Wario Land: a retrospective

 27 May 2018  |   1 August 2018

It’s been over 20 years since I last touched any of the Wario Land games. I vaguely remember them being one of the most exciting platformers I’ve ever played as a kid. However, thanks to my manic tidying itches, I sold most if not all Gameboy games I’ve ever owned. Thanks to a recent resurgence in retro game interest, I came across a Wario game for the Gameboy. The shopkeeper sold them all 4 and raised his brow when I wanted to pay. “You must be a big Wario fan eh?”. Indeed. It turns out that I am.

Once home, I knew what to do but didn’t know where exactly to start. My fondness of the GBC-only version (#3) is the most vivid memory, so I jammed that cartridge into my Gameboy Advance and hoped for the best. After a few blows into the hole (yup), I hear a very recognizable PLING - a Gameboy game booting.

Let the excitement (re-)begin!

Wario Land 3 (GBC)

Wario is amazing. That about sums up this whole article. He’s the lazy, dirty, rude and greedy antagonist of Mario and takes on the single lead role in these 2D platforming games. What is so unique about Wario Land 3? Well, Wario can transform into a dozen different shapes to conquer the different puzzle elements and unravel secrets stashed away within each level. Snowball Wario, Bat Wario, Drunken Wario, Wario-On-Fire, Zombie Wario, you name it. Each shape lets you progress further into the game by overcoming obstacles in the form of blocks that can only be broken by being fat or being on fire, or by falling through thin platforms that only can be achieved as a zombie.

I’m about to go invisible!
Don’t you just love his grin?

In essence, this game is a Metroidvania. That’s right! Not only because of the different Wario forms, but mainly because in the beginning of the game, Wario’s moves are quite limited. He can perform a simple dash, but it’s not very effective. Collecting permanent power ups in the form of equipment lets Wario dash through certain otherwise unbreakable blocks and perform pounds into the floor. Swimming is also something that has to be learned. Revisiting area’s after gaining some power is the core of this game. There are four different treasures to be found in each level (not everything is required to finish the game).

Another amazing thing here is the atmosphere. There’s a day and night cycle and it changes the enemies, the music, the puzzles and therefore the mood of each level. Wario’s funny animations (when climbing a ladder or entering a pipe for instance) contribute a lot to this.

Natural born Mario players will immediately notice the striking absence of coins. Well, not really absence. Breaking blocks might net you some: they act as a payment to play the golf mini game. But that’s it! No screens full of them, running around like crazy to fill up those pockets. This reduces clutter on screen and allows you to focus on what makes these games great: the platforming. I won’t waste words on the golfing mini game except that it’s frustrating but required for certain areas to progress. Masochists can even unlock the game with certain treasures.

Wario Land II (GB/GBC)

Okay, so I finished Wario 3, let’s get back to version 2 and see what’s the difference. This cartridge is a black one: it has some colors if you pop it into a GBC/GBA but still plays on your original GB.

The first thing you notice when playing in reverse order like I did, is the likeness in terms of those Wario shapes. Wario II introduced this concept. You can’t jump while in Zombie mode here and there are less forms but they still work more or less the same. Getting hit means losing coins, not losing hearts. You simply cannot die (something you can’t either in v3). This is extremely refreshing and feels like a big relief: I can fuck around in a level and uncover stuff without worrying about my health. I love this and don’t understand the criticism it got for introducing that.

Crushed by a weight… But not dead?

In Wario II you still search for hidden treasure to add to your repertoire but here it’s in the form of a mini-game. The exit is… simply at the end of each level. It’s a lot more linear than Wario 3 but there are still a lot of cool branching pathways. For instance, in the first level the enemy throws an alarm clock into Wario’s castle. You can simply choose to keep on snoring and the level ends! The lack of an overworld map is a letdown though. Only after finishing the game you can choose which level to play. The game is also finished within 4 hours if you breeze through it: Wario 3 took me 10 hours.

Something needs to be said about it’s bosses. Since you cannot die, bosses instead push you off a platform to force you to retrace your steps for a second try. They’re also incredibly easy: this game is easier than Wario Land 1. I like easy games more than I did when I was a kid: patience in gaming seems to diminish when you grow up. Boss design is done great: there’s even a football match to be won against a bunny (that returns in Wario 3 as a basketball player).

