Mario & Wario Review

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.

 

6

Luigi’s Mansion Review

Nintendo was in an interesting place in 2001. Though the Nintendo 64 helped revolutionize gaming (namely due to Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), its sales numbers paled in comparison to the Sony Playstation. And with the Playstation 2 releasing in 2000, it’s safe to say that the GameCube was in a hurry to get out the door as soon as possible. As such, this meant that the GameCube’s signature Mario game, Super Mario Sunshine, would miss the console’s launch, marking the first time Mario wasn’t present to cut the ribbon on the dawning of a new Nintendo console.

To fill that void, however, Nintendo had a separate game set within the Mario universe to make the GameCube’s launch. But it ended up being quite different from any other game set in the world of the Mushroom Kingdom. The game in question was Luigi’s Mansion, a kind of spoof on the survival-horror genre that marked the first official game in which Luigi received the starring role (wiseacres are quick to point out the existence of Mario is Missing from years earlier, but that title was an edutainment game that wasn’t developed by Nintendo, so it doesn’t count). Although Luigi’s Mansion never boasted the depth of Mario’s adventures, Luigi’s first proper solo outing nonetheless provided enough unique ideas and personality that it retains a charm of its own.

The initial concept for what would later become Luigi’s Mansion at first starred the more famous Mario brother, with the idea being to place Mario in a singular indoor setting. Originally conceived as a Japanese-style castle, the setting eventually became an American-style haunted house. With the change in setting, Nintendo decided to promote Luigi to be the star of the game for one very simple reason: Mario was known for being brave and adventurous, but now was the time to showcase Luigi’s personality, whose constance presence in his brother’s shadow made him easy fodder for a ‘reluctant hero’ character.

Though audiences saw glimpses of distinct personalities between the Mario Bros. through their television series and books, there was never any official, concrete characterizations between Mario and Luigi by Nintendo themselves in the formative years for the video game series. If Mario was the brave hero who would leap into action at the first chance, then it just made sense that Luigi would be the series’ ‘Cowardly Lion,’ as he shares a similar heroic spirit as his brother, but it’s buried far, far deeper. So it was a natural fit to have Luigi be the one to traverse a haunted mansion, facing his many fears as he tries to rescue Mario.

Luigi’s Mansion might be the first Nintendo game to be centered around one of their character’s personalities, and it remains one of their most successful attempts (the less said of Metroid: Other M, the better). Nintendo’s critics often deride the developer for a supposed “lack of character,” but that’s a gross misconception. While it’s true Nintendo rarely prioritizes actual storytelling and their characters tend to not have complex backstories (probably for the better. I again refer you to Other M), many of their characters are bursting with personality in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Popeye the Sailor Man. Luigi’s Mansion is a fine example of this. Between Luigi’s constantly chattering teeth (which kind of makes him look like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit), shaky knees, and nervous humming of the game’s catchy theme tune, Luigi’s Mansion showcases its lead character’s personality – while simple and exaggerated – to be thoroughly entertaining.

It simply wouldn’t have been as good if it were Mario braving the haunted halls of its mansion. The game and its lead character both benefit one another in such a way that you wish more of the story-focused games of today would attempt to replicate that connection, as to avoid the common pitfall of gameplay conflicting with narratives and character motivation.

Even with Luigi’s personality leading the charge, gameplay is still at the forefront of Nintendo’s designs. And although it shows its age in certain areas, for the most part, Luigi’s Mansion remains a uniquely fun and charming game even today.

As mentioned, the game is all about Luigi trying to save Mario, who has gone missing in the new mansion Luigi supposedly won in a contest he never even entered (red flag there, Luigi). The mansion is, of course, littered with ghosts. Luckily for Luigi, Professor E. Gadd – a lifetime researcher of ghosts – has been studying the mansion, and gives Luigi his ghost-catching vacuum, the Poltergust 3000.

Yes, the gameplay is more reminiscent of the 1984 Ghostbusters film than it is any of its Mario series predecessors (Luigi can’t even jump in the game). Equipped with only the Poltergust and a flashlight, Luigi traverses the mansion fighting ghosts. The flashlight will stun ghosts, exposing their heart, which allows Luigi to suck them up into the Poltergust.

One of the most fun things about Luigi’s Mansion is the act of catching ghosts itself. The player of course moves Luigi with the standard joystick. But Luigi aims the Poltergust and flashlight with the GameCube controller’s ‘C-stick.’ If a ghost caught in the Poltergust’s whirlwind changes direction, the player will have to accommodate and pull the direction opposite to that which the ghost is heading, occasionally cutting some slack so Luigi can avoid a potential hazard in his way as the ghost pulls him along the ground. Essentially, it’s like an elaborate fishing game used as a combat mechanic.

It’s simple fun with the standard enemies, but the real treat comes in the form of the “Portrait Ghosts;” unique mini-boss-like specters whom the mansion’s many chambers are built around. Each Portrait Ghost has different tells and weaknesses, and can provide real tests of endurance for the player.

The Portrait Ghosts are memorable not just for how each one provides their own little puzzle for the player to solve, but also in their personalities and design. Most of the Portrait Ghosts are more humanoid than what we usually see in the Mario universe (keep in mind this was sixteen years before Odyssey brought realistic-looking humans into the fold), and although it would be difficult to call the game truly scary, the Portrait Ghosts’ appearances do make the game feel appropriately spooky and (relatively) darker than the usual Mario title. The mansion itself could be considered a character in its own right, given its strong sense of place.

