While some games struggle to strike a thread of identity, Wario Land II finds at least a handful of them, and it implements every single one of those quite well
Some concepts around which games are built may, despite their initial quality, take a while to reach a state of full maturity. In a way, the early steps taken by the Wario Land franchise are proof of that. Because even if the series’ first installment did achieve some success in delivering good gameplay, its sequel goes such a long way towards improving all of its core mechanics that it feels like the point where the seeds sown in the original bore truly remarkable fruits.
Born as a branch of the Super Mario Land line of adventures, Wario’s first quest was a moment of revelation. Before it, Nintendo’s attempts to bring the plumber’s brand of sidecrolling action to the portable world ended up suffering due to how they were, mostly, trying to emulate what was being released for the company’s home consoles; and since, given the technological gap between those platforms, one could not possibly compare to the other, the results – even when they were entertaining – felt like inferior reproductions of the real deal. In Wario Land, though, Nintendo – either on purpose or accidentally – was able to grasp what it takes to build an excellent handheld experience: the exploration of a format that cannot be had anywhere else.
As such, in the swapping of Mario for Wario, the platforming saga began to thrive on the small screen. The antihero’s bulkier build paved the way to a gameplay whose slower pace heavily contrasted with his rival’s acrobatic ways; and his greed was employed in how the title featured a refreshing focus on finding treasure and collecting coins.
That relaxed rhythm allowed stages to grow in complexity, as they abandoned the straightforward framework used by the obstacle courses that Mario tended to tackle. And Wario’s strength came into play in how encounters with enemies and the overcoming of barriers gained a very physical nature. Therefore, even if joined by the platforming tradition of advancing through a series of stages that require a lot of jumping and that go from the left to the right, the content that filled the bones of those games differed heavily when the fat man took over the spotlight.
It goes without saying that Wario Land II, understanding the originality of the concept struck by its predecessor, does not stray away from it. Wario, emerging as a far more flexible character than Mario, boasts an impressive set of moves that take advantage of his might: he can pound the ground with his bottom after performing a jump to either stun foes or break blocks; he can perform a sideways body slam that gives him a speed boost, kills bad guys, and smashes through walls; he can duck to squeeze into tight spaces; he can pick up and throw paralyzed enemies; and he can slide down slopes in order to turn into a ball and destroy everything in his path.
Furthermore, the levels that stand between him and his ultimate goal are made up of various segments, always connected by doors, that require exploration in all possible directions and – consequently – often shun linearity. Yet, for all the borrowing it does from its prequel, Wario Land II also spends a considerable amount of effort in bringing new ideas to the table, improving minor issues that plagued its older brother, and further separating itself from its Super Mario origins.
The changes are numerous. Although he is still a large human that is unable to run, Wario walks through the screen much less sluggishly than he did in first adventure; therefore, the excessively slow pace of Wario Land, a trait that could bother some, is eliminated and replaced by a velocity that feels more natural. Additionally, the game takes a significant leap forward in its music and aesthetics.
The former, which at times verged on dull in the first outing, gains muscle in how it advances past tunes that occasionally came off as an array of beeps; and, in turn, it bumps into memorable tracks that nail a tone of their own, landing far away from those of the Mario franchise. The latter, meanwhile, grow in variety and detail, for not only do they make better use of the technology available, but they also do quite well in giving life to the pleasant number of scenarios the character will visit during his quest, especially in the Game Boy Color version.
The most impactful evolutions displayed by Wario Land II, though, appear in how it moves further away from the Super Mario gameplay and – as an organic consequence – dives deeper into the distinguishing aspects of its personality. Question mark blocks, for instance, are dropped altogether; and, alongside them, power-ups disappear as well. Moreover, the game equally does away with bottomless pits and the concept of health, meaning that Wario simply cannot be killed by anything.
