Before Satoshi Tajiri created a little game called Pokemon, he worked on various other Nintendo games, including Mario spinoffs. Perhaps the strangest game Satoshi Tajiri worked on – and one of the strangest Mario games at that – is Mario & Wario, a puzzle title that was released on the Super Famicom in 1993, but never saw an international release.
Adding to the game’s obscurity is the fact that it is controlled with the SNES mouse, a peripheral so seldom used that many still believe Mario Paint was the only title to utilize it. Despite the game’s title, the player doesn’t control Mario directly in Mario & Wario. You see, the game revolves around the utterly bonkers premise of Wario blinding Mario by – and I kid you not – throwing a bucket on his head (from an airplane, no less). The player then controls a fairy named Wanda, moving her around like the cursor of a computer, and clicking on certain areas to create blocks and platforms for Mario to walk across, or to click on Mario himself to change his direction, with the goal of each stage being to avoid danger and reach Luigi within a time limit, with Luigi then removing the bucket from Mario’s head.
Basically, it’s like the Mario version of Lemmings, but even more bizarre given the setup. Of course, the object on Mario’s head isn’t always a bucket (the item changes depending on which world is currently being played), and in fact it isn’t always Mario that Wanda has to guide to safety (the player can also select Princess Peach and Yoshi, with the former moving slower than Mario and being easy for beginners, while the latter moves the fastest and is essentially hard mode). So the title of ‘Mario & Wario’ isn’t quite accurate.
The game provides eight worlds from the start, which can be selected in any order, Mega Man style, though it probably is still best if first-time players stick to doing them in order, as each subsequent world provides its own twists to the formula, and World 1 is essentially the tutorial (which is a bit disappointing. I feel a tutorial should be its own separate thing). World 9 is unlocked supposedly after completion of all eight others (though in my second playthrough, I played the later worlds first and World 9 became available early. I don’t know if that’s supposed to happen or my earlier playthrough unlocked that option). After World 9, the player will move on to the tenth and final World, which will throw everything at the player.
As stated, each world provides new challenges, like timed blocks (which will turn into solid platforms for only a limited time), ice which makes Mario & company slip and slide, slime that slows them down, and enemies that may throw projectiles at the Mushroom Kingdom heroes. The way in which each world changes up the gameplay and continuously adds new elements keeps the game fresh and is true to the spirit of the Mario franchise. Though there are some stages that get a tad cumbersome, like when they’ll place multiple vertical-moving enemies/obstacles close together, leaving the player to repeatedly click on Mario in between said objects to continuously change his direction since you can’t make him stop outright. Things like that feel more like a test of patience than puzzle-solving.
Each world consists of ten stages, and a final showdown with Wario. Unfortunately, these ‘showdowns’ are probably the biggest disappointments in the game. They aren’t actual boss fights, because Wario can’t damage you or anything. He just flies back and forth across the screen in his airplane, and the player simply has to keep clicking on him for Wanda to damage his plane and earn coins. And they’re all like this, there’s no variety in them. With all the varied elements that get thrown into the stages, it would have been nice if the developers had implemented an array of legitimate boss fights at the end of each world.
If you’re wondering what the coins are for, they actually play the same role as in most Mario games, with every 100 coins granting an additional life. Coins can also be found in Coin Blocks, which Wanda needs to click on this time around, since Mario’s obscured vision apparently also prevents him from jumping. The player can gain also gain more lives by guiding Mario (or Peach, or Yoshi) into collecting the four stars scattered across each stage, or by picking up the rare one-up mushroom. You can also add more time on the clock by collecting an equally infrequent super mushroom (this has to be the only instance in the history of the franchise in which stars are a far more common collectible than mushrooms).
This is unfortunately another letdown with the game. In the eight standard worlds, the player can restart from the same stage in the same world even after a game over, leaving you to wonder what importance the extra lives actually have. Well, it’s important to hold onto those extra lives until the endgame, because if you get a game over at any point in world 9 or 10, you have to start back from the beginning of world 9.
Unfortunately, this can become pretty darn tedious. Mega Man does something similar, with the player needing to start over from the beginning of Dr. Wily’s castle should they get a game over after the eight standard stages have been completed. But there it’s more understandable because it’s an action game. It’s like, okay, you beat me this time, but now I’m going to pick myself up and dust myself off for the rematch. But here in a puzzle game, it’s kind of annoying. As if you were taking a quiz, got every answer correct except the last one, and then needed to go back and redo the questions you already got right just for another chance at the one you got wrong. I can’t help but feel that maybe this game didn’t need a lives system, and it would have been best had collecting the stars unlocked secret levels or something.
Still, even with the game’s simplicity and its drawbacks, it’s still a lot of fun. The puzzle designs are clever, the graphics are crips and colorful, the music is fun, the gameplay is always changing things up, and the sheer absurdity of the concept itself is charming. Despite all of the game’s text being in English, Mario & Wario was never officially released outside of Japan. But if you have a Super Famicom, Mario & Wario isn’t too pricey or hard to find, and probably worth a look. It may not be one of Mario’s finest adventures, but he’s certainly never had another one quite like it.