It may not match the combination of cartoony characters with a dark and dreary atmosphere of Donkey Kong Country 2, but Luigi’s Mansion is probably the only other game I can think of that warrants a comparison in that regard. Luigi’s Mansion’s eventual 3DS sequel, though arguably an improvement in certain respects, lacks the original’s sense of atmosphere and character.

Luigi’s Mansion could be described as a “Diet Metroidvania,” with Luigi gaining access to more chambers of the mansion as he continues to capture Portrait Ghosts. Though perhaps one of the game’s drawbacks is that it could have taken an extra page from the Metroidvania sub-genre and had Luigi (or the Poltergust, as it were) gain new abilities to access more of the mansion, instead of it merely being a case of defeating sub-bosses for keys. The Poltergust does gain the ability to emit fire, water and ice, but they unfortunately never get utilized in any substantial way.

Another fun aspect of Luigi’s Mansion is finding the many treasures hidden throughout the titular abode. While Mario is always grabbing coins, here, Luigi is on a quest for coins, pearls, dollar bills, gemstones and diamonds. Though gaining these riches does little more than effect your score at the end of the game, it still proves to be a fun diversion to see how much treasure you can collect.

The biggest complaint most people seem to have with Luigi’s Mansion is its short length. If you know what you’re doing, the game can be completed in about the time it takes to watch a movie. Luigi’s Mansion could have done with just a couple more hours of gameplay, as some of its ideas don’t meet their full potential with the little time they’re allowed to have. On the plus side, I suppose the game’s brief time makes it one of the few titles in the medium that can be seen as a holiday tradition with annual playthroughs (Halloween in this instance, obviously).

Luigi’s Mansion was one of the earlier Nintendo titles to feature a New Game Plus mode after completing the campaign. Unfortunately in both its Japanese and US release, the differences between the main game and New Game Plus are little more than some stronger enemies and a weaker Luigi. The PAL version of the game (released well after the other versions) rectified this somewhat by making the post-game version of the mansion mirrored and changing the locations of certain treasures, but even that only goes so far. So unless you missed out on some treasures, or just really want to beat your high score, there’s not a whole lot of reason to play through the “Hidden Mansion” mode.

The short running time of the campaign is unfortunate, but it’s not the game’s biggest issue. Though the GameCube has aged better than the Nintendo 64 on the whole, it’s earlier titles still suffer a bit from the same kind of technical hiccups that plagued its 64-bit predecessor. And Luigi’s Mansion is no exception.

Some of the controls feel a little clunky, particularly in regards to handling the flashlight in conjunction with everything else. The flashlight is turned on by default, and pressing the B button turns it off. You turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust with the C-stick, and you suck up ghosts with a press of the R button. And while the flashlight stuns the ghosts, you have to stun them at the opportune time, or else they’ll disappear. It can feel a bit awkward to turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust while holding the B button to keep the light off and then release it to turn the light on when the time is right, especially in rooms with multiple ghosts.

Along with the standard enemies and the Portrait Ghosts, the Mario series’ classic ‘Boo’ enemies show up as the primary baddies. While seeing these secondary foes get a promotion in the same vein as Luigi is nice, there are some issues with the Boos’ presence in Luigi’s Mansion. The game features fifty Boos hidden throughout the mansion. But unlike the other ghosts in the game, Boos ignore the aforementioned “fishing” aspects of the catching process, with Luigi simply focusing the vortex of the Poltergust on Boos to drain their hit points.

That may not sound too bad, and at first it isn’t when the Boos have less hit points. But once you you realize Boos can travel from room to room, and they start getting more hit points, thus giving them more opportunities to do so, it gets a bit tedious chasing a Boo from one room to another, and downright frustrating when they exit a room to go into the hallway and back again repeatedly. It’s also a bit disappointing that, despite the game claiming there are 50 Boos in the mansion to be captured, there are technically only 35, since 15 of them are automatically captured as part of a single boss fight.

Another note Luigi’s Mansion should have taken from Metroidvanias is the implementation of fast-traveling. The game can only be saved by talking to Toads (who are perhaps a bit too far spread out from one another), or after catching a Boo. While the Toads save your game, they don’t act as checkpoints. Every time you reload your game, or defeat a boss, or die, you start back at the foyer of the mansion. Although you can return to the foyer by scanning mirrors, there’s no means to fast-travel anywhere else in the mansion. As you might imagine, backtracking to different sections of the mansion can quickly feel arduous.

Though these aspect do show that the game has aged a bit, the core gameplay, along with its undeniable sense of character, have helped Luigi’s Mansion remain a fun and delightful experience nearly two decades later. It is perhaps the perfect launch game the GameCube could have hoped for (if maybe not the one it sorely needed), as Luigi’s Mansion echoes the console itself in many ways. The GameCube may not have been the success story Nintendo was hoping for in the Playstation dominated market of the time, nor is it one of Nintendo’s more iconic or innovative consoles. But it has a unique appeal of its own, a small-scale charm that’s aberrant  among Nintendo systems.

