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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Wario Land 4 Review

*Review based on Wario Land 4’s Wii U Virtual Console release*

Here’s an unpopular opinion: The original Game Boy hasn’t aged well. Sure, there are a few games from the original Game Boy that hold up decently (namely Game Boy Color exclusives), but for the most part, its games represent a time when the convenience of gaming on the go came at the expense of quality. The Game Boy Advance, however, marked a time when handheld games began to capture a more timeless quality. The GBA was the SNES to the Game Boy’s NES, with its predecessor feeling archaic (save for a  handful of titles) while it itself holds up so well, it doesn’t feel like a retro console at all.

Case in point: Wario Land. Wario Lands 2 and 3 on the original Game Boy were once hailed as some of the best handheld games of all time, and while they’re still decent to play, they’re getting on a bit. Wario Land 4, on Game Boy Advance, however, is still a worthwhile platformer today. Perhaps not an all-time great, but it’s certainly not disappointing to revisit.

Like its predecessors, Wario Land 4 is all about the greedy anti-Mario’s quest for treasure. This time, Wario is pillaging an ancient pyramid in the middle of a jungle, but gets trapped inside and has to find a way to escape, all while collecting as much treasure as possible, of course.

Wario retains his brutish strength from the past games, with his charging attack, ground pound and ability to pick up and throw enemies intact. Additionally, by holding the R button, Wario can run at such a great speed, that with enough momentum, his hard noggin can break through blocks that even his charge attack can’t budge. Similarly, if he ground pounds from a great enough height, he can also destroy these stronger blocks (there’s even one puzzle in the game that cleverly combines this with a teleporter, meaning that Wario was thinking with portals even before Portal).

The structure of the game takes a different approach from its predecessors, however. There’s a quick tutorial that shows you the ropes of the game (it’s actually one of the better tutorial levels I’ve seen, effectively condensing all the game’s elements to their bare basics, thus giving you insight to the entire adventure ahead). After that, the game features four worlds, which you can play in any order you see fit (and if you get stuck in one world, you can leave it and do another for the time being). The worlds themselves follow a more linear structure, however, with each featuring four stages and a boss fight at the end.

Stages work a bit differently here than they did in past Wario games (and most platformers in general, for that matter): Wario searches through the levels collecting treasures, but instead of a traditional goal found at the end of a stage, each level features a statue of a blue frog (why not?) that, when jumped on, activates a timer. With the time ticking down, Wario has to make his way back to the beginning of the stage, where a portal now waits to take Wario back to the hub. Naturally, Wario gets to keep every treasure he collects if he makes it back before time runs out.

While most of the jewels and coins scattered about add to Wario’s score, each level also contains three unique treasures: One is a bird with a key for a beak (again, why not?) which is needed to unlock the next level in that given world. Another treasure is a tablet separated in four pieces found in golden treasure chests, with all four pieces in all four stages needing to be found in order to open the boss door. Finally, a well-hidden music CD can be found and subsequently played in the sound room of the pyramid’s overworld.

While these items add some extra depth to the stages, it’s kind of a shame that – aside from the CDs – they’re required to complete the game. Had there been more non-story items, Wario Land 4 would have a fun staying power for completionists, instead of most return visits to levels being out of necessity for having missed a key or one of the four tablet pieces the first time around.

The levels themselves are well designed and creative. It’s fun to search through them for treasures, and they never feel so labyrinthian as to be confusing. The stages are also less bland than in the past few Wario Lands, with fun gimmicks added into the mix. One of my favorite stages is built around knocking over stacks of dominoes, then racing to the end of a room before the final domino falls and hits a switch that closes off a treasure.

Level design is always a make or break factor for platformers, and the clever structure and gimmicks of the stages of Wario Land 4 ascend it above its predecessors. There are, however, two notable elements that prevent Wario Land 4 from reaching its full potential.

The first such issue is that, while Wario retains his ability to gain special powers after being struck by certain enemy attacks (swelling up and floating like a balloon when stung by a bee, sliding across surfaces when frozen by an enemy, etc.), Wario is no longer invincible as he was in Wario Lands 2 and 3. In the past games Wario would gain such abilities from almost every foe (with the exceptions merely robbing Wario of coins), here you rarely know when an enemy attack will give Wario a power, and when it will just take health away. It unfortunately gives the game a gambling element that wasn’t present in the past.

