The greatness displayed in Wario Land 4 is more than enough to prove the series to which it belongs is not merely a platforming detour born out of the Super Mario games, but a saga that is sufficiently strong to stand tall on its own
It is perfectly understandable why some may view the Wario Land saga as some sort of minor platforming undertaking Nintendo decides to tackle every once in a while. After all, while the company usually creates its main franchises in a way that rather than competing inside the same niche, they branch out into a variety of genres, the category of platformers is unusually busy. In it, Donkey Kong runs after his banana hoard; Kirby deals with the latest evil force that has brought turmoil to the whimsical Dream Land; and Mario rescues Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser’s most recent devilish scheme.
These are all giants that cast a considerable shadow over the unjustly neglected Wario Land, but the last one of those poses a particularly daunting challenge for the fat greedy character. And that is because, be it for their rivalry, their existence inside the same universe, or their physical similarity, both are intimately connected, and – as Luigi would have no trouble exposing it – it is simply quite hard to stand so close to Mario and not be overshadowed by a character that has starred in numerous games that have been not only key in the development of the industry, but also justly showered with unparalleled praise.
Perhaps even more aggravating than that is the fact that Wario’s platforming franchise was born as a spin-off of the Game Boy’s Super Mario Land series, whose third entry was also the debut of Wario Land itself. It is a connection as tight as that of an umbilical cord, but even if the link is hard to shake, Wario has clearly tried his best to escape it, as over time the series evolved into a beast of its own.
Wario Land 4, released for the Game Boy Advance in 2001, does not exactly feel like a culmination, for it is arguable that some of the titles that came before it are at least as enjoyable; however, it does come off as the product of a franchise that reached full maturity, for besides presenting a clear domain and confidence over its core mechanics, it also exhibits great expertise in the level design quirks it chooses to call its own. And it is in the wielding of these two strengths that it solidifies itself as one of Nintendo’s most charming and enjoyable portable sidescrollers.
It all starts when the treasure-hungry anti-hero is at home reading a newspaper that reports the finding of a mysterious ancient pyramid. Sadly, for all the authorized explorers at the site, various accidents have been happening, which – in turn – have made it impossible for the invaluable assets contained within the monument to be taken out. Promptly, Wario decides to take it upon himself to do what professionals have been unable to achieve; that is, find a way in, grab as much loot as he can, and enjoy the benefits of being filthy rich.
It is a simple enough plan; yet, it goes terribly sour. He does gain access to the Golden Pyramid, but once inside it the character realizes that he is completely locked up, as the place is subject to the curse and influence of an evil spirit. Not one to despair when mountains of gold are so close, Wario chooses to collect all the goods he sees while also trying to find an escape route.
For a franchise born out of a saga whose main goal is running desperately in one direction until the flag pole is reached, Wario Land has a bunch of appealing complexities to it, all of which begin and end with its unique level design. Sure, like a true 2-D platformer, Wario Land 4 has a whole lot of moving forward while jumping over gaps, avoiding traps, and dealing with enemies.
However, its stages are constructed in a unique way that, more often than not, gives players multiple options as to where to go. Consequently, in spite of how – primarily – the core objective is getting to the end of the course, Wario Land 4 unlocks an alluring exploration component. Advancing is frequently not a matter of blindly going to the right, as it may involve traveling upwards, sinking downwards, or even retracing one’s steps. With that structural freedom, which is explored but never abused to the point where the adventure loses its platforming traits, the stage creators have a blast and unearth some pretty clever ideas.
These branching paths, though, hold far more than progression towards the stages’ main goal; they actually hide a lot of goodies to collect. Wario is, after all, in it for the money, and cash – in the form of jewels – is what he will find as he thoroughly combs the levels. Gems of different colors and sizes abound, and those that are especially big – namely, the highly coveted diamonds – are usually tucked away in nooks and crannies that force gamers to go the extra mile to grab them.
In fact, in every stage, some of them are so finely hidden that they are locked away in what the game calls Puzzle Rooms: enclosed spaces where Wario must solve some sort of riddle in order to reach the precious stone. Although these rooms (which may involve smartness, speed, and platforming skill) start out as being pretty simple, they get progressively harder as the quest goes along.
The gathering of these gems, which is entirely optional, would obviously not be notably interesting if they served no purpose at all; a reality that would, in turn, cause the stunning amount of secrets in each level to go to waste. Wario Land 4 addresses that via a scoring system that is, naturally, highly affected by how much treasure is acquired; and according to their final punctuation, gamers are awarded either with a golden, silver, or bronze crown, with the possibility of earning nothing at all always looming for those that take a more straightforward path to the finish.
Wario Land 4 also finds a strong personality of its own when it comes to the mandatory content of its courses. Firstly, all stages have – locked away in shiny golden chests – four Pyramid Jewels, and finding all of them is absolutely necessary, for it is only by gathering all of the Pyramid Jewels of a world – which is composed of four levels – that the gate to the invariably solid boss battle will be unlocked. Moreover, they also contain a key – usually appearing in plain sight – that is the only way to open the door to the following course.
Truthfully, some might be annoyed if they get to the end of a stage just to realize they have to replay it in order to acquire a missing jewel or the key they have left behind. Yet, these requirements – especially the jewels – play right into the hands of the title’s exploration component, because although some golden chests are pretty hard to miss, the position of many of them will force gamers to keep an eye out for hidden rooms and alternate routes.
