Shigeru Miyamoto is the world’s most prolific video game designer. It’s not hard to see why, since he has served as creator and/or producer of many of the world’s most popular games: Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Star Fox, Mole Mania…
Wait, what was that last one?
Yes, even Shigeru Miyamoto has made a few games that have gone under the radar, perhaps none more so than Mole Mania. That’s a crying shame, because this 1997 puzzler remains one of the Game Boy’s best titles.
In many ways, Mole Mania works like a simplified Legend of Zelda. If you were to remove Zelda’s overworld, and just stick with the dungeons, doubling down on their puzzle elements, you have a pretty good idea at what Mole Mania is.
Player’s take control of Muddy Mole, who is out to rescue his family after they’ve been kidnapped by a wicked farmer named Jimbe, who’s angry at the moles for eating his cabbages. Each of Muddy’s seven children are being held hostage by Jinbe’s henchmen (the game’s bosses), while Jimbe himself is holding Muddy’s wife.
The game is spread out between eight worlds, though after the first world is completed, levels 2 through 7 can be completed in any order the player chooses (they can even leave a stage for a while and work on another, if they get too stumped). This allows players to go through most of the game at their own pace, which seemed like an idea ahead of Mole Mania’s time.
Each level is comprised of multiple rooms which, like Zelda’s dungeons, need to have their puzzles solved in order to move on. The goal is to get an iron ball to break the wall blocking the exit of each room. Muddy can push and pull the giant marble, as well as throw it forward and back. This may sound simple enough, but Mole Mania finds various ways to turn this simple setup into a complex series of puzzles.
The biggest twist is that Muddy Mole has to navigate each room both above and under ground. Muddy can dig his own holes in the ground, and most rooms also contain holes of their own. Things get tricky though, because if the marble falls into a hole, it goes back to its starting position. You can’t fill in holes, but exiting a room and going back restores it to its default state. Additionally, 20 cabbages can be found on each stage, which must be thrown (or pushed, or pulled) into a hole to be collected, adding a little extra challenge for completionists.
The ways in which Mole Mania continues to change up its simple setup throughout the game is as impressive as it is fun, seemingly never running out of ideas with its concept. There are pipes that the iron marble can travel through to change paths, enemies that may stop the ball in its tracks, blocks that Muddy can push but are too heavy to pull. Mole Mania is always changing up its formula, making for a consistently fun experience.
This creativity even extends to the boss fights, albeit not to the same degree. The boss fights are all pretty simple, but find creative twists on the gameplay as Muddy finds new ways to smack them with the iron marble, or use the environment to their disadvantage.
There are a few technical issues with the game, due to the limitations of the Game Boy. Namely, having to hold the same button to throw a marble as you do to pull it can get a bit cumbersome in later stages (if you hold still for even a second when gripping the marble, Muddy prepares to throw it). You may find yourself doing one action when trying to do the other, since both of the actions are mapped to the same button.
Some players may also find the fluctuating difficulty somewhat off-putting. Although the first few stages do a good job at becoming progressively more difficult, some of the later stages seem to crank the challenge up and down on a whim, with some of them going from a notably easy room directly into an exceptionally hard one.
These aren’t major complaints, mind you. On the whole, Mole Mania remains a delightful game, one whose puzzles can be genuinely head-scratching at times. And on top of the engaging gameplay, Mole Mania features fun musical tracks that – as is expected of a Nintendo score – end up being wildly infectious. Although Mole Mania never received a Game Boy Color update like many other Game Boy titles, the sprites are detailed enough that it still holds up decently well from a visual standpoint.
Who knows why Mole Mania didn’t join the pantheon of beloved Miyamoto franchises. Maybe it had to do with the timing of its release (after the Game Boy’s initial boom but before Pokemon gave the handheld a second life)? Maybe gamers weren’t enamored with the simple prospect of a Mole fighting a farmer when compared to Miyamoto’s usual fantasy fare? Whatever the case, Mole Mania deserved better. It boasts the same ‘pure gaming’ pleasures as Miyamoto’s more well-known titles, and had all the makings of another Nintendo mainstay. Even if it didn’t become a long-standing Nintendo franchise, Mole Mania remains an enduring cult classic, and one of the few titles to come out of the original Game Boy that holds up incredibly well today.
Now, how about Muddy Mole for Super Smash Bros?