As revealed in Nintendo's June 2022 Direct Mini: Partner Showcase, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is launching on Switch on 20th October. This afternoon, Ubisoft's dedicated showcase, a separate 15-minute stream from Nintendo's Direct Mini, has revealed various elements of the upcoming game, including new gameplay details (no grids!), characters (Bowser, Rabbit Rosalina, and the ever-mysterious green and purple Rabbid, Edge), and more information on the evil force trying to absorb the galaxy's energy, including that of the titular Sparks.
Tough as it might be to believe, it's been nearly five years since Ubisoft and Nintendo released a crossover that seemed unlikely and — dare we say it — unnatural at the time. Multiverse crossovers are ten-a-penny these days, but rumours that Mario's Mushroom Kingdom crew would be collaborating with Ubisoft's love-'em-or-hate-'em Rabbids (anarchic bunnies which spawned from the Rayman series into a pre-Minions world) seemed crazy enough, but coming together in an XCOM-style turn-based strategy game that outfitted the cast with blasters? Surely not.
Despite the obvious passion of the team, there was certainly scepticism surrounding Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle before it launched in August 2017. Fortunately, the end result proved that Creative Director Davide Soliani and the teams at Ubisoft had the talent to back up their evident enthusiasm and emotion for building a game around characters which are video gaming royalty. A DLC expansion, Donkey Kong Adventure, followed, but with Nintendo's famous resistance to pumping out numbered Mario sequels, it seemed clear that another installment in the Mario + Rabbids series would need to bring something brand new to the table.
"We couldn't do a 'direct' sequel"
"I remember the first official meeting we did on Sparks of Hope," lead producer Xavier Manzanares tells us via video chat following an early showing of the showcase video. "We were discussing DK Adventure [that was] being finished and as usual we never know what the next step [will be] because we couldn't do a 'direct' sequel. It was not something we wanted with Mario and the Rabbids, but aside from that, we didn't know exactly what it meant."
"It was summer '18 and the first topic we put on the table was the combat system. We knew that with Donkey Kong Adventure we went a bit further in terms of the possibilities in battle and the fluidity, [really] the action side, but it was still with the grid and the cursor. And as we really wanted to control directly the characters, it was something that we dreamed of in the past while we were doing Kingdom Battle. We started to do tests and put some ideas [down]. 'Okay, let's go for [a lot of] movement, you can move around as you want, no cursor, and we'll see where it brings us.'
The absence of a grid system — the bread and butter of the turn-based strategy RPG genre — is one of the first things you notice
"This was one of the first topics, and in R&D soon after. In parallel with that, the second topic was exploration, because we had a lot of feedback from players saying that they wanted to dive a little bit more into the environments and see more of what we'd created. On Donkey Kong Adventure we had [a more] hub-centric approach, but we wanted to go further. So we came up with this idea of saying 'Okay, you arrive on the planet, you go wherever you want, you have main quests and side quests and it becomes a little bit more of an RPG, and when you touch an enemy you go inside Cursa's dimension and then you fight the enemies and then you come back to the world.' And of course, this was a big, big change compared to Kingdom Battle, but with the combat system we said 'maybe this is big enough to be validated as a new project.'"
Cursa, is the ne'er-do-well causing upset for Mushroom Kingdomers and Rabbids alike and the baddie who will be throwing grunts your way to engage in turn-based battle. However, this time there's a significant twist. The absence of a grid system — the bread and butter of the turn-based strategy RPG genre — is one of the first things you notice about the game when watching the new footage. We imagined that removing such a seemingly integral part of the genre, and the first game, presented multiple design challenges.
"We want to stay a tactical strategy game first, with [all] the possibilities, choices, things that people loved in the first game. So adding action, removing the cursor and the grid was a big bet because it could become something too action-driven, removing strategy elements in the decision-making we do every turn. So it was a big challenge, but at the same time we said 'hey, this is actually becoming more easy to play', and when we say 'easy to play, hard to master', we start to really go in that direction. Thanks to the real-time movement we added more features, more layers of choices and strategy choices that the players can make. We start to add layers and layers and layers, and in the end it works super well. I mean, we're super proud of the new system. So, yeah, it was a big bet four years ago!"
This town ain't big enough for the both of us
Bowser is also joining Mario and co. this time around, bringing his Koopa-ly presence to the battlefield as the two biggest enemies in the Mushroom Kingdom (frenemies at this point, surely?) team up to tackle Cursa, Sparks of Hope's even bigger, even badder bad.
The Sparks, unsurprisingly given their presence in the game's very title, form a critical part of gameplay. As you may have guessed, they are actually Rabbid-Luma fusions (Luma's being the little sentient star-like creatures that hung out with Rosalina in the Mario Galaxy games).
At the very beginning, we wanted to have one equippable Spark per hero [but] we decided to let players equip two Sparks instead of one, and that's really nice because you start to mix and match things
"When we created them," Manzanares continues, "we had to validate them with Nintendo because we were fusing Lumas and Rabbids, so it took a lot of time and discussion. We didn't want them to be on the side. For the storyline, they're super key — they're linked to Cursa, the world. The energy they have within them is key to the story. They also have their own personalities, so they're adding a lot to the group."