The other issue is the process of fighting the bosses of each world. Not only do you have to find all of the aforementioned tablet pieces in each level just to face them, but every boss also features a time limit. If you take too long to defeat a boss, you’ll miss out on the opportunities to claim all of their treasure chests. That’s not so bad on its own, as before every boss fight, Wario has the opportunity to purchase special items (from what looks like Mr. Game & Watch), which are then used to damage the upcoming boss before the fight begins. Some items will do marginal damage, while others will nearly take out the boss on their own. That may sound like a cheat, but considering this is a Wario game, it’s actually a fitting element that compliments Wario’s character and humor.

None of that is a problem on its own. The whole boss process becomes an issue, however, by the simple fact that you can’t just purchase the boss items with the treasure Wario collects along his adventure. Instead, you purchase the items with special tokens. You get these tokens by spending your points/treasure to play one of three mini-games located before the boss fight of each world. You are then awarded tokens based on your performance in these mini-games. The problem is that acquiring these tokens can take a fair amount of time, and with how slowly Wario chips away at the bosses’ health on his own, you’re going to want to spend the extra tokens for the more powerful items to beat the bosses as quickly as possible. So if you want to claim every boss treasure and complete the game at one-hundred percent, you have to repeat the process all over again if you can’t beat the boss fast enough the first time around. Some might say that’s a fair price to pay since the game essentially gives you the ability to cheat, but buying these items is optional anyway. So why not just use your points to buy the tokens and skip the mini-games? It’s just a tedious process that seems counterproductive.

Aside from those elements though, Wario Land 4 remains a winner in most respects. Wario himself controls better than ever, with his every action feeling far smoother than in past games. The level design finds some fun and creative ways to mix up the formula. The game still looks great with its colorful graphics and vibrant animations, and the soundtrack stands tall above its predecessors, meaning that collecting those CDs is worth the effort.

It may not be among the best games on the Game Boy Advance, but Wario Land 4 is another testament that the GBA is when handheld gaming truly made it.

 

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Wario Land 3 Review

Wario’s misadventures continued on the Game Boy Color with Wario Land 3. As the third installment in Wario’s initial platforming series, Wario Land 3 polished what its predecessors started, and added some new tricks of its own into the mix. It was such an improvement over the first two entries that, upon its initial release in 2000, Wario Land 3 was widely hailed as one of the best handheld games of all time. While the aging process has taken away some of the game’s spectacle (especially when one remembers the far more timeless Gameboy Advance was released the following year), Wario Land 3 remains a fun platforming adventure in its own right.

Like Wario Land 2 before it, Wario Land 3 sees its nefarious anti-hero as an invincible brute. He can charge through enemies without any worry of defeat. The greedy Wario risks losing only his precious treasure when struck  by attacks that would do in other platforming heroes. And just like its predecessor, Wario doesn’t grab power-ups, but receives new abilities via ‘conditions’ which are inflicted upon him by enemies.

If Wario gets smashed on the head, he becomes as flat as a pancake and can float in the air. If snow should fall on Wario, he’ll become a snowman who can roll down hills and destroy enemies and obstacles. And in one of the game’s funniest gags, eating a donut will transform our hero into Fat Wario, who can fall through floors and, despite having reduced jumping height, will launch enemies into the air when he lands back on the ground.

Once agin, this not only makes for some fun gameplay and unique twists on platforming norms, but also shapes Wario’s character. Mario is a selfless hero, so we want him to succeed. Ergo, Mario getting hurt results in losing a life. Wario, by contrast, is a greedy buffoon who only wants to make himself richer. As the player, we may help Wario out, but he still has to pay for his greedy ways by means of getting hurt to gain his powers. It’s actually a pretty unique example of building gameplay around a character, and visa versa.

Another unique aspect of Wario Land 3 is in its level progression. There are twenty-five levels total, but each stage has four different goals. The goals are four different treasure chests, with each chest requiring a similarly colored key to be opened. Although most of the time the chests have to be opened in a set order (often requiring the completion of another stage before you can get the others), you don’t need to open every chest in the game to face the final boss (Wario only needs to collect four magic music boxes from different treasures before the big showdown). This of course means that many of the chests are optional, and the game can continue after the final boss, should you so desire.

