While the two entires that preceded it felt like lesser products that were, for obvious reasons, having trouble to replicate what was being achieved on consoles; Wario Land drops those pretensions to the floor and proceeds to do its own thing
Through the course of three years and two installments, the Super Mario Land franchise was both blessed and cursed by the brand it carried. From a positive point of view, the Game Boy saga could take advantage of the gameplay presented by the console games that originated it – that is, the Super Mario Bros. trilogy – to lean on established, tested, and effective mechanics. However, negativity infiltrated it because of how neither of the series’ initial efforts succeeded in truly distancing themselves from what had inspired them.
Consequently, although boasting much of the platforming fun that turned the plumber’s NES adventures into timeless classics, the original Super Mario Land as well as its sequel, 6 Golden Coins, were unable to find a personality to call their own. And that particular shortcoming made them inevitably come off as inferior versions of experiences that could be had in colors and in a more full-fledged state on a television screen.
Super Mario Land 3, meanwhile, is far more successful than its predecessors because it begins to alter that fate, which – at one point – seemed almost inescapable. And it does so by executing a myriad of alterations on the bases of the series’ gameplay. Certainly, a superficial glance will reveal that the title does not completely break away from what had come before it: it is, after all, still a sidescrolling platformer that takes place on stages scattered around an overworld, and that focuses on jumping over gaps and dealing with enemies.
But all similarities that could be listed pretty much end right there, for even if it borrows some concepts from a traditional Mario quest, a whole lot of what goes on during the game works as an antithesis to what Nintendo’s most popular character stands for. As Super Mario Land 3 throws both altruism and athleticism out the window and swiftly replaces them for greed and brute strength.
That exchange in values, of course, takes place because of the shift Super Mario Land 3 executes regarding the saga’s protagonist. As seen in the prequel, Wario stole and locked himself into Mario’s castle while the hero was away on a journey; as the game rolls on, though, the plumber finds the tokens necessary to break into his former home and concludes his quest by mercilessly kicking out the villain. Homeless – or at least lacking a roof that meets his ambitious standards – and still dreaming of a stunning manor, Wario hatches a scheme.
He knows of a nearby island where a gang of knaves, the Brown Sugar Pirates, has accumulated piles of loot, including a giant Princess Peach statue made of solid gold. Fearless, he decides to venture into the place on his own, explore the many regions of the buccaneers’ headquarters, and walk away with enough cash to build himself a house that is sufficiently big to make Mario jealous. Given Captain Syrup and her crew are not giving away any of their goods willingly, Wario is forced to do it like his rival and face a series of platforming challenges.
It goes without saying that Wario is not used to these sorts of endeavors, for his is a life of laziness. Therefore, where Mario was nimble and fast, the starring anti-hero of Super Mario Land 3 is slow and brute. It is a small change, but one that has considerable ramifications in gameplay, because level designers had to take such traits into consideration when building the stages. As a consequence, although Super Mario Land 3 still features a ton of jumping, its levels are built so differently that the game marks the beginning of a separate franchise altogether: Wario Land.
The lower top speed of the titular character, which may bother some, paves the way to interesting twists. Gaps are neither as large nor as prominent as they used to be. And courses gain a degree of intricacy that was simply not there before, because one cannot stop and smell the roses when handling a speedy acrobat like Mario; it is counterintuitive. But when controlling a sluggish fellow such as Wario, exploration and traps that require a more meticulous reasoning become a natural extension of the gameplay.
Due to that, in spite of how it starts rather straightforward, Wario Land grows to have pleasant – but far from overwhelming – complexity. Its stages are broken into multiple segments, which are linked by doors; and, especially as the adventure reaches its midway point, portions that have more than one exit begin appearing, giving courses a branching nature.
Furthermore, where in the Super Mario games – especially those of the Super Mario Bros. trilogy – getting to the end entails traveling towards the right mindlessly, Wario Land features numerous ascending and descending ladders, a fact that lets its levels grow upwards as well as sideways. As a result, their vertical content sometimes does not fit entirely into the screen, which augments the sense of freedom players have, as it is possible to explore many stages in all directions; and also accentuates the need for gamers to keep an eye out for alternative paths.
Smartly, that structure is not there just for show, because Wario Land – right on its first installment – succeeds in establishing a characteristic that would go on to become a major part of the franchise: its secrets. Like Super Mario Land 2, and as a touch inherited from the classic Super Mario World, some levels – more specifically, five of them – have extra exits, and these either work as shortcuts or ways to unlock optional courses.
It is not a large number by any means, but it is a nice feature; and quite kindly, the game blatantly points out which levels hold more than one way out by giving them a different overworld marker. Moreover, as a complement to that additional piece of content, there are also fifteen super valuable treasures to be found hidden in the stages, and acquiring those requires that Wario first locate the key that opens the door to the chambers where they lie and then carry it all the way over there, sometimes by backtracking through the level or exploring alternative routes. And since the character is unable to attack when doing so, that task usually comes with a further layer of challenge.
