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Wario Land – Virtual Boy

Wario Land – Virtual Boy

Wario Land

Platform: Nintendo Virtual Boy

Developer: Nintendo R&D1

Publisher: Nintendo

Release Date (NA): November 27th, 1995 (NA)

Genre: Platformer

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed by Nike Halifax

Regarded by contemporary critics as the best title for the Virtual Boy, today Wario Land often gets labeled as just that: the best title… for the Virtual Boy. Now, this is neither the time nor place to discuss it in-depth, but the Virtual Boy gets a lot of bad rep in today’s gaming community… which is puzzling, as very few people have ever actually played one. Don’t get me wrong—the Virtual Boy has a lot of faults, but the game library isn’t one of them. Sure, the library is small (less than 20 games were made for the Virtual Boy over the course of its short lifetime), and only one or two games take full advantage of the system’s much-hyped 3D capabilities, but what games are there are good. In a perfect world, they’d find new life on the 3DS Virtual Console, and Wario Land would surely lead the charge.

Wario Land’s gameplay can be a little hard to describe. On the surface, it’s a Mario spinoff—you play a Mario character, you run, you jump, you break bricks, and there are ?-blocks. Power-ups make you big, getting hurt makes you small, and you die if you get hit again. Make no mistake, though, Wario Land is its own entity. While full of pure platforming bliss, Wario Land has a larger emphasis on exploration, making it somewhat of a Mario-Metroidvania hybrid. There are 10 levels total, 14 if you count boss fights as their own stage. Progressing through the game is a simple matter of reaching the exit elevator at the end of each level. However, each elevator requires a key to unlock, and the key is hidden somewhere within the level. Predictably, finding the key requires searching the level. Luckily, each level is impeccably designed, with each containing varying numbers of doorways, secret rooms, and hidden paths for Wario to explore.

Furthermore, Wario Land is a guilty pleasure for the brain’s reward centers, as coins, hearts, and other treasures abound. In Mario games, coins usually serve to boost the player’s score and give 1-ups for every 100 collected. In Wario Land, the coins are the score, and the 1-at-100 mechanic has been given to the hearts instead. Both are available en masse, whether raining out of every busted block and battered enemy, or simply floating in the air for the player to collect. It’s not uncommon to finish a level with as many as 300 coins, or even several thousand if you win big at the gambling mini-game located in the save-game checkpoint at the end of each level.

Wario Land 3

Wario himself controls like a dream, and it’s no exaggeration to say Wario Land has some of the finest controls of any platformer ever. Unlike his Red-Hat rival, Wario takes his time with each jump. Jumps are floaty and give Wario a great degree of aerial maneuverability. Said maneuverability comes in handy, as Wario often has to position himself to smash a block in mid-air, or perform a ground-pound at a precise location to reveal a hidden passage. Wario’s initial repertoire is walk, run, jump, crawl, ground-pound, and barge. Barge (otherwise known as a bum rush) is the main form of attack, providing a more satisfying way to smash baddies than the wonderful (but admittedly flighty) jump. The barge can be modified, or replaced entirely, by the power-ups found in each stage.

The power-ups work similar to the Mario games in that they’re usually found in blocks and they make Wario grow in size. They manifest themselves as different hats. One hat improves Wario’s ground-pounding and barging skills (allowing him to break through certain blocks), another lets him shoot out a stream of flames, and another grants him flight. Additionally, hat abilities can be combined—grabbing the flying and the fire hat yields the dragon hat, allowing Wario to shoot fireballs and fly short distances. However, the dragon hat lacks the ability to ground-pound or barge. It’s a trade-off, as the fire hats are able to break certain types of blocks that ground-pounds and barges can’t, and vice versa. Deciding which hat or hat combination works best for a certain area depends on the player’s goals—if simply searching for the elevator key, it’s of little importance. However, finding every coin, heart, and treasure that can possibly be found in each level will require switching between hats.

It's like playing Danny DeVito's stockier, meaner, greedier brother.

It’s like playing as Danny DeVito’s stockier, meaner, greedier brother.

Speaking of treasure, there are 13 treasures in the game, one hidden in each of the levels preceding the final boss fight. I haven’t found all 13, but I know they’re required to open up something special at the end of the game. If you want to look for them, more power to you—believe me, they’re not easy to find.

Oh look, there's one!

Oh look, there’s one!

Presentation-wise, Wario Land is a mixed bag. Perhaps as a result of the Virtual Boy’s limited field of vision, the perspective is more “zoomed in.” The end result is that you see less of an area onscreen compared to something like Super Mario World, but what is shown is in greater detail. Wario Land makes clever use of the Virtual Boy’s 3D wizardry, as there are certain places in the game where Wario can leap between the foreground and the background of a level. It’s a subtle trick, but the sense of distance is there, and it’s a good way to make the most use of visual real-estate.

It’s hard to explain without playing it yourself, but suffice it to say the experience is unique to Virtual Boy, and not even a 3DS port (or a 3D-capable emulator) could match the “visceral” nature of Wario Land’s visuals. Visceral is an odd word to use, but it’s true—the Virtual Boy’s eyepiece completely blocks the outside world from entering the player’s point of view. You can’t see your surroundings, just whatever game you’re playing. Even when the game isn’t pulling any 3D magic, there is still a greater degree of player “immersion” compared to just about any other console. It’s not that the game presents the player with an unprecedented suspension of disbelief, it’s more that the entirety of the player’s sensory experience is tied to the game. It’s an intense feeling, and Wario Land makes the best use of both it and the Virtual Boy’s 3D tech during boss-battles, which employ a head-on, rather than side-scrolling, perspective.

As for the graphics themselves, again, it’s a mixed bag. Wario and the many enemy sprites are wonderfully animated, and the picture is impressively clear, crisp, and sharp. The level designs are interesting, the character designs are interesting, and overall it’s a visually impressive game. The problem? Everything’s red and black. It’s not ugly, but it’s very demanding on the eyes.

Then there’s the sound. Most of the music in Wario Land is some variation of a basic theme heard on the first level. It actually fits Wario’s personality perfectly, but beyond that initial theme, very little of the music is memorable. None of it is ever downright bad, but none of it really sticks with you either.

Overall, Wario Land is a great game, and I’m glad that it got to evolve as a franchise beyond the Virtual Boy. At the same time, it’s a shame that so few people have ever gotten to play it. It more than holds its own–it’s charming, it’s whacky, it’s addictive, it has the perfect balance of challenge and accessibility, and it’s a game that (if it were on a system where such a feat is actually possible) you can pick up and play any time. And you should play it. I’ve encountered many a Virtual Boy dissenter in my time, and all it takes is fifteen minutes of Wario Land to make even the most stubborn curmudgeon at least admit that it’s not so bad.

“Not so bad” is a hell of a lot better than “awful.” Hey, I’ll take it.

Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed by Nike Halifax

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Written by Nerd Bacon

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