Just the same, Luigi’s Mansion – though far, far away from being one of the best games set in the Super Mario universe – remains a unique and appealing offshoot of Nintendo’s flagship franchise. We may not have realized it in 2001, but in hindsight, Luigi’s Mansion seems to have encompassed the GameCube’s place in Nintendo’s history right out of the gate.

 

7

Wario: Master of Disguise Review

The mid-to-late 2000s saw a new boom period for Nintendo, thanks to the successes of the Wii and the Nintendo DS, which introduced new innovations to gameplay and brought a much broader appeal to the video game world. The downside to this, however, is that these new gameplay ideas – like the Wii’s motion controls and the DS touchscreen – took some time for some developers to get the hang of. As odd as it may sound in retrospect, considering it became Nintendo’s best-selling system of all-time, the Nintendo DS had a particularly rough start, with its first few months on the market being starved of a title that justified its touch-based bottom screen.

As history tells us, the Nintendo DS did eventually find its groove and held onto its momentum. But even after the DS became a success story, there was still the occasional title that harkened back to those early days of the handheld, with games that stumbled trying to understand the hardware.

Sadly, such was the case with Wario: Master of Disguise. Despite being released in 2007, Master of Disguise felt more akin to one of the rougher DS launch games than it did one of the system’s gems post-Kirby Canvas Curse.

The 2000s were very kind to Wario. Along with some well-received Wario Land sequels, the anti-Mario found a newfound success during this time through the introduction of the WarioWare series. Though Wario Land was on a break during 2007, Master of Disguise looked to fill in the gap with a new Wario platformer. Whether it was planned to be a follow-up to Wario Land or a third cog in the Wario machine, Master of Disguise unfortunately failed to live up to either. Though not an all-out bad effort, Master of Disguise was just plagued by too many rough edges for it to live up to Wario’s legacy.

Similar to the Wario Land series, Wario: Master of Disguise sees the mustachioed villain don different forms in order to access different locations of the game’s various levels. Unlike Wario Land, however, Wario doesn’t gain these forms via enemy attacks or power-ups, but by the player drawing different symbols to switch Wario into one of his many disguises.

Wario’s default form is “Thief Wario” which allows him to jump higher than the other forms. There’s also “Genius Wario,” which allows our anti-Mario to see invisible objects. “Cosmic Wario” can shoot enemies with a laser gun. “Arty Wario” can draw large blocks that serve as platforms and can be used to press buttons that Wario can’t reach. And so on and so forth.

I like the idea of a platformer that has what are essentially permanent power-ups that can be switch to at any time. The problem with Wario: Master of Disguise’s costumes is in its execution. The earlier disguises use simple enough shapes to draw, like circles and checkmarks, but the later disguises are a little trickier. It’s not that the symbols themselves are particularly complex, but they often require pinpoint accuracy and precision in order for the game to recognize them. This is made all the trickier when you consider that you have to draw these symbols directly on top of Wario, as the rest of the screen is used to perform each disguise’s special ability with the touch controls.

What of the DS’s buttons? They’re used to move Wario around, same as the D-Pad. As you could probably guess, it feels a bit awkward, especially since jumping is performed by pressing up on the D-Pad (or X, the top button of the DS’s face buttons), which only ever feels clunky in anything but fighting games.

It just doesn’t make much sense. You have all these buttons, but all they do is move Wario, which the D-Pad already does. I can understand some of the disguise abilities being used with the touch screen (such as Arty Wario’s ability), but the game would have flowed a lot smoother if just some of Wario’s moves were mapped to the buttons. In case you’re wondering, yes, even Wario’s traditional charge attack is performed by tapping the touchscreen (while in Thief Wario form).

I have to repeat that, between the small amount of available space to draw the symbols, and how unresponsive the touch controls can be, it all becomes a bit of a mess. You’ll perform abilities when you’re trying to change costumes, switch to a disguise different from the one you wanted, or just fail to do anything. A few of the abilities – or just switching costumes – utilizing touch controls would be fine, but Wario: Master of Disguise is far too reliant on them. And seeing as they aren’t all that refined, the touch controls become all the more troublesome.

Wario: Master of Disguise faces other unfortunate problems as well. Though  previous levels can be replayed after gaining new disguises, thus opening up more areas of said completed stages, the level design is so convoluted you may not be too enticed to do the backtracking. While each level can provide some fun platforming, and even feature their own distinct goals, the layout of the stages is often cryptic and confusing. It can get so bad that I found myself stuck for over an hour and a half on some levels, just because it was so vague as to what I was supposed to be doing.

The ultimate goal of the game is to claim treasures hidden in chests throughout the stages. Unfortunately, even that simple premise is made more complicated than it needs to be. Every time the player opens a treasure chest (by, you guessed it, tapping the touchscreen), they are thrown into a touch screen-based mini-game. These aren’t the fun and creative mini-games of WarioWare, either. Instead, you get generic mini-games that you could have played in any of the DS’s launch titles, such as panel flipping and line tracing. Should you lose the mini-game, the treasure chest threatens to damage Wario with bombs. But after the bombs explode, you can just try again anyway, so what’s the point of having the penalty at all?

Another issue with Master of Disguise – as odd as it sounds – is its story. Now, this is a Wario game, so of course the story is ludicrous nonsense. That would be par for the course on its own, but the game just spends way, way too much time with the story.