So, Wario Land 3 builds upon Wario Land II and improves every aspect of the game by cleverly introducing a metroidvania-like gameplay in a beautifully atmospheric coat.

Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land (GB)

Time to play the first Wario game. Going back from 3 to 1, you can clearly see where the game got it’s roots and where it changed drastically. To me, Wario 3 is the pinnacle but Wario II is the most innovative that changed the Wario experience for the better.

Super Wario Land plays a lot like Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins for the Gameboy. Wario collects power ups in the form of “suits” (even a bunny one where he can fly). When you’re hit by an enemy, you shrink in size and can die. Collecting hearts can net you a “one-up”, a very Mario-like concept that was thankfully dropped in the later games. Jumps are a lot more floaty. That means it’s a slower game than the more snappy sequels.

Small and fragile Wario.
Does that status bar remind you of something?

The overworld of Mario Land 2 is here but got a lot more… Wario-like. (Wackier). Mt. Teapot, really? Stages are selected, and hidden treasure is to be found. There are minigames at the end of each stage like Mario 2 (if you manage to hit the bell) but they’re forgettable compared to the golfing of 3 or matching of 2. There are some branching pathways that even uncover a whole new “world” but it’s more linear than the other games.

What I like the most about Wario 1 is the story or let’s call it the purpose. Wario collects coins, just like Mario, but actually uses them at the end of the game! Depending on how deep your wallet has grown, you’ll end up with a castle or even your own planet. Your own planet. Planet. Woah. I flew through the game in about 2 hours and ended up with a hollow tree trunk… That was depressing. So it motivates the gamer to actually collect stuff. I couldn’t care less for those 8 music coins in Wario 3. The hidden treasure here is converted to money so it’s also relevant!

Wario Land 4 (GBA)

When Nintendo released Wario Land 4 in 2001, things got a lit more weirder. Minigames looked a lot like the more popular Wario games: WarioWare. Enemies and levels introduced a big mindfuck: zombie cats, mini Wario cars, weird sound and even weirder background. I can’t describe it better than the word weird. And I don’t know if I like that decision that much… One could say that this game is also very atmospheric and yes it is, but in a creepy way. I miss the lovely cheekiness of Wario 3’s music world here.

That said, Wario moves smoother, the animations are amazing and the world is very colorful. But there is no equipment to be found and the powerful feeling of Wario 2-3 is diminished. For instance, pounding into the ground - once you could do that in Wario 3 - shook the screen heavily. That’s been reduced, but Wario says something “cool” like “hehey” or “here-I-go”. Why did he need to have his own voice instead of grunts? It feels a bit out-of-place to me. The dashing is extremely fluid and feels natural to use, but a bit washed out compared to the powerful BUMP you’ve got in the previous installments.

A colorful amount of WTF!
Includes a free time limit.

Wario Land 4’s biggest advantage is it’s tight platforming. It’s a masterpiece in level design: you travel through a level to collect a key and 4 stone slab pieces but in the end there’s no exit: you have to go back to the beginning within a time limit. I’m still undecided on that time thing: it makes some runs hectic and exciting but others frustrating. Why would you need to put a time limit to finishing a boss? I don’t want to do a speedrun here…
Making it back to the “entrance” involves another route where you come across more secrets to be found.

Those secrets net you a diamond that adds 1000 to your score. But I don’t care about a score, even if it can be used as money to play a minigame that sucks. Those little puzzle elements you have to solve once you enter a special purple pipe feel a lot like Breath of the Wild’s shrines. Only here you get shit. It’s still fun to do, but misses it’s purpose.

This game can be finished within 6 hours if you’re quick. And there’s little to do outside of collecting weird soundtracks that I don’t want to listen to because… They’re weird. The last game feels like it could have been so much more if they build on top of Wario 3’s concepts instead of going the mindfuck route… It looks like the whiners that hated Wario’s invincibility won the battle by the way: check out that heart meter in the top left!

After Wario 4, there’s Shake Dimension and Master of Disguise which are forgettable. I’m still waiting for Wario 5!