With forty levels spread over seven different worlds, each concluding with a decent boss battle, Wario Land qualifies as a satisfyingly lengthy game even when its extra content is not accounted for. And that run is filled with some very unique gameplay quirks. Although Wario is quite sturdy himself, the Brown Sugar Pirates also happen to be rather resistant, for differently from the foes usually encountered by Mario, they are not disposed of simply by being stomped on the head by the fat hero; that action, most of the times, either just stuns them or causes Wario to fall victim to their defenses.
Instead, his preferred, and certainly most effective, methods of destruction are: his signature body slam, executed with the B button; hitting foes from below with his head; or grabbing a stunned bad guy – an action that is automatically performed by coming close to a disoriented enemy – and subsequently using its mass as a projectile that can be thrown onto other Captain Syrup minions, hence allowing players to pull off some cool combos. It is a nature that gives Wario Land a physical aura that goes right along with the spirit of its protagonist; additionally, it also greatly sets the game apart from Mario’s sidescrolling adventures, which is exactly what the Super Mario Land series needed to truly get off the ground. And these distinctive traits do not stop there.
For somebody who sits on the couch all day long, Wario is stunningly flexible in the moves he possesses, because he can also crouch to sneak into tight spaces and use the forward motion of his body slam to add distance to his jumps. Besides, much like his rival, he has got plenty of cool power-ups that further increase his skills. When small, Wario does not do a lot other than running, jumping, and hoping for the best, as the state even stops him from being able to open the treasure chests he finds; as he puts on distinct hats, though, he becomes quite a one-man army. With his regular helmet and normal size, he can perform all his standard moves. With horns, he gains extra strength – as his body slam breaks rocks and kills enemies more easily – and he also unlocks a mighty ground pound. With a dragon headgear, he can spew fire. And with a jet on his head, he is able to burst horizontally across the screen.
Finally, Wario Land especially stands out thanks to how strongly it is guided by its protagonist’s core personality trait: his greed. Firstly, ten coins are required to activate the mid-stage checkpoints and to unlock the door that leads out of the level. More importantly, in the adventure, coins are coveted not because they will give the character extra lives, as that role is reserved to a heart-shaped item, but due to how they work as a measure of the game’s completion rate.
The quality of the quest’s ending depends on the number of coins players acquired during their run, with the very best one only being revealed if all stages are visited, all treasures (which are themselves converted into coins) are collected, and the coin counter that accumulates the total gathered through the whole game is maxed out. To modern standards, the differences in endings are not that big of a deal, as they just appear in how the house Wario gets varies according to the cash he has, but anyone who likes to walk out of virtual adventures with either a good level of completion or with 100% achieved will be drawn to the golden loot, and that attraction will play right into the hands of Wario Land’s intricate level design, as these players will have a blast scouring the stages and looking for the paths that have more dough.
With so much quality, personality, secrets, and a balanced level of difficulty that never rises to frustrating heights, Wario Land remains a joy. That does not mean, however, it is devoid of points that could have been better. Its scenarios, for example, do cover varied thematic ground; nevertheless, they are far from being as inspired as those of its visually excellent prequel, making the game feel like a step back in that regard. Likewise, its soundtrack, even if it does its job, equally falls somewhat below the high standards of the Super Mario universe. The final complaint, meanwhile, is actually a nitpick that comes attached to one of the game’s best features: the fact some stages are altered by occurrences that take place in the overworld.
At one point, for instance, the clearing of a level causes a lake to drain, and if Wario is to revisit the course that took place where that body of water once lay, he will come across a very different scene and even be able to reach new places. It is, without a single doubt, an amazing twist that shows an incredible amount of care and creativity. It is, though, a shame that the concept is not used very frequently, making it seem like an idea that was not fully realized.
Needless to say, absolutely none of those problems leave a considerable mark on the thick creative coat of Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. Its release marks not just a moment of discovery, when Nintendo came across a gameplay format that would give birth to its most consistent handheld platforming saga; it is also the point when the Super Mario Land series gained a firm purpose.
After all, while the two entries that preceded it felt like lesser products that were, for obvious reasons, having trouble to replicate what was being achieved on consoles; Wario Land drops those pretensions to the floor and proceeds to do its own thing. In a character that is the antithesis to Mario, the company uncovered a sidescrolling quest that was, simultaneously, similar to what the plumber was used to pulling off and also quite different in every way. As it turns out, that is exactly what the Game Boy needed: an adventure that could not be experienced anywhere else but on the small screen, and that only had to live up to the bar set by itself.