Although Nintendo has gone on to produce many other handheld systems and games since the release of Wario Land 3, seldom will one come across a portable adventure that is as large, bold, and constantly clever as it manages to be
The path followed by the Wario Land franchise, which is itself a branch of the Super Mario Land saga, was a road that saw – slowly and surely – each of its entries take increasingly notable steps in the definition of their own character. The first two Super Mario Land efforts fell victim to the inevitable and unfavorable comparison to their home console counterparts; a negative process from which it was impossible to escape due to how the unique traits of those titles were not strong enough to create separation between them and their more popular and mightier sources of inspiration: Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World.
Their sequel, meanwhile, in the changing of the story’s protagonist, produced gameplay that was positively distinctive, as Wario had physical characteristics and personality features that, heavily employed in the design of his quest, birthed an adventure that was quite different from those usually undertaken by the acrobatic Mario. Yet, in spite of those shifts, the original Wario Land still carried numerous mechanics extracted from the plumber’s outings, such as an overworld, power-ups, blocks, and a generally linear progression.
The grand moment of discovery, then, fell right into the lap of Wario Land II, which not only amplified the quirks the character had brought to the table, but also threw out the window pretty much everything that could serve as a link to the Super Mario format. A map sporting levels scattered around it was eliminated; items that granted the starring hero new skills went extinct; blocks were used to stop progress rather than to serve as a form to obtain coins and other assets; and progression, both in the levels and through the game’s plot, was satisfyingly open-ended.
Given the astounding success obtained by its predecessor in originality, quality, and level design, Wario Land 3 could have effortlessly taken the easy way to critical acclaim and fan adoration by copying it; however, rather boldly, its content reveals the people behind it had other ideas in mind. For even though the Wario Land II formula was refreshing and smart enough to be taken for another spin, there was also the opportunity to employ the established pillars of the franchise in order to build something else entirely. And although the first option would have certainly yielded excellent results, it is hard not to be thankful Nintendo chose to pursue the latter.
That second and much rockier road is paved with a whole lot of familiar stones to those who went through any of the other games of the series. Once more, Wario emerges as a rather flexible individual for someone who is so physically unfit. His movement retains the unlikely nimbleness he displayed in Wario Land 2; and, likewise, all his signature abilities are retained.
He can dash sideways to break through walls or get rid of enemies; he can butt stomp the ground to stun foes or destroy blocks; he can crouch to sneak into tight spaces; his jumps can get extra height if players time the button press to the moment the character’s feet touch the head of the bad guys; he can roll into a ball by sliding down slopes; he can climb ladders; and he can swim. And that impressive arsenal is, again, fully explored in stages of notable intricacy, as they are broken into multiple segments – connected by doors – that besides being quite wide in all four directions, hence heavily demanding careful exploration, also feature various branches, since each piece can have more than one way out into different rooms.
Therefore, where sidescrolling installments of the Super Mario series are about a whole lot of running and jumping, Wario Land outings tend to rely not just on those two actions, but also on a myriad of other tricks and on stages that are noticeably more complex, lending the saga a slower and more meticulous pace that is almost absent from quests that take place in the Mushroom Kingdom. Naturally, Wario Land 3 follows suit; however, it is arguable the game turns up the volume of that inclination towards careful exploration quite considerably.
With its alternative storyline paths, focus on the collection of coins, and secrets, Wario Land 2 already boasted enough engaging complexity to stand on a level of its own in the pantheon of sidescrolling platformers; yet, Wario Land 3 finds a way to take it all one step further. It is a move that runs the risk of alienating those who prefer straightforwardness, even if the title does take effective measures to smooth out the experience, but it is a choice that makes the adventure significantly appealing to anyone who enjoys heavy exploration, meaningful backtracking, and puzzle-solving.
Wario Land 3 achieves its singular excellence by toying with the very structure that has served as the framework to nearly all sidescrolling platformers created since the days of Super Mario Bros. It absolutely ignores that tried and true format, and proceeds to soak its quest with the central staple of the Metroidvania genre; that is, the collection of items that open the way to places that were previously inaccessible. It is, by all means, an odd match; after all, the game is effectively combining a simple gameplay style with a guiding mechanic that is inherently complex, but it works.