Basically, Wario is watching TV and sees a show about a master thief named Count Cannoli. Knowing he could do the thief’s job better, Wario builds a helmet that allows him to travel into the TV show, in order to show the thief how it’s done (raising the question as to why Wario doesn’t just patent his miracle technology to earn a fortune). Wario ends up stealing the thief’s magic wand (which allows Wario to transform into his various disguises), and both Wario and Count Cannoli engage in a competition to retrieve pieces of a “Wishstone” that, when completed, will grant them a wish.

Normally, I’d be fine with Wario having such an insane story as traveling inside a TV show and altering that show’s ‘reality.’ But again, Master of Disguise, perhaps more so than any other Wario game, emphasizes this story. Not only does this mean barrages of overly-lengthy, flow-breaking text bombard the player at almost every turn, but what should be a delightfully weird plot just ends up raising confusing questions. If this wishing stone exists within the TV show, would a potential wish made by Wario only become reality within the TV show? Or would it affect Wario in his reality as well? I know I shouldn’t be overthinking the plot in a Wario game, but with how much emphasis Master of Disguise gives its plot, and the aforementioned quirks in gameplay preventing it from distracting from said plot, it gets kind of head-scratching.

Wario: Master of Disguise has some merit. The concept of switching between permanent power-ups is a nice change of pace for platformers, and it’s kind of surprising Nintendo hasn’t revisited the idea. And the music is surprisingly good. But the insistence of the touch screen controls, which aren’t even reliable, really hinders the game. As does its convoluted level design and flow-breaking storyline.

Thankfully, 2007 also saw the release of WarioWare: Smooth Moves on Wii, with the next year also seeing Wario Land: Shake It! arrive on the same platform, so Wario still had his tried-and-true series to rely on and recover. But Wario: Master of Disguise is so mishandled in execution it may rank as the weakest outing from Nintendo’s garlic-munching anti-Mario to date.

 

3

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch) Review

The Legend of Zelda is arguably the most beloved video game series of all time, and few of its entries are as cherished as Link’s Awakening. Though it was the fourth installment in The Legend of Zelda, it was the first to be released on a handheld console. One of the main reasons Link’s Awakening built such a strong reputation for itself was due to it retaining the series’ sense of depth and exploration, despite being released on the original Gameboy in 1993.

Keep in mind this was still a time when a series being translated to a handheld system meant the compromise of its quality (even Mario didn’t quite feel like Mario on the Gameboy). So the fact that Link’s Awakening still very much felt like The Legend of Zelda was a stunning achievement in itself in 1993.

“Bonus points for the hand-drawn, anime cutscenes.”

Link’s Awakening started development as a port of the Super NES classic, A Link to the Past, released one year prior. But somewhere along the line, it became its own beast. Though it couldn’t quite reach the same heights as its SNES predecessor, Link’s Awakening still managed to capture a good deal of its magic, and has certainly held up better than the NES Zelda titles. The title proved so popular that when Nintendo released the GameBoy Color in the late 90s, one of its biggest selling points was a re-release of Link’s Awakening in 1998.

Now, twenty-one years after its GameBoy Color release, Link’s Awakening has been remade from the ground up for the Nintendo Switch, in what is undoubtedly the definitive version of the beloved title.

It’s a match made in heaven, really. Link’s Awakening played a pivotal role in Nintendo’s earlier years in handheld gaming, being one of the few games on the original GameBoy that most would agree felt as big as a home console title. And with the Nintendo Switch being a hybrid of a home console and a handheld, few Nintendo classics would be so fitting for a Switch remake.

2019’s Link’s Awakening is a beautiful recreation of the 1993 GameBoy classic. Taking on a toy aesthetic, this Switch version features character models that resemble Gashapon figures, and environments that look like dioramas. The art direction is oozing with charm, making it baffling how some sections of the Zelda fandom cried foul when the visuals were first revealed (you’d think Zelda fans would have learned their lesson by this point). The art style, combined with the HD sheen of the Nintendo Switch, make Link’s Awakening look right at home in 2019. There are admittedly a few frame rate drops here and there, but nothing too bad.

“Oh no not the bees! AAAAHHHH! They’re in my eyes! They’re in my eyes! AAHHH!”

On the gameplay side of things, Link’s Awakening on Switch features the same timeless gameplay to be expected from 2D Zelda titles post-A Link to the Past. Link is every bit as fun to control as ever. But there are even a few modernized improvements made to Link’s Awakening where needed, the most prominent of which being that Link’s sword, shield and upgrades are permanently equipped once gained. This is something of a godsend, as the limitations of the original GameBoy’s hardware meant players had to constantly be switching out Link’s items and abilities. But with the Switch’s extra buttons, Link is easily able to keep hold of his standard items and abilities, as well as equip two ‘special items’ gained from dungeons at any given time.

Perhaps the only questionable decision with this modernization is that the Roc’s Feather item, which allows Link to jump, isn’t among the permanent abilities, and still has to be equipped like the other special items. This is questionable because, with how fundamentally useful the ability to jump is, you’ll almost always have Roc’s Feather taking up one of your two item slots. The Pegasus Boots – which allow Link to dash at great speed – become automatically linked to a specific button without needing to be equipped. Roc’s Feather probably could have used the same treatment, seeing as I found myself with it equipped for almost my entire playthrough.