The first alteration may seem minor, or even silly, and the second one may give the impression that it risks eliminating any sort of challenge from the quest. Such ideas, however, are false, because it is through these measures that Wario Land II runs into much of its overwhelming greatness. For starters, since the antihero does not die, being hit by enemies or falling into traps, such as spikes, have different kinds of effects: more specifically, they can cause the greedy protagonist to lose his coins or undergo physical transformations as a result of suffering blows.
In practical terms, that last ramification has – in Wario Land – the role power-ups would have in a Mario adventure; that is, they give the character skills he does not possess in his regular state. Truthfully, it is a feature that did exist in the prequel; nevertheless, here it is expanded so spectacularly and used so prominently that the total eradication of items that fall out of floating boxes feels like the welcomed destruction of an unnecessary cliché. In total, the game has eleven of those transformations, and they include everything from making Wario as flat as a pancake, giving him extra weight, transforming him into a miniature version of himself, setting him on fire, causing his face to swell so he can float like a balloon, turning him into a zombie, and more.
Occasionally, these effects serve as punishment for being hit and lead to the loss of progress; but most of the times, the protagonist’s humorous and very well-animated suffering is used in clever puzzles and fun platforming challenges that cannot be found anywhere else. It is a fantastic mechanic, but it is worth noting that since a few effects are time-based – only ending after some seconds have elapsed – it is sometimes a bit annoying to have to wait for them to wear out so players can proceed.
Likewise, the other penalty applied to Wario when he is hit – the loss of coins – is also quite important in both the definition of Wario Land as a saga that stands alone and in the improvements Wario Land II makes in relation to its prequel. Given the character’s greediness, coins had already played a major role in the original. Their collection influenced the quality of the ending players would see, and the fact they were valuable turned the complete exploration of all stages into a must.
In Wario Land II, these elements have not been changed: gold still, in a way, impacts how the game will reach its finish line; and, due to that, players will be motivated to comb through the levels. However, here, it is arguable that coins have highly risen in importance. As such, the vertically and horizontally wide pieces that make up the courses Wario travels through; their branching nature, achieved by how the same segment often has doors that lead to multiple areas; and the many coin-filled ledges, rooms, puzzles, and platforming challenges become more crucial, more appealing, and more rewarding. And that is because coins are intimately attached to how players will acquire the game’s two major collectibles: the treasures and the pieces of a map, which when fully gathered unlock a brutal final level and a special ending.
The first Wario Land had already gone out of its way to show that collecting valuable and hidden assets would be a major part of the franchise; and Wario Land II highlights that notion by augmenting their presence. With a whopping and unbelievable fifty stages, the game boasts fifty treasures and fifty map pieces, meaning that every single level has one of each. While treasure chambers are located in rooms neatly tucked away inside the courses, the fragments of the map are always made available once players reach the goal. Yet, in both instances, collecting them goes through the playing of mini-games.
In the case of the treasures, the task involves a deck of eight cards featuring enemy sprites on them, and gamers are asked to pick the one that has a specific foe; these cards are, all at the same time, flipped for a short while so the picture they contain can be viewed, and once they revert to their original position, it is possible to point to the one that has the desired bad guy. Meanwhile, when going for the map, Wario is faced with a digital display formed by nine panels, and by flipping each panel one by one he has to guess the number – between one and nine – that the image is displaying.
The coins come into play because the time the cards of the treasure mini-game spend flipped up and the number of panels Wario can turn depend on the cash that is spent. In the former, the coins gathered during the stage are considered; and fifty coins trigger the hard game, one hundred coins activate the medium difficulty, and two hundred coins give access to the easy mode, where it is possible to take a good look at each card before they are turned around. Contrarily, in the latter, the coins accumulated during the whole quest are used, and fifty of them are required to flip each panel.