Unfortunately, there are some aspects to Wario Land 3 that haven’t aged well. Throughout the game, some treasure chests will reward Wario with a new move, enabling him to reach previously unreachable places. That may sound like a cool, light Metroidvania twist. But the issue is that most of the moves Wario learns along the way are moves he had from the start of Wario Land 2 (ground pound, picking up and throwing enemies, etc.). It actually makes the character progression feel a bit pointless if you’re mostly learning basic moves from the game’s predecessor.

Another problem arises with the game’s puzzles elements. While credit is definitely due for how Nintendo tried to expand on Wario’s various conditions by building new puzzles around them. But issues arise when the puzzles in question are either too easy (with Wario gaining the required ability then and there) or too vague, leaving you wondering what power you even need.

One other notable flaw in Wario Land 3 is its ‘Golf’ mini-game. This mini-game is already required for more treasure chests than it needs to be, but what’s worse is that it costs a decent number of coins every time you try it. And of course this mini-game has to have finicky and imprecise controls, meaning that you’ll be forking over a good amount of your hard-earned loot just to try the mini-game over and over again. And if you run out of coins, you have to scour the stage for more, which can take time. I would honestly take Wario Land 3’s vaguest puzzles over this mini-game, so it’s a real shame it shows up as often as it does.

While these elements do make Wario Land 3 feel more like a product of its time than one would hope, it still provides some classic Nintendo fun and Wario’s distinct charm. The levels are fun, and it’s entertaining just seeing what other messes Wario can get himself into all in the name of gold. But  Wario Land 4 on Gameboy Advance and Wario Land: Shake It on Wii probably hold up better.

 

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Wario Land II Review

Though the third entry of the Super Mario Land sub-series opened the door for Wario to become a video game star, Wario Land II completely kicked the door down for Wario to rewrite the rules of platformers. Though Wario Land II’s sequels would better the formula, this ambitious 1998 Game Boy title really set the stage for Wario’s unique place among Nintendo’s stars.

There are two key components that made Wario Land II such a standout both as a Game Boy title, and as a platformer: The first is that Wario Land II featured branching paths with its story, with players being able to alter the course of the game through specific actions (a feat that was a very bold move given the limitations of the Gameboy). The other key mechanic – the one that turned the platforming genre on its head – is that Wario is invincible.

That’s right, nothing can stop Wario’s path of destruction. You may wonder where the challenge is if Wario can’t be harmed. But Wario is out for treasure, and every enemy wants that same treasure. Instead of taking damage, Wario will lose coins and, subsequently, get a lower score when all is said and done. It’s a fun twist on platforming norms that has been duplicated many times since, with Kirby’s Epic Yarn being a prominent example of a game that studied Wario’s rulebook.

However, here’s where things get really interesting. The power-up helmets that were found in the first Wario Land are gone. And the concept of power-ups are instead combined with Wario’s invulnerability, with many enemy attacks having status effects on Wario that can benefit Wario with temporary abilities (in addition to serving as minor inconveniences).

By getting hit with an ice attack, Wario becomes frozen and slides backwards, and can glide across spikes unscathed. If Wario gets set on fire, his flaming backside causes him to run at super speed and can burn down certain obstacles blocking his path. And if Wario gets stung by a bee enemy, he will have an allergic reaction, with his head swelling up so much he can float like a balloon.

Having enemies inadvertently aid Wario not only serves as a fun twist on genre traditions, but also plays into the sense of humor of Wario’s character. While Wario was originally the ‘anti-Mario’ by being a dastardly villain, Nintendo quickly made him a more unique character by making him Mario’s opposite in terms of being a comical scoundrel. Mario goes off on daring adventures to save princesses, and gains super-powers like flight and shooting fireballs. Wario, by contrast, has to find success through his own misfortunes. Wario’s own games punish him for his greed, but also reward him in the end because, well, he isn’t such a bad guy. And there’s something kind of hilarious about that.

As you might expect, players often have to utilize Wario’s various ‘conditions’ to find new paths throughout the game, as well as uncover hidden treasures for 100% completion. Though some of the game’s branching paths are found by other player actions (in one of the game’s best gags, you can go through a whole other story route simply by doing nothing and letting Wario sleep through his alarm at the start of the game). Although some routes through the game are much shorter than others, they do add to the game’s replay value. And for completionists, you’ll have to go through all of the game’s routes and uncover every secret treasure to see the real ending.