“All the monsters say I’m pretty fly, for a Slime Eye!”

Other changes made to the game include more collectibles to give the side quests some extra heft. The total Heart Pieces to be found in the game has increased from the mere twelve found in the original GameBoy version to thirty-two, while the Secret Seashells have gone from twenty-six to a whomping fifty that can be collected. Though simple, searching for the Heart Pieces and Seashells prove to be fun diversions to the main quest.

Perhaps the biggest brand new addition to Link’s Awakening is the inclusion of a dungeon editor. Before you get too excited, it has to be said that the dungeon editor is incredibly limited.

“Most of your edited dungeons follow a preset layout, but eventually you can unlock the ability to piece them together with more freedom.”

By visiting Dampé, players can edit their own dungeons by utilizing chambers collected from the dungeons the player has completed throughout the game (the main quest retains its eight dungeons, and the optional “Color Dungeon” from the GameBoy Color release makes a return). On the plus side, putting a dungeon together from pre-existing rooms and making it all make sense has a fun puzzle element to it. On the downside, the player doesn’t have the ability to edit anything about the chambers themselves. The player can’t place doors, decide what enemies to litter about or what walls can be destroyed with bombs, or even choose what rewards await in treasure chests (if your dungeon ends up having a certain number of locked doors, the chests will at first provide the number of keys required to unlock them all, then have a random amount of Rupees, with the final chest opened always containing the boss key).

Again, the dungeon editor can be fun in its own right, but don’t get your hopes up that it’s the Zelda equivalent of Super Mario Maker (though here’s hoping its presence is something of a test run for just that).

“Dude, I forgot this game had a walrus in it! 10/10.”

Aside from being a standout game on a handheld platform in the early 90s, another reason Link’s Awakening holds such a fond place for many is that it’s quite possibly the weirdest Zelda title. Taking inspiration from Twin Peaks, Link’s Awakening sees Link stranded on Koholint Island, where he must collect the eight Instruments of the Sirens in order to awaken “The Wind Fish” (who is actually a whale) – the island’s deity – who is in a deep slumber inside of an egg on top of a mountain (as whales do), if he ever wants to escape the island.

Not only is the story delightfully weird (and being one of the earliest games in the series, it’s also refreshingly absent of that convoluted “Zelda timeline” nonsense), but Link’s Awakening is also a ‘weird’ entry in that it features many elements from the Super Mario series (as well as a Kirby cameo).

“He does exist!”

While Mario and Zelda have always referenced each other – seeing as they’re the two series most strongly associated with the Nintendo name, and both originally spawned from Shigeru Miyamoto’s mind – Link’s Awakening took things to another level by directly featuring enemies and characters from the Mushroom Kingdom and a profuse amount of side-scrolling sections that pay homage to Mario’s early adventures. Many fans were worried that – much like the Superstar Saga remake on 3DS was absent of a certain cameo found in its original GameBoy Advance version – that the Mario elements would be removed or downplayed in this Switch remake. Thankfully, not only are the Mario cameos and references in full force (complete with the first 3D appearance of Super Mario Bros. 2’s Wart), but Nintendo even doubled down on them with a new side quest focused on collecting Mario figurines. There’s just something about the Mario series that makes the presence of its characters add a little more fun to any game. 

Although the writing may not necessarily be anything to write home about, the Twin Peaks influence definitely shines through in some wacky dialogue and the overall strangeness of the adventure, an influence which I like to think has carried over to subsequent entries in the Zelda series, given its often bizarre characters. That weirdness started here, and perhaps (sadly) hasn’t been outdone by subsequent Zeldas.

“Hi there! Face here! Bur bur BUR!”

Now I have to make a confession, I was never the biggest fan of Link’s Awakening back in the day. It was certainly a considerable improvement over the NES Zelda games, and I loved that aforementioned weirdness of it all, but for one reason or another, it never quite clicked with me in the same way A Link to the Past and some later Zeldas did.

That’s all changed with this Switch remake, which has won me over to Link’s Awakening so strongly, that I would probably now rank it among my favorite Zelda games. The adventure is long and deep enough to feel rewarding, but short enough as to not overstay its welcome. To think that this game was originally a GameBoy title is somewhat baffling. Sure, it’s still on the “smaller” side of the Zelda series, but it was so big back in its own day that Link’s Awakening still feels like a meaty addition to any Switch library.

I’m not sure whether this remake has simply opened my eyes to Link’s Awakening’s full merits, or if its changes and additions have made the game that much better (again, that art style!). Maybe a bit of both.

Whatever the case, Link’s Awakening  on Switch is an ideal video game remake and, quite fittingly, something of a dream come true.

 

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Wario Land: Shake It! Review

Wario Land originally began life as a spinoff of Super Mario Land in 1994, but Nintendo would later re-invented the series with its second entry four years later in 1998. This Wario resurgence lasted for the next few years, culminating with Wario Land 4 on the GameBoy Advance in 2001. After that, the Wario Land series went on hiatus, and with the WarioWare franchise coming into prominence soon thereafter, it seemed like Wario Land was a thing of the past. But after seven years, Wario Land finally made a comeback – and on a home console for the very first time – in the form of Wario Land: Shake It! on the Wii. While Wario Land: Shake It! may seem like a more straightforward platformer than some of its predecessors, it hides a surprising level of depth for completionists, and hand-drawn visuals that make it all too easy to get sucked into.

