When Mario + Rabbids creative director Davide Soliani first started working on Kingdom Battle, he was given express instructions from Ubisoft: Rabbids do not, under any circumstances, talk.
“I had to gain trust also from Ubisoft, not just Nintendo,” Soliani says. “And Ubisoft told me, ‘Rabbids are not speaking.’ That was a rule.
“But they never told me that the Rabbids couldn’t sing, so I introduced the Phantom.”
The Phantom is one of Kingdom Battle’s most memorable moments, where a giant Rabbid opera ghost sings an entire musical number about how much he hates Mario, peppered with gags about Mario’s past appearances and personality quirks. Audiences loved it. And that positive reception led Soliani to get Ubisoft onboard for breaking the rules in the sequel, Sparks of Hope.
So yes, the Rabbids talk now.
“I gained trust from Ubisoft to venture towards a new horizon…Everything we are doing, it’s part of a process of evolution that will lead us somewhere else. I think that as a team, we really love experimenting and we will keep doing it in the DLC. And then, who knows in the future what will happen?”
The Rabbids have undergone a pretty dramatic shift in reception since Kingdom Battle, largely thanks to the game’s treatment of them. When Kingdom Battle was first leaked prior to its 2017 E3 showing, the idea of a Mario and Rabbids collaboration seemed absurd. Rabbids were obnoxious characters, generally relegated to children’s media. The internet laughed — and not necessarily kindly — at characters like Rabbid Peach with her phone obsession. But what audiences slowly came to realize over the course of trailers, gameplay, reviews, and later playing it themselves was that the Mario + Rabbids team had put a lot of effort into making the Rabbids…well, still obnoxious, but lovably so.
“I think that when Rabbids started as a video game [they were initially Rayman enemies back in 2006], they were kind of cute and a nice surprise the very first time,” Soliani says. “But then, afterwards we didn’t manage to not abuse some of their features. At some point, maybe people were annoyed of them screaming.
“One of the rules that we set ourselves as a team was, ‘Okay, they should never, never scream once again in Kingdom Battle,’ because that was absolutely annoying us.”
The Rabbids in Kingdom Battle did still yell a lot, especially their signature “Bwah” cry, but Kingdom Battle gave them room to express a lot more. They kept much of their physical, slapstick comedy, but by introducing a roster of playable Rabbids heroes, Ubisoft was able to give them different emotions; even a little bit of complexity. And different types of humor, as well, like the aforementioned Phantom song – the whole thing is a hilarious, witty roast of Nintendo’s biggest mascot. Unheard of for any character, especially a Rabbid, to perform.
Now, with Sparks of Hope, Soliani wants to take that complexity farther. There are new Rabbids, both NPCs and heroes, and thus new emotions. Rabbid Rosalina embodies ennui, while Edge is (per Soliani) a “female Clint Eastwood” inspired by JRPGs. And now, they need words other than “bwah” to express those emotions.
“With the production of the voices…we believe that we have been able to announce their psychological trait and their emotion and to bring it in the game in a way that in Kingdom Battle was not possible…We are evolving the cosmology around the Rabbids and this is giving us also the possibility to create different kind of humor compared to the classical slapstick.”
Soliani calls the decision to give the Rabbids voices a “scary” one, comparable with the dramatic changes to the combat system. He says the team was skeptical ahead of its internal tests, but after hearing them, everyone “fell in love.”
“For example, today the character that I prefer, that was not my preferred one in Kingdom Battle is Rabbid Mario. Because when he is speaking, he’s saying such stupid stuff that is making me laugh and this is changing my mood, makes me jolly.”
He adds that beloved as they were, the process still wasn’t easy. It was challenging to find the right voices for each Rabbid in every spoken language, especially because the Rabbids were speaking as much as (at times more!) than the Nintendo characters. For these reasons, they did opt to keep the heroes’ voices somewhat spare, opting to let Beep-0, Jeanie, and Rabbid NPCs carry the storytelling wherever possible.
And for the new characters especially, that meant introducing strong enough personalities that “could stay on stage” with the Rabbids’ speech. For Soliani, the gold standard of that was Rabbid Peach, who went from being mocked upon the first leak of Kingdom Battle to being a beloved mascot of the franchise, and in the preview I played of Sparks of Hope, almost a deuteragonist to Mario himself.
“Creating another powerful character as she has been in both Donkey Kong Adventure and in Kingdom Battle was not an easy task,” Soliani says. “But I think that we found our perfect recipe with Rabbid Rosalina, because she can be a show stealer. I remember that when we revealed the game for the very first time, everyone was speaking about how bored of life she was. A lot of people were actually saying, ‘I’m the same, she’s like me.’”
I ask Soliani if he thinks he’s created any moments in Sparks of Hope that will top the Phantom’s song in Kingdom Battle. He isn’t giving away spoilers, but implies that while there isn’t anything quite like that number, there may be different types of emotional highs on the horizon.
“[In Sparks of Hope], I think that we tried to expand the tactical possibilities and some of the combat situations…But there are other moments in my opinion, that are more tied to the narrative and what is happening, because now each character also has a personal goal and there are moments that made me very emotional in some parts of the game.”
For more on Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, check out our final preview of the game, as well as the rest of our interview with Soliani about Sparks of Hope’s difficulty settings, and its upcoming Rayman DLC.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.