*Review based on the NES version of Wario’s Woods, as released on the New Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console*
Wario’s Woods was released simultaneously on the NES and SNES in 1994 (being the last officially licensed game released on the former). Unfortunately for Wario’s Woods, it saw very little attention in its day, seeing as gaming was well into the 16-bit generation, meaning the NES version went under the radar, while the SNES version was released amid many more high profile games. That’s more than a little bit of a shame, because Wario’s Woods brought an interesting twist to the falling-block puzzle genre.
Working as something of a cross between Tetris and Dr. Mario, Wario’s Woods sees players try to eliminate multi-colored monsters from a playing field. Getting rid of these monsters will require the aid of similarly colored bombs. By lining up a row of at least two monsters and one bomb of the same color (either horizontally, vertically or diagonally), you will destroy the monsters. If you can create a stack of at least five objects of the same color (again, with at least one bomb required), the eliminated monsters will leave behind a colored gem. If you line up monsters or bombs with a gem of the same color, every object of that color will be removed from the playing field instantly.
Be weary, if you can’t keep chains of eliminations going fast enough, Wario will appear above the field for a short time, summon more monsters, and lower the ceiling, decreasing the amount of space you have to work with (the ceiling can be raised, as you may have guessed, by completing more rows).
It may sound like standard fair for the genre, but the big twist Wario’s Woods brings to the table is that you manually control an on-screen character. Taking inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 2, Wario’s Woods pits Toad in the spotlight (well before he earned the title of ‘Captain’), who has to pick up and place the monsters and bombs under direct control of the player.
Toad can lift and drop whatever object is in front of him with a push of the B button, and can lift and drop an entire stack of objects with the press of A. Toad can of course only lift things that are level to him, but has slightly more leeway when dropping them (three squares of the playing field above his head). He can even kick an object to the next open space by pressing down on the D-pad along with one of the key buttons. Toad can also drop items/stacks directly underneath himself, and objects Toad is currently holding will also count towards a completed row should it match up. Mechanics like this can really be lifesavers if you find yourself sinking down the board amidst the rising stacks of monsters. Unfortunately, the aforementioned gems are too heavy for Toad to lift, meaning the player will have to get extra crafty if they want to take advantage of their ability.
It sounds pretty simple, but it’s pretty incredible how addicting the gameplay can get. This is one of those games that you can seriously lose track of time with. Wario’s Woods even keeps things fresh as you push further through the game, introducing monsters that can only be eliminated with diagonally-placed rows, and monsters that require to be part of two completed rows in quick succession in order to be vanquished.
The game consists of two different versions of its story mode (oddly referred to as “Round Game”), categorized as “A Mode” and “B Mode.” Both versions feature 100 courses, with the only difference I can tell being that the B game features boss fights. This is a game that doesn’t mess around, either. Wario’s Woods can get brutally difficult at times, with some levels seemingly punishing the player with certain death over one slight miscalculation.
It’s pretty long for a falling-block puzzler, especially on NES. Fortunately, this was one of the few games on the NES with a save function, with every fifth level working as a checkpoint for the player’s progress (with every completed fifth level being selectable thereafter). The downside to this is that if you’ve completed four straight levels and lose on the fifth, you’ll have to go through the previous four all over again. You can obtain continues which can be used to replay the current stage upon defeat, but you can only do so by collecting 30 coins. And you only get these coins if you complete a stage fast enough (every time Wario’s ugly mug shows up, 20% of the stage’s possible coins are deduced). So most continues you get will be obtained in the early stages. Because, again, this is one tough puzzle game. Only the most diehard puzzle fans will consistently claim coins in the game’s later stages.
The difficulty in claiming continues may be off-putting to some, especially considering the game’s already steep learning curve (okay, the basics are simple, but mastering them well enough to finish the stages quickly while avoiding Game Overs is another beast entirely).
One cumbersome element takes place when the objects fill the screen and the ceiling falls to the point that Toad can only move horizontally in a crawlspace equal to his size. You kind of wish, in these specific instances, that Toad could swap positions with the object directly in front of him. Because at this point, the game is essentially over, unless an enemy/bomb spawns in just the right spot to complete a row out of sheer luck. Some might say this is in the same tradition as Tetris picking up speed until you can no longer control it, but Tetris is a game you play as long as possible to beat your high score. Wario’s Woods features stage progression, so it can be frustrating when you get to the point when you know you’re going to have to replay the last few stages over, but just have to watch helplessly as Toad inevitably gets crushed, unless sheer luck buys you an extra few seconds.
Wario’s Woods also features a time attack mode and a VS. mode for two players, which could certainly become intense showdowns. These alternative modes give Wario’s Woods some variety, and can give you a much needed break when the “Round Game” gets too difficult.
One issue with the game is more of a recurring issue with Nintendo itself. And that’s how it’s the NES version of Wario’s Woods that keeps seeing re-releases, as opposed to the SNES version. For an NES game, Wario’s Woods looks great (being released so late in the console’s life, the game’s visuals are comparable to Kirby’s Adventure in how they push the NES), but it still doesn’t look as good (or as timeless) as the SNES version. What’s worse, every stage in the NES version has the same music. And while it may be somewhat catchy, the lack of audial variety does take something away from the experience.
It’s the NES version that has been released on every downloadable service Nintendo has provided, from Wii to Switch. It’s reflective of a weird trend with Nintendo where they seem to constantly be re-releasing NES games, but rarely those from their other systems. And that’s a shame because (unpopular opinion incoming) aside from the Mario and Mega Man games, not a whole lot of NES titles hold up. Meanwhile, the SNES has a timeless quality to the gameplay and aesthetics of so many of its games, that Nintendo’s apparent preference for its predecessor is dumbfounding. At least Wario’s Woods can claim to be among the handful of NES games not called Mario or Mega Man that’s still fun, anyway.
Wario’s Woods is a challenging puzzle game, no doubt. But those with the patience for it will find an incredibly addicting and rewarding experience that will keep them coming back. Now if only Nintendo could remember that this game was also released on Super NES…