Wario Land: Shake It! was developed by Good-Feel, the same studio who would later make Kirby’s Epic Yarn as well as Yoshi’s Woolly World and its sequel. But this was Good-Feel’s first instance of tackling a popular Nintendo franchise and giving it a unique visual overhaul. Naturally, you wouldn’t expect Wario to be as cute or charming as Kirby or Yoshi, but that doesn’t mean Wario Land: Shake It! is any less visually captivating than its more well-known Kirby and Yoshi counterparts.

Instead of being made of yarn or crafts, Wario’s adventure from Good-Feel uses entirely hand-drawn character sprites, courtesy of acclaimed anime studio Production I.G. And the results are quite stunning. Wario would probably be one of the last video game characters you’d think of when you think ‘anime,’ and yet, Wario Land: Shake It! is one of the best examples of an interactive anime. Wario’s every action is surprisingly detailed, and the enemies – though more simplistic than Wario – still boast fluid animation. It’s simply a great game to look at, an element that would become a hallmark of Good-Feel’s titles.

The story is, of course, simple stuff. A princess from the “Shake Dimension” has been kidnapped by the Shake King, and her loyal followers, the Mertles – weird bird creatures that remind me of the Flickies from Sonic 3D Blast -have been imprisoned. The Shake Dimension needs a savior…but they end up finding Wario instead. Wario is at first disinterested in saving the day, until an escaped Mertle informs Wario that he can keep the many treasures he comes across in the Shake Dimension, including the kingdom’s most priceless treasure, a bottomless coin sack that will generate money whenever shaken. Naturally, this gets Wario off his lazy butt to set out and be a “hero.”

In terms of gameplay, Wario Land: Shake It! at first appears to be a pretty straightforward platformer, but with a twist: after you make it to the end of a stage (a caged Mertle that can be freed by shaking said cage), Wario must race back to the start of the stage before time runs out, lest he lose his accumulated treasures.

Like in Wario Land 4, our mustachioed, garlic-obsessed anti-hero is no longer invincible as he was in Wario Lands 2 and 3. Though with that said, you’ll still likely rarely lose a life (during my play through for this review, I only ever actually died during the final boss). So the game may be easy from that perspective, but as Good-Feel would later implement in their future titles, the real challenge of Wario Land: Shake It! comes in the form of total completion. Each stage houses three unique treasures to be uncovered, as well as a series of challenges (which basically work like Xbox achievements or Playstation trophies), from three to five depending on the stage, that need to be completed in order to unlock that stage’s soundtrack, which is necessary for those seeking 100% completion. Some stages will even have some challenges that contradict each other, meaning you’ll have to repeat those stages in order to check off every challenge. Additionally, the game features a few hidden stages, unlocked upon finding hidden maps within the normal levels.

The downside to Wario no longer being invincible (aside from the obvious) is that the transformations of Wario Lands past have been greatly reduced. In Wario Lands 2 and 3, Wario’s invincibility was part of an elaborate joke, in which getting hurt by enemies gave Wario different “transformations” as opposed to taking damage. In Shake It!, only Wario’s fire and snow forms return (that is to say, Wario can catch fire or get trapped in a snowball to his advantage), but otherwise, Wario’s gameplay is more traditional than in some of his past ventures.

The irony in this scenario is that Good-Feel would later incorporate character invincibility in Kirby’s Epic Yarn. So Good-Feel’s entry in the Wario series is lacking one of its past trademarks, but the studio incorporated it into their Kirby installment two years later.

Still, Wario remains a fun character to control. He’s still his brutish self, so he can charge, throw and butt-stomp enemies into oblivion. And in the game’s signature addition to Wario’s repertoire is that he can now shake enemies and objects he’s holding (done by shaking the Wii remote). Enemies will often drop health-replenishing garlic, but some of them, as well as plenty of objects, will dish out coins by the dozens.

Unfortunately, despite the bountiful amounts of cash-money Wario is bound to come across, there’s only so many uses for it in Wario Land: Shake It! The gold can be seen as the equivalent to points, with players trying to best their “high score” with return visits to stages. But since Wario’s collected gold actually has practical use, it really stands out how few uses there are for it. After a world is completed, Wario can purchase access to the next world – as well as an additional hit point – from his former rival, Captain Syrup. If Good-Feel were going to include things to spend Wario’s stolen hard-earned loot on, you can’t help but feel there could have been better things to spend them on. It would have made more sense if the secret levels had to be purchased, and if there were additional abilities to unlock, instead of spending Wario’s gold on things that just feel like the natural progress of the game.

Players seeking a tougher challenge will probably skip buying the extra hearts anyway, and the fact that Wario has to purchase the next world in line instead of simply progressing to it just feels like a forced reason to have Wario spend his gold. At that point, Wario’s treasure may as well just be for a high score.

