In the Fall of 2020, after six months of heightened Covid anxiety, internet users started boasting about their smooth brains. They would post photos of uncooked chicken breasts – shaped roughly like the human thinking organ but devoid of its characteristic folds – and point out that since it “can’t think”, there was “no sad”.
These memes – frankly odd in retrospect, but resonant at the time – were a reflection of our collective exhaustion. Frazzled by fear, many of us were done with taking on an entire world’s bad news via global reporting and social media. There was comedy, and even solace, to be found in a refusal to process the chaos and threat flaring up around us, all the time.
When I look at Rabbid Rosalina, a playable character among the ensemble cast of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, I wonder with no little envy how smooth her brain is. Ubisoft’s twisted rabbits have always represented undiluted instinct and impulse. And Rosalina, to my (uncreased) mind, embodies a new, post-pandemic desire to disengage – allowing oneself peace, and a bit of slack, in a world seemingly determined to do violence to our brains.
Where Mario and his other friends carry themselves in a state of perpetual readiness, determined and upbeat in the face of Cursa, the galaxy-threatening antagonist of Sparks of Hope, Rosalina flumps, mopes, and sighs with her whole body. An enormous fringe covers a full half of her face, as if that part’s still sleeping. Like a device in low battery mode, she’s devoting only the necessary modicum of energy required to keep her systems running.
“The weird thing is that, of course, nobody was expecting a pandemic, and Rabbid Rosalina was born before,” says associate producer Cristina Nava. “So she was already like that. And she was already relatable, because, you know, we have all been exhausted in life, and game developers especially, because it’s a tough job. She’s jaded, and she apparently doesn’t want to do anything.”
Yet Rabbid Rosalina is also aspirational. Despite her fatigue, she’s still showing up – and getting the job done better than any of her opponents. “When she's called to action, she just reacts like, ‘OK, must I, sure, do I have to?’,” Nava says. “But then, when she's on the battlefield, she’s really super powerful. She’s brave. And she’s a fighter.”
Rosalina’s signature weapon is a Kaboomer – a plush toy, which fires like a Star Wars blaster once she pulls the cord. And her signature technique, a kind of ultimate, brilliantly weaponizes boredom. “It’s called the Ennui,” Nava says. “She’s capable of boring the enemies so much that they fall into a sort of stasis, a kind of sleep. And so they cannot move, they cannot attack, they cannot use their techniques. It’s very powerful.”
As Ennui is triggered, Rosalina opens a big old book right in the middle of the battlefield, and declares: “nnnnnnaptime!”. Then she starts to read. In another cutscene moment, she sits in front of a stack of tomes, a whole library loan allowance worth of reading. She looks for all the world as if she’s cramming for an essay – blowing into her cheeks, then releasing the air as an audible ‘eurgh’, before letting her head tip into her hand. Though an excitable Nintendo score plays, you get the distinct sense Rosalina would prefer lofi hip hop beats to relax/study to.
The scene is a spoof of sorts – referencing the original Rosalina, who Super Mario Galaxy players will remember reading from her storybook in the Comet Observatory’s library. Creative director Davide Soliani says that Rabbid Rosalina is “really different from her role model”, but she’s not the only element that links the new Mario + Rabbids back to Galaxy.
There are the Sparks themselves, which resemble the star-like Lumas who once assisted Mario on his adventures. And then there’s the host of varied worlds that make up this new game’s interplanetary playspace: Santorini-style Greek islands, strange coral cliff faces, blizzard-blasted mountaintops, and autumnal forests home to giant spongy pumpkins.
The new scale is reflected by the appointment of not one, but three composers. Soliani’s “dear friend” Grant Kirkhope, best known for Banjo-Kazooie, returns to infuse Sparks of Hope with his trademark cartoon vigor. But he’s now joined by Ori and Halo Infinite’s Gareth Coker, as well as Yoko Shimomura, whose Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy 15 themes have been played by orchestras all over the world. “We have so many landscapes in this new game,” Nava says. “Many planets. So we really like to experiment with different musical flavors.”
The supergroup vibe extends to Mario’s own crew of nine fighters, which includes a hero even more unlikely than Rosalina: Bowser himself. Cursa has corrupted his army of “weak-minded imbeciles” – his words – and left him with little choice but to pool resources with a habitual enemy and love rival. It’s a premise that takes me back to Baldur’s Gate 2, which incorporated the previous game’s villain, Sarevok, and in the process rebuilt him as a complex companion character.
“We still felt our lineup was incomplete without a heavy hitter,” Soliani says, and he’s not overstating Bowser’s role – the former scourge of the Mushroom Kingdom wields a rocket launcher on the battlefield, enveloping Bad Rabbids in flame. “We wanted to go crazy with the combat system, beyond what you usually see in the turn-based genre,” the creative director says. “For instance, there is no grid on the battlefield, so you can directly control your heroes in real-time during your turn.”
The latter change has been a continuous challenge for Ubisoft’s Milan and Paris teams during development. “We did many, many, many prototypes to nail the perfect real-time movement, which we badly wanted, because we wanted the player to feel free on the battlefield, finding the perfect spot to attack or to unleash their powerful techniques or the Sparks’ powers,” Nava says. “We wanted to make things easier, not more complicated.”
For a while, the teams weren’t sure they could pull it off. “Now I’m confident it’s working, and it brings so much dynamism to the battlefield, and allows for so many possibilities: strategic ones, tactical ones, creation of combos and synergies between the heroes,” Nava says. “It’s really an improvement towards making the genre appealing to an even wider audience.”
Of course, however appealing the prospect of battle in Mario + Rabbids becomes, it’ll never show on Rabbid Rosalina’s face. But the fact she’s still turning up to fight says plenty.
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Jeremy is TRG's features editor. He has a decade’s experience across publications like GamesRadar, PC Gamer and Edge, and has been nominated for two games media awards. Jeremy was once told off by the director of Dishonored 2 for not having played Dishonored 2, an error he has since corrected.