Not all is peaches and cream for Wario Land II, however. The boss fights can feel a bit unpolished and finicky with how you’re forced to go back to the previous room if you’re even a pixel off with their patterns. Sure, with Wario invincible, they needed to do something to give bosses a challenge. But perhaps robbing Wario of more treasure would have been a less tedious consequence than having to start the boss process all over again.

Other than that, the only real complaint with Wario Land II is that – through modern eyes – it definitely feels rough when compared to its sequels, which perfected the formula (Wario Land III in particular, is often considered one of the best handheld games of all time). Wario Land II is still fun, and its Game Boy Color version (which is readily available for modern gamers to download on the Nintendo 3DS) still looks pretty great, all things considered. But the two subsequent handheld entries (as well as their Wii sequel) provide the more definitive Wario platformers.

Wario Land II may not be the best game starring the mustachioed anti-Mario. But it is the game that really helped shape Wario’s character. No longer simply the “bad Mario,” Wario was now the comic foil of Nintendo’s lineup of gaming icons.

 

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Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 Review

With his introduction as the antagonist of Super Mario Land 2, Wario became an immediate Nintendo mainstay. Who knows if it was the original intent when the character was created, but Wario ended up hijacking the Super Mario Land series, being the star of its third entry in 1994 before it full-on transformed into the Wario Land series. Though the Wario Land sequels would add a bit more originality to the proceedings, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 remains a fun and surprisingly deep platformer.

Wario Land played a bit closer to the Mario Land rulebook than its sequels would, with floating blocks containing items being scattered about, and Wario running, jumping and collecting power-ups to clear stages. But this isn’t merely Super Mario Land with a change of main character, as Wario has a few tricks of his own to justify his promotion to starring role.

The dastardly villain is – fittingly – a lot more brutish than Mario, coming equipped with a shoulder charge attack, and after jumping on enemies, he can pick them up and throw them at others. In place of Mario’s power-ups are three different helmets: The bull helmet makes Wario’s charge attack more powerful, in addition to giving him a butt stomping attack. The dragon helmet shoots a stream of fire from its nostrils. And the jet helmet grants Wario a higher jump, in addition to allowing him to use his charge attack in midair and under water.

On top of differing his core gameplay from Mario’s, Wario’s level design makes some notable changes as well. Wario isn’t out to save the day, but to scour the land for all the loot he can find (in another fun twist from the norm, while Mario often ventures to rescue Princess Peach, Wario is simply trying to steal a giant, golden statue of her). This means that simply making it to the end of a stage isn’t your main goal. Taking a page from Super Mario World, some of the stages contain alternate, secret exits, which lead to more stages and, in one instance, an entire optional world. Additionally, there are fifteen secret treasures to be found in the game, which will result in Wario becoming substantially richer at the end of the game if collected.

These alternate exits, optional levels, and hidden treasures make Wario Land a much deeper game than the Super Mario Land duology, adding to the game’s length and replay value. There are a few unfortunate downsides to how these elements are implemented, however.

While the levels with secret exits are distinctly marked on the world map, the levels that contain the secret treasures are not. That may not seem like a huge problem, but a few of these treasures must be collected by replaying earlier levels after a later stage or world is completed. So you’re basically just left guessing what stages you need to revisit.

The levels containing secret exits also disappear from the game entirely about midway through, leaving the first half of the game to feel more inspired than the second. The boss fights also lack creativity, and the music is a surprising step down from the Super Mario Land titles (thankfully, the graphics are on par with those of Super Mario Land 2).

Even with these complaints, Wario Land is still entertaining even today, which is quite the feat for a Game Boy title. It’s fun just to find more coins and treasure, and seeing if you can hold onto them by a level’s end, a concept which the game has even more fun with. Complete a stage, and you can play a mini-game where you get three 50/50 chances of doubling your coins or reducing them by half. Meanwhile, checkpoints require a small fee (10 coins) to access, but the coins you got up to that point aren’t saved if you die, giving a nice twist on checkpoints where you have the choice of using their security or keep more gold at a greater risk.

Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 may not be one of Nintendo’s finer platformers, but it did serve as a fitting introduction for Wario as a video game star. Though it is a bit strange that Wario got his own game after just two years, while the world is still grossly absent of a game starring Bowser after over three decades…

 

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