Still, while Wario’s abilities may have been trimmed down, and he may as well be holding his gold, I do ultimately feel that Wario Land: Shake It! has aged better than its predecessors. Its level design (and the optional challenges therein) get progressively more difficult and clever as the game goes on. And with the aforementioned mechanic of racing back to the start of the levels after rescuing its Mertle, Good-Feel finds various ways to incorporate unique puzzle elements into the stages (oftentimes the player will have to pay close attention to how Wario interacts with the environment on the way to a level’s ‘end,’ so that he has a quicker path back to the starting point). In regard to this level design, Wario Land: Shake It! remains a creative platformer over a decade later. And its striking, hand-drawn imagery still stands out. Shake It! may not last long for those simply rushing through the levels, but because of the depth of the game’s exploration due to its collectibles and objectives, it should have completionists salivating.

Sadly, after Shake It!, Wario Land entered its longest hiatus to date, which continues to this day. Maybe one day, Wario will find a convenient enough time for himself to go on another adventure. But at least Wario Land’s last ride (so far) was one that still holds up today, and still looks as stunning as ever.

 

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WarioWare Touched Review

*Review based on WarioWare Touched’s release on the Wii U Virtual Console*

WarioWare, Inc. Mega Microgames was one of Nintendo’s unsung classics of the 2000s. WarioWare stripped the very nature of video games down to their bare minimum, leaving its many microgames as a platform for Nintendo to test out myriads of gameplay ideas. The concept of WarioWare was perhaps more fruitful than Nintendo initially realized, with the series’ formula allowing them to push the innovations of their hardware.

2005 saw two such WarioWare sequels. One of them, released on the GameBoy Advance (home of the original title in the series), was WarioWare Twisted, which had a built-in “gyro-sensor” that allowed for motion controls. The other was WarioWare Touched on the Nintendo DS, which utilized the handheld’s touchscreen and microphone features.

Admittedly, Twisted has aged far more gracefully, with its gameplay features still feeling unique today. That’s not to say that Touched has aged poorly, but because its (pardon the pun) ‘twist’ was that it utilized features that were standard on the DS, it’s kind of lost some of its individuality over time. The later WarioWare Smooth Moves on the Wii would similarly use its platform’s capabilities, but I feel that Smooth Moves managed to do so with considerably more creativity. Smooth Moves brought out the best it could from the Wii’s features, whereas Touched feels more like it’s falling in line with its platform’s standard.

Again, that’s not to say that WarioWare Touched is a bad game by any means. It is WarioWare, after all. And if it doesn’t leave you with some kind of goofy grin on your face at one point or another, you may be dead inside. The issue is simply that Touched is the one entry in the WarioWare series that no longer stands out.

The basics of the series remain intact in WarioWare Touched: Players face gauntlets of seconds-long microgames, with each character in the game boasting their own such series of games. You only get four chances to slip-up before a game over, and the microgames pick up in speed after you have conquered a number of them (the tougher gauntlets naturally increase speed much sooner than the earlier challenges).

The difference here, of course, is that along with button presses, the microgames of Touched are mostly played with the touchscreen controls of the Nintendo DS (or Wii U Gamepad, if you’re playing the Virtual Console release), and some of the latter microgames even utilize the mic on the system for some delightful gameplay quirks.

WarioWare Touched can be a lot of fun at times, with the simplicity of the series’ gameplay being complimented by the DS’s hardware features. Whether you’re swiping, tapping, spinning, or tracing, Touched is a fun example of how the WarioWare series can be used to showcase gameplay ideas and utilize hardware.

On the downside, simply being WarioWare on the DS no longer really stands out for the series. Subsequent WarioWare titles have been released on the DS and 3DS, which boasted additional gameplay innovations on top of the DS’s touchscreen features. WarioWare D.I.Y allowed players to create their own microgames, and WarioWare Gold features most of Touched’s microgames, in addition to those from Mega Microgames and Twisted, plus a number of games of its own. So being the “DS WarioWare” no longer works in Touched’s favor, and hasn’t for quite some time now.

WarioWare is almost always going to a fun experience (Wii U’s Game & Wario being the exception), and the simplicity of the DS’s features has its charms. But it would be hard to recommend WarioWare Touched over a number of its sequels. There’s still good fun to be had with WarioWare Touched, but it’s short-lived, especially when you consider the great replay value the series is capable of.

 

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Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman Review

Despite having originally been released in 1983, Bomberman is a timeless game, comparable to Tetris or Super Mario Bros. in this regard. Like Tetris, Bomberman is the kind of game that’s held up well enough that it could be ported to any modern console or device and be justified in doing so. And like Super Mario, it has produced numerous sequels in the decades since its original release.

But Bomberman sits somewhere between Tetris and Mario. Tetris is still released on every available platform to this day, and Super Mario Bros. – though holding up well on its own merits – has been bettered multiple times over by its sequels. Bomberman, meanwhile, has seen many iterations through the years, and while some of them have added a lot to the formula (Saturn Bomberman being a particular highlight), many of its sequels are so close to the original that they can feel more like ports.

That brings us to Bomberman GB. As its name implies, Bomberman GB was to be the Gameboy edition of the series. Released in 1994, Bomberman GB successfully brought the classic Bomberman gameplay to the handheld. But for the game’s release outside of Japan, Bomberman GB was given a slight makeover. Hudson Soft (Bomberman’s now-defunct original developer) and Nintendo decided to add one of the latter’s characters into the game, and chose to use Wario, the comically villainous “anti-Mario” who had debuted two years earlier in Super Mario Land 2 and quickly became one of Nintendo’s most iconic characters.