In addition, and true to Wario’s nature as a thief that was not supposed to be where he is, the stages effectively entrap him once he is inside them. The portals that take him into the levels go inactive as soon as the character hits the ground. And given the way in is also the only way out, Wario’s goal – other than collecting loot – is getting to the end of the stage; hitting the totem located there, which re-energizes the portal; and running madly back to the entrance, because – as if aware someone is running away with the goods – stages enter some sort of self-destruct mode when the totem is hit, as a big timer with a countdown to doom will be displayed on the top of the screen.
This task of retracing one’s steps could have been boring, but Wario Land 4 makes it rather entertaining due to how courses go through minor transformations once the portal is activated. Sometimes, notable environmental shifts occur; and blocks, either locking away certain passages or serving as a platform to reach new routes, always show up. Therefore, the stage that is tackled going in is amusingly different from the level that is traversed going out; not just because of these structural changes, but also in relation to how while the former plays like a platformer with some exploration and a controlled pace, the latter feels like a more action-packed sidescroller.
Wario Land 4 does not stand out from other Nintendo platformers and from the franchise that originated it solely on the heels of its structure and progression, it also finds a great deal of uniqueness in its star’s impressive arsenal of skills. Besides moving, jumping, and swimming, Wario also grabs and throws smaller enemies in a selected direction; crawls into tight spaces, like a good thief ought to do; rolls off slopes in order to become a ball that crashes through obstacles; and uses his impressive build to deliver a mighty ground pound, dash onto foes and breakable blocks, or run quickly while slamming everything on his way with his fierce head.
It is a wide array of skills with great responsiveness and that is stylishly introduced during a brief tutorial stage that makes it possible for all kinds of gamers to grasp it in its entirety. And Wario Land 4 knows how to employ those abilities well in the puzzles it presents, in its platforming challenges, and in the exploration that it demands of players.
Astonishingly, though, that is not all Wario can do, because in keeping up with a tradition introduced in Wario Land II, this fourth installment in the saga retains the character’s many hilarious transformations. The anti-hero, whose health is represented on the top-left of the screen as a series of hearts, does take damage when hit by foes; however, some attacks, rather than hurting him, have amusing side-effects that become skills of their own.
When stung by a bee, for instance, Wario’s face will become so swollen he will float into the air like a balloon; when bit by a bat, he will take the appearance of one and be able to fly around the place; when touched by fire, he will burn and run mindlessly before ending up as a pile of ashes; after eating an apple thrown by a gorilla, he will gain enough weight to succeed in breaking sturdier blocks by simply jumping on them; and so forth. In total, the game offers ten of those transformations, and they are prominently used by developers in the making of surprising and creative sequences that would not have been possible with a less flexible character.
These side-effects actually reveal another very important quality of Wario Land 4: its visuals and animation. Wario, as well as the foes and friends he encounters during his journey, sport movements of astounding fluidity and detail; to the point that it is hard to find a Game Boy Advance effort that looks so beautiful and vivid. The animations that occur when he unleashes one of his standard moves or is affected by one of his transformations are especially stunning, with the latter being able to generate genuine laughter just via the physical humor they are able to display.
Likewise, the scenarios Wario visits are portable showcases of artistic inspiration and technical proficiency. In a delightful turn, all of the game’s levels have different backgrounds, a fact that gives it a variety of environments that is not reached by many other sidescrollers. And these locations are invariably brimming with unique visual touches, whether they are dabbling into areas that are often tackled by other games (such as a volcano and a jungle) or into more original terrain (like a landfill, a hotel, or an Arabian town). The soundtrack follows suit, featuring a vast group of great tunes; and the game is so aware of its musical prowess that a CD with the song of the level where it is found is one of its main optional collectibles, as grabbing one allows gamers to listen to the track in the pyramid’s Sound Room.
Wario Land 4 is, however, not without its shortcomings. The biggest one of which is easily the amount of stages it carries. The pyramid is merely divided into five corridors, which work as the game’s worlds. And while four of them, which can be cleared in any order, have four levels of their own and a battle against a big bad guy, the last hallway (containing the final boss) has just a single stage. As such, Wario Land 4 only features seventeen courses.
It is true that, to some degree, the game does actively act against that brief nature. After all, it awards crowns for high scores; it gives away a certain amount of treasures according to how quickly one takes down a boss; it has collectible CDs; it boasts a few fun mini-games that can be played for coins, which allow Wario to buy items that can aid him in boss battles; and it holds assets that have to be found so that Wario can move forward. Furthermore, the game has three levels of difficulty – with the last one being unlockable – that alter the position of Pyramid Jewels, the time one has to get out of the level (which never really becomes a factor in the Normal setup), and the hearts Wario starts with. Nevertheless, its meat seems insufficient, because, in the end, one can reach the finish line within five hours.
With that in mind, those who are not attracted by the measures it uses to generate replay value will most certainly find Wario Land 4 to be excessively on the short side. During the time it lasts, the game is an absolute delight, as its mesmerizing visuals, excellent level design, branching paths filled with secrets, and Wario’s incredible – and occasionally funny – deck of skills keep it all entertaining, creative, and fresh through the entirety of the journey. But it is all so enjoyable and so brief that it is hard not to get to the end without wishing there were a handful of extra levels.
Regardless of that issue, the maturity, greatness, and confidence displayed in Wario Land 4 are more than sufficient to prove to anyone who gives it a shot that the series to which it belongs is not merely a platforming detour born out of the Super Mario games, but a saga strong and distinctive enough to stand tall on its own. And even if Wario Land 4 is not its unquestionable peak, it is still a highlight of the Nintendo canon.