The Sparks' mechanical gameplay role has evolved throughout development. "At the very beginning, we wanted to have one equippable Spark per hero because we saw the Sparks as a set of stats and bonuses that they would bring to the heroes. We have active bonuses that they bring, for example, a fire attack — when you want to activate that, you [equip] that Spark. And they come with passive bonuses, so for example again with the fire Spark, it will bring defence [against] fire-based enemies. But then we added levels, you can level up your Spark, so that was really cool and it was fitting well with the skill tree of the heroes."
However, after experimenting the team decided to push the implementation of the Sparks further, in part to help retain the tactical aspect of the game following the introduction of free movement.
"We decided to go even further. Two years ago in production, we decided to let players equip two Sparks instead of one — two active bonuses, two passive bonuses — and that's really nice because you start to mix and match things. [Do] you want to have two fire-based Sparks, one for dash and one for the attack, or do you want to mix things and add a water Spark, so that you can be protected from water attacks and fire attacks from enemies? And then we have families of Sparks, attack Sparks, dash Sparks, defence Sparks, so it's up to the player to use the Sparks, equip them as they see fit, and change to another hero — they change the archetype of the hero. They're quite central to the gameplay experience."
It remains to be seen exactly how elegantly the free movement will integrate into the previous game's brand of turn-based battling, but the added Spark-based element appears to offer plenty of variety in terms of approach. Giving the player more agency and more active control certainly suits the Mushroom Kingdom characters, too, and could potentially bring in a wave of platforming fans who may be put off by the more static trappings of more traditional grid-based tactical RPGs.
Stronger bonds with Nintendo
Having teamed up with Nintendo on the previous project and building upon that established relationship this time around, we wondered if Nintendo had any specific requests or directives for the team to follow during the development of the sequel.
[Nintendo] always said 'This is your game. This is Ubisoft and your team's game, so you are the ones responsible for what you want to do.'
"The way we work with Nintendo, it's been eight years now, so we start to have a really strong relationship. On Kingdom Battle it was a bit discovering Nintendo and Nintendo discovering us as a team, and thankfully it went well and we were happy with that relationship. But now the bonds are stronger. They always said something to us, they said "This is your game. This is Ubisoft and your team's game, so you are the ones responsible for what you want to do." So the way they acted on Sparks of Hope was quite similar [to] Kingdom Battle, which was an advisory role, giving feedback, and of course validating everything that is linked to Nintendo IPs. When it comes down to the gameplay, and the frame of what we wanted to do, they were listening to everything and then giving their point of view, and it was our decision to go on or change if we believed that their feedback was fitting the creative vision. So it was really a strong relationship throughout the years on Sparks of Hope."
Another thing that jumped out at us was the addition of not one, but two new composers alongside Kingdom Battle's maestro Grant Kirkhope.
The Banjo-Kazooie and Viva Piñata composer is now joined by Gareth Coker (Ori and the Blind Forest, Ark, Immortals Fenyx Rising) and Yoko Shimomura (Final Fight, Street Fighter II, Live A Live, Super Mario RPG), forming a legendarily talented trio taking care of Sparks of Hope's soundtrack.
"Obviously we were big fans of Grant Kirkhope and he loved the game as well, and when we started to do Sparks of Hope he had tons of ideas, new ideas, even more so because we were going into space. The first discussions were 'Okay, it's space opera, tons of new stuff to do and that's going to be incredible'. So we were super happy and he was on fire. But then, I guess, like for other stuff from Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, we decided to add and mix things up. We were big fans of Yoko Shimomura and Gareth Coker as well, and we said 'Hey, what about mixing those composers together and trying to have our music based upon what they did in the past', and it was a kid's dream to do that.
Obviously, we wanted to avoid having silos, Grant doing his thing, and Yoko on one side and Gareth on the other
"Obviously, we wanted to avoid having silos, Grant doing his thing, and Yoko on one side and Gareth on the other side, so we had Romain Brillaud the artistic director on sound and music that really worked on making sure that we had this artistic direction that was fitting and making the composers going in the same direction."
Coker has worked with Ubisoft previously, and with Shimomura's impressive catalogue of classic compositions, plus her history with the Mario series specifically (perhaps most excitingly as composer on Super Mario RPG), the addition of these composers to Sparks of Hope is sure to excite anyone with a passing interest in VGM. Manzanares wouldn't be drawn on exactly how the soundtrack was divided between the composers, but it's evident from the way he lights up when discussing the topic that he's buzzed to have added another pair of stars to accompany Kirkhope's stellar compositions.
"We're super excited, super excited when we put that in the video so that we could announce that, so obviously I cannot wait for players to listen to those tracks."
Looking to the future
Manzanares also wouldn't be drawn on whether we'll be seeing DLC for Sparks of Hope as we did with Donkey Kong Adventure last time around.
"It's a bit too soon to talk about anything post-launch or what are the future plans. To be quite transparent and direct on that, right now we're so focused on releasing the game in October, that I must say that this is the main focus point. But yeah, I guess in the future, in the coming months we'll talk more about the plans we have for post-launch."
From what we've seen so far, this sequel looks to have been crafted with the same dedication and passion as the first one. Hey, any game that brought Rabbidsceptics onboard must be doing something right! We're eager to get our hands on the gridless battle system, but all indications right now point to this sequel being another bright spark in the awesome constellation of Switch games featuring a genial plumber and his cohorts.
Our thanks to Xavier for speaking with us. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is scheduled for launch on 20th October 2022.