The end result was Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman, a game which successfully translates the Bomberman gameplay to Nintendo’s Gameboy handheld, but doesn’t do too much more than that. Though Wario Blast is fun, it’s far from the best Bomberman game, and the fact that Wario’s presence in the title is simply cosmetic means his addition – while welcome – isn’t exactly meaningful.

Like any traditional Bomberman game, the goal is to eliminate all of your opponents on the battlefield. Your weapons are (quite obviously) bombs, which you use to destroy obstacles in your path, and ultimately try to blow up your opponents. The bombs explode in lines that travel in four directions, and you are susceptible to your own bomb blasts, meaning you’ll often have to take cover behind walls to avoid destruction by your own hand, as well as your enemies’.

Some of the usual Bomberman power-ups also return, and can be found after destroying certain obstacles. The bomb power-up allows you to plant an additional bomb on the field (one extra bomb for every power-up gained), while the fire power-up increases the range of your bombs’ explosions (making it easier to destroy your foes…and yourself). There is also a skull power-up, which is something of a double-edged sword. At first, the skull power-up seems purely bad, as it temporarily removes your ability to plant bombs (as well as the character skills you learn as the game progresses). But on the plus side, if you’re crafty enough, touching an opponent while under the effects of the skull will remove their ability to plant bombs as well. And if you infect an enemy with the skull, its negative effects will wear out on you before them, making for an easier target.

In a nutshell, it’s Bomberman, but on the Gameboy. On the plus side, Bomberman is one of the few games that could be translated onto the original Gameboy and not feel like it’s sacrificing the series’ quality for the sake of portability. On the downside, it’s Bomberman… but on Gameboy. That’s all well and fine, except unlike Tetris, this isn’t supposed to be a port, but is instead one of Bomberman’s less creative sequels.

There are some changes, with the most prominent (aside from Wario’s mug being added to the game) being that the rest of Bomberman’s usual items (such as the ability to kick your bombs forward) are now instead permanent abilities that are learned after defeating bosses.

There are eight worlds in the game, each comprised of four stages (again, bringing Super Mario Bros. to mind). The first three stages of each world are the traditional Bomberman battles (the first against a single opponent, the second against two, and the third against three), which are played in best two-out-of-three rules. The fourth stage of each world is the boss stage.

“Of course I’m going to pick Wario in WARIO Blast.”

Though the game allows you to play as both Bomberman and Wario, the change really is purely cosmetic. The only difference is Bomberman’s non-boss enemies are Wario clones, and Wario’s are Bombermen (additionally, the passwords for each stage differ between the two characters). And considering these are Gameboy sprites we’re talking about, the cosmetic change only goes so far (though in all honesty, just play as Wario. You can play as Bomberman in any Bomberman game, so you may as well play Wario and benefit from the crossover aspect).

Though the game is short (it probably won’t take much longer than an hour), the fact that each world introduces new stage gimmicks means there’s some fun variety throughout. And I enjoy the two-out-of-three nature of the stages. Though even with these benefits, Wario Blast does feature some unfortunate shortcomings.

One of the big issues is that – with the abilities gained from the first few bosses – the player quickly becomes overpowered. I can accept the usual power-ups from the series are made into learned abilities (though there’s also an argument to be made that aspect in itself takes something away from the experience), but one ability which sees the player learn how to dash an enemy against a wall to stun them makes the proceedings way too easy. The early stages will see the AI try to outmaneuver you (to varying degrees of success). But in later stages, you can just pick up bomb and fire power-ups as you go, and once you run into an enemy, just dash them into a wall and plant a single bomb for an easy win.

Another problem is that there’s an awkward few seconds after your opponents have been defeated where you can still potentially die before the victory screen is displayed. You’d be surprised how often you’ll end with a draw and add another round to the best two-out-of-three because of it.

While Wario Blast may have a number of elements holding it back, I have to reiterate that the classic Bomberman gameplay will always be fun. And sure enough, Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman is a rare example of a Gameboy title that’s still fun to play today. But Wario Blast does suffer from being one of the more basic Bomberman sequels, offering little to the experience that you couldn’t find in every other Bomberman title.

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of Wario Blast, however, is the simple fact that Wario’s inclusion in the game was merely shoehorned into the game’s international release. Perhaps if Wario Blast lead to some follow-ups of its own that integrated Wario’s presence into the proceedings in more meaningful ways relating to gameplay or level design, it would be easier to look past Wario Blast’s underutilization of its namesake character. But because this was the beginning, middle and end of Wario butting heads with a third-party character, it’s more than a little disappointing that the game never had a real chance at fully delivering on its concept.

Think about it, what better video game character is there to go toe-to-toe with various gaming heroes than Wario? Super Mario is the face of gaming, so it only makes sense that the “anti-Mario” would try to sabotage other people’s games and try to slap his face on them. Hudson Soft and Nintendo could have been onto something here with Wario Blast. Sadly, instead of seeing Wario face off with Bomberman again, or try to hijack Mega Man, Castlevania, or any other series, it all ended just as soon as it began. By the time Bomberman GB 2 made its way westward, Wario was nowhere in sight…

But hey, Wario Blast is still fun. And that definitely counts for something.

 

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