Wario is thrown into that beautiful incongruent insanity when one day, while flying over the woods, his plane presents a mechanical problem. He crashes into the mass of trees and soon enters a cave where he finds a music box. His treasure-sensitive nose tingles and he picks it up; suddenly, he is transported to the inside of the object. In that curious world, he comes across a mysterious figure that goes on to explain he is the protector of that realm. Sadly, he has been imprisoned by evil beings, and the only way for his power to be restored is for someone to collect five music boxes. Wario is, at first, reluctant; however, true to his status as an anti-hero, when he is promised some riches in case of success, he takes on the task.
If Wario Land II had gained some distance from the Super Mario games by abandoning the concept of an overworld, Wario Land 3 brings it back. That measure, nonetheless, does not represent a step back towards dull familiarity; it is, in fact, an utterly necessary feature due to the way the adventure plays out. With a volcano at its center, the music box world is divided into four regions, and all of them are named after a cardinal point, as they are located to the north, east, south, and west of the mountain.
As it is to be expected, each one of these areas possesses a certain quantity of levels, amounting to a total of twenty-five stages. Differently from the norm, though, not only do the regions lack a final challenge that houses a boss battles, as those can take place in any course regardless of its position, but they also pleasantly do not present a unified theme, meaning that the scenarios of the stages rarely repeat, for they vary according to the place of the map where the level happens.
In great-looking craters, forests, swamps, icy rivers, towns, coasts, bridges, towers, and far more, Wario Land 3 lets its adventure unfold. And it builds its complex Metroidvania web through treasure chests. Effectively, they are the goal post of each level, because once Wario reaches one, he is immediately returned to the world map, as if he had concluded a course on a standard platformer. Wario Land 3, though, is everything but standard, so that system comes with various twists. For starters, all stages have not one, but four differently colored chests: gray, red, green, and blue.
Consequently, all levels have – in practical terms – four ways out. Additionally, all containers are locked, meaning that before he can put his hands on what lies inside them, Wario must locate their respective key. Due to that, each of the game’s twenty-five courses houses four challenges that entail finding the key, which is then tucked into the character’s pocket, and taking it to the chest of the same color; and since the two of them are often not close to one another, those steps can become puzzles of their own.
The biggest among all twists of Wario Land 3, though, and the one that is responsible for its Metroidvania inclinations, is what the treasures represent. First of all, given Wario starts out the game with only a fraction of his skills, treasures can either work towards unlocking new moves or augmenting their power, such as allowing the dash maneuver to break tougher blocks.
Furthermore, they can either serve as tools that let the anti-hero interact with the overworld in some way, like by using a recently found axe to cut down a tree that is blocking the entrance to a stage, or be objects that cause changes to occur in some levels, like a flute that calls snakes out of the pots they are hiding, relics that unlock doors that were shut tight, wheels that allow carts to move, and much more. Needless to say, regardless of the nature of the treasure, their effects open the way to chests that would otherwise be impossible to reach. And even if some of the loot that is found does indeed have no use other than being one more asset acquired towards full completion, more than seventy of them do have path-opening ramifications.
It is, by all means, a staggering amount; one that puts the quantity of power-ups found in all Metroid and Castlevania games to absolute shame. The structure of Wario Land 3, therefore, is not a chain of levels that must be cleared one by one; it is a gigantic sequence of one hundred chests, with the collection of one frequently supporting the reaching of another or others. It is so much that Wario Land 3 runs the risk of being overwhelming, but the game takes stellar measures to stop that from happening, making its might accessible to newcomers and veterans alike.
Firstly, whenever they want, players can go back to the temple where the mysterious figure that sends Wario in his quest rests, and he will tell them which level should be visited next in order to advance the story. Secondly, every time Wario collects an item that causes alterations in some stages, a brief cutscene will show what is happening and the game will point out the levels where the changes have occurred; nevertheless, and as a nice way to avoid excessive hand-holding, it will still be up to gamers to go the course, explore, and find the exact point where the event took place.
Thirdly, the way to the chests is invariably opened in the order they appear in the menu; that is, gray, red, green, and blue. As such, if Wario is directed to a stage, it means that the first missing treasure on the list is certainly available to be acquired. Likewise, the difficulty involved in finding and unlocking each chest also grows bigger according to their color, and since grabbing all treasures is by no means necessary to get to the end of quest, as only about half of them are mandatory, Wario Land 3 smartly reserves the toughest of its riddles and platforming to those who want to fully complete it.