There are annoyances to that approach. Given the mini-games do not change, it is a fact that replaying them can get tiring, especially if one is going for full completion. Furthermore, although the treasure mini-game can be tried again in case of failure, provided that Wario has the coins to spend, the treasure map challenge cannot, meaning that players have to go through the stage again just to get another shot at it. In spite of those minor shortcomings, though, it is quite astounding how the way these mini-games were implemented turns coin-collection and the thorough exploration of the stages into an absolute necessity, powering two of the major traits of Wario Land II.
Finally, on top of those measures, the game amplifies its distance from the staples of the Super Mario saga by completely leaving behind the usage of an overworld. It could have, potentially, been a loss that would have caused the game to feel like a step back towards a time platformers were too simple in presentation, but Wario Land II smartly exchanges that overdone configuration for a smart organization of its own. The adventure is broken into chapters, each one containing five stages, or – as the game calls them – stories. That alteration is not merely done in name; it, in fact, has a practical purpose, because Wario Land II is surprisingly guided by its plot.
The quest begins when Captain Syrup, from whom the protagonist stole a whole lot of treasure in the prequel, sneaks into his castle alongside three minions, causes chaos around the place while Wario is asleep, and gets away carrying some sacks of loot. With a giant alarm clock ringing, part of his grand home filled with water, and the suspicion that something is amiss, the character wakes up and discovers he has been robbed.
Wario Land II is, therefore, a chase; as each chapter, introduced by a brief cutscene, shows Wario running after the thieves to some place new. And the stories display his advances through these areas like the different pages in a book. In the first story, for instance, Wario spends one level tracking down the giant alarm clock to destroy it, another turning off the faucet that has inundated his castle, and so forth. It is a brilliant and original format, and that focus on storyline has a especially marvelous effect in how the game implements the secret exits some of its stages hold.
There are not many of those, only five, but their finding alters the course of the plot and – consequently – leads to distinct chapters, stories, and endings that drastically change how the adventure plays out. For instance, if – right in the introductory level – players decide to simply destroy the clock, they will be taken down a path that features five full chapters and twenty-five stages. If they take a different course of action and locate the secret exit, though, Wario will actually be thrown out of the castle by the villains, and gamers will be led to a chapter that has him storming his home to take it back, making the quest only last for one chapter and five courses.
Due to that incredible and unique flow, once a level has been cleared, gamers cannot return to it until they reach one of the four possible endings. When that happens, Wario Land will unlock a massive chart showing how all of its fifty levels are organized as well as whether players have gotten the treasure and map piece each one contains; as such, those that have not been fully completed yet and also those that have alternative conclusions will be quite visible, making it easy to know the points when the story features branches.
Truth be told, as an annoying flaw, most secret exits are really hard to find and their hiding spots are almost impossible to uncover without a guide. Nevertheless, nothing could really ruin the fantastic brilliancy of the way Wario Land II organizes its content. The same logic applies to the frustrating boss fights. Although they are fun, they falter because – since Wario is immortal – his punishment for being hit is generally being taken to a previous room in the level, causing the battle to completely reset and forcing players to make their way back to the boss. It is a visible flaw, but it does not really really harm the overall enjoyment of the game.
Wario Land II is, therefore, a tremendous success. And with its abundance of quality and originality, there is simply no reason why it should not rank among the best sidescrollers of all time. Its many levels are creative and intricate; its mechanics, inherited from its predecessor, are expanded and polished; its secrets are so numerous they will support at least a dozen hours of gameplay; its visual and musical presentation is still solid; the importance it gives to the collection of coins makes its wide stages be a joy to explore; and the way it organizes its content is so smart and unique it is somewhat shocking it has not been copied frequently.
While some games struggle to strike a thread of identity, Wario Land II finds at least a handful of them, and it implements every single one of those quite well. The fact it stands miles apart from all Mario sidescrolling efforts and that it carries an experience that is handheld-exclusive, hence running away from any sort of unfavorable comparison to home-console counterparts, is the cherry on top of it all. For it makes the game stand as an isolated entity; one where players will find an unforgettable treasure trove of gameplay.
Final Score: 9 – Phenomenal