, when the time came to present the first prototype to Nintendo, it didn’t look like a tactical game at all: the pitch showed the various techniques the player characters could perform, but with no HUD present, it wasn’t immediately clear how the game would play. “They saw it almost as a sequential action game,” Manzanares says.
Back then, Kingdom Battle was very different. The initial prototype was a real-time PvP-focused strategy game: the three-character setup was already established, but the player had a budget of time to move them all around the battlefield, controlling them directly rather than guiding them with a reticle as in the finished game. And each arena featured towers, which could be activated to expand the player’s radius of vision.Soliani and his team had taken great pains to prepare for that presentation. Keen to show they were taking their responsibilities seriously, they spent a lot of time carefully modelling, rigging and animating the Nintendo characters.
“Miyamoto-san was not expecting us to show a prototype directly, especially not a playable one,” Soliani grins. “He was probably expecting a discussion or a PowerPoint. But as a team we really wanted to show stuff instead of just talking.” And Nintendo was suitably impressed. “They especially were not expecting us to recreate their own characters in our game to the point that they said, more than once, ‘They look identical to ours!’” He laughs, proudly. “We told them we’d recreated them from scratch because we wanted to show that we respect those characters. I think that was the very moment we gained their trust.”
Good job, too, since this unlikely crossover was proposing that Mario would no longer jump on his opponents to defeat them, but rather shoot them with guns. They were, Soliani confirms, there from the very first prototype. “Compared to what we have in-game today, they were more simple – even more toy-like,” he says. And something working with Nintendo,” he begins. “Nothing is taken for granted. You never know how they will react. And the second thing I learned is that you have to be bold. Worst case scenario, they’ll tell you no. But they prefer you daring to propose stuff instead of being shy, that’s for sure.”