In the middle of so much ambition, content, and complexity, therefore, Nintendo manages to construct an experience that can be approached by all gamers that are attracted by it, only excluding those who do not appreciate the appearance of Metroidvania tropes in their sidescrolling platforming.
It goes without saying that since completing the game – be it partially or fully – demands that all levels be visited between two and four times, Wario Land 3 does hold a considerable amount of backtracking, as a few platforming segments are tackled repeatedly. Yet, since most stages branch out quite a bit, in the end the reaching of each chest feels like its own course, only sharing an initial segment with its local peers. And those one hundred challenges pack stunning variety in the way they play out; some rely on tight platforming, others feature surprisingly smart puzzle solving, another group focuses on dealing with enemies and bosses, and there are those that mix those three veins into one tight and cleverly designed package.
Through it all, Wario Land 3 never stops impressing. A big part of that success stems, of course, from the character’s uncanny flexibility, not just regarding the moves he executes and the many traps and devices he handles, but also thanks to one of the series’ greatest staples: the transformations. Like it happened in Wario Land II, the fat anti-hero is immortal. As such, rather than making him lose energy or die, as platforming tradition dictates, being hit by enemies has negative and delightfully animated side-effects.
Wario can be: trapped inside a bubble; turned into a ball of yarn; transformed into a zombie; set on fire; frozen; made fatter; and more. Although, at times, these consequences serve as punishment, they can also be used to the character’s advantage. If stung, for example, Wario’s face will swell and he will float like a balloon, allowing him to reach higher ledges. It is a brilliant quirk, and these transformations are responsible for many of the quest’s smarter and more intricate puzzles.
Wario’s immortality, however, also plays a major role in the game’s biggest flaw: the frustrating nature of many of its harder segments. Since the protagonist neither dies nor has any sort of energy gauge, numerous platforming portions are designed in a way that the tiniest mistakes lead to the loss of large chunks of progress, forcing players into an annoying pattern of trial-and-error where there is no room for slip-ups.
The same happens during all of the quest’s otherwise excellent boss battles, where being hit usually means getting sent to a previous room and having to walk back to the big bad guy so the duel can restart from scratch. Aside from those annoyances, which can get pretty intense in the game’s most challenging treasures, Wario Land 3 is a masterful title that is bursting with clever ideas. So many, in fact, that its one hundred chests are not enough to contain all of them.
That is why besides those chests, all stages also have eight musical coins, which must be gathered in one go for their collection to be saved; even though they unlock an extra mini-game when found in their totality, the biggest reward they yield is that a good slice of the two hundred amulets are only acquired via the execution of engaging exploration or the solving of smart puzzles, showing that – literally – every corner of Wario Land 3 is bursting with notable design. Moreover, even if their importance and abundance is reduced in comparison to Wario Land II, regular golden coins are valuable as well.
And that is because some chests or keys are locked behind large blocks that are just moved once a delightful golf mini-game, located inside marked doors and that can be played for fun at will once specific requirements are met, is beaten. In it, Wario must put an enemy into a hole, while avoiding hazards, within a certain amount of kicks. Since playing entails the spending of some coins, accumulating riches is key in being able to take another shot at beating these challenges in case of failure. Finally, a fun time attack mode, where Wario needs to collect all keys in the level, is also implemented and becomes available right after the credits roll.
Simply put, the scope, ambition, content, and wild creativity of Wario Land 3 cannot be denied. Its status as an improvement over its predecessor may be questionable. After all, not only does such an assessment heavily depends on how one perceives the very different gameplay styles they employ, but it is also hard to clearly surpass one of the greatest sidescrollers of all time. Its position as a masterful platformer is, however, forever written in stone, for rarely has a game combined two seemingly heterogeneous genres so finely while remaining true to the essence of both.
Although Nintendo has gone on to produce many other handheld systems and games since Wario Land 3, seldom will one come across a portable adventure that is as large, bold, and constantly clever. The title infuses the relatively simple bones of a sidescrolling platformer with the complex meat of a Metroidvania quest, and what comes out of it is an experience that, though not for all, will certainly awe anyone with a love for intricate design and challenge.