What its considerable pile of problems leads to is that enjoyment of Master of Disguise will be heavily conditioned on whether or not players will be willing to look past these issues: those who do have reason to celebrate, but those who do not ought to serve as proof of the title’s squandered potential
Throughout its greatly successful journey in the handheld market, Nintendo has produced a very impressive collection of platforming games. And over the years, pretty much all of the company’s mascots that dabble in that genre have starred in notable adventures of their own: the iconic red plumber resurrected the style of his classic adventures via the New Super Mario Bros. series, Kirby has been the protagonist of wacky sidescrolling experiments like Canvas Curse and Mass Attack, Yoshi got the chance to keep on exploring the iconic Yoshi’s Island gameplay through a couple of titles, and Donkey Kong has both appeared in efforts inspired by his classic Donkey Kong Country line as well as more inventive quests such as King of Swing and Jungle Climber. None of these products or series, however, have been as significant to Nintendo’s portable machines as the Wario Land saga.
The property was born out of the Super Mario Land line when, on its third installment, the franchise opted to throw Mario away and replace him with his villainous counterpart in order to radically alter the established gameplay. And while it is certainly true that Wario has never had the universal commercial appeal that many of his platforming peers boast, his emergence was vital for Nintendo to understand that their handheld efforts would have a lot to gain if they tried to be more than copies of the experiences players could have on consoles in a more full-fledged state. It was via Wario Land that the company inaugurated a fresh sidescrolling format that could not be found anywhere else; creating, therefore, one of their first quintessentially portable franchises and paving the way to at least a couple of classics starring the greedy fat man.
Wario: Master of Disguise, released for the Nintendo DS in 2007, does not carry the Wario Land name, meaning it does not officially qualify as part of that series. However, one cannot really be dissociated from the other, and the reasons for that go far beyond the fact they share the same protagonist. Wario: Master of Disguise is, by all means, grounded on the concepts that have always been a key part of the Wario Land line; and to the delight of longtime fans of a property that had, by that time, received a whopping five installments, the game is able to get these ideas and push them to somewhere new and interesting. Sadly, though, the experience is hampered by misguided design choices that rear their heads in multiple parts of its constitution.
Master of Disguise begins with Wario channel surfing while comfortably sitting on his couch. He then stumbles on The Silver Zephyr show, which has as its protagonist a gentleman thief that goes by the name of Count Cannoli. As the man is about to sneak into a cruise to steal treasure from the ship’s bowels, Wario grumbles about the show but is struck with envy: he, after all, would love to have riches of the sort within his reach as well. Suddenly, an idea strikes him and he retreats to a back room to work on a special gadget: the Telmet. Part remote controller and part mind-controlling helmet, the device allows Wario to enter the show and disrupt Cannoli’s plan. Quickly, a rivalry is born, one that will have the two master thieves scurrying through multiple scenarios while entangled in a surprisingly intricate treasure-chasing plot.
The idea of turning Wario into a thief is pretty good: it matches his personality and it is a perfect fit for the Wario Land elements upon which Master of Disguise is constructed. The character’s iconic transformations, which give him multiple wacky abilities, gain the name of disguises, and rather than being the product of getting hit by enemies, as it happened in the Wario Land games, they are intentionally activated via a magic wand that Wario has stolen from Count Cannoli. Moreover, the whole burglary theme has great synergy with both the complex branching levels the franchise is known for, which are far more centered on exploration than acrobatic platforming, and its focus on tracking down treasure chests.
Master of Disguise unfolds across ten different episodes, and – with the exception of the first two, which take place in the cruise liner Count Cannoli was about to break into before Wario got in the way – all of them occur in different scenarios, including traditional platforming environments like a volcano and an icy peak, as well as settings that are more suitable for the work of a thief, such as a castle and a museum. Ten levels might not seem like a whole lot for a platformer, but Master of Disguise is far from being a standard take on the genre, since it significantly expands upon the level design intricacy that has always been an essential piece of the Wario Land saga.
Given their reliance on exploration, puzzles, a slight dose of backtracking, and even the gathering of keys to open locked doors, the best way to describe the episodes of Master of Disguise would be to compare them to the dungeons of a The Legend of Zelda game or to the areas of a Metroid adventure. It may seem exaggerated, but it is just about right. They are so complex that finding the treasure chest that holds the place’s map is basically a must, and even after doing so one might get lost in the game’s twisted web of doors, rooms, and branching exits; getting to their end usually entails going back to previously visited segments to unlock a door or reach a new place via a recently acquired ability (be it a totally fresh disguise or a slight upgrade to one that was already available); and they have plenty of optional secrets to be uncovered. All of that means that, in most cases, episodes can last for one hour or more, depending on how good players are when it comes to figuring out the game’s puzzling maps.
Although they have the occasional foes and a few punctual jumping sections, the main substance of the levels comes – of course – from the disguises Wario has at his disposal. When the adventure begins, he can only dress up as a thief, which other than giving him a basic tackle attack also ranks as the costume with the best running speed and highest jumps. As the quest advances, though, his collection of disguises will go up to eight. Cosmic Wario has a floaty jump and a laser gun that activates blue switches; Arty Wario can draw to make blocks appear out of thin air; Genius Wario reveals invisible platforms and fake walls; Sparky Wario lights up dark rooms; Captain Wario uses a ship to swim against currents and a submarine to smoothly move underwater; Dragon Wario spits fire and goes through thin platforms on account of his weight; and Wicked Wario can fly.
Here, an important distinction in relation to the Wario Land games arises. Even though those titles’ transformations also gave the character new abilities, the fact they were triggered when Wario was hit by enemies meant that the ones that could be accessed at any point in the quest were limited by the foes in the area. In Master of Disguise, however, all transformations that have been acquired can be accessed at any time; as such, besides being able to create situations in which players have to consider what costume will be useful, the game can also produce puzzles that freely combine them in various ways. Truth be told, the riddles are never stunningly smart, and those found in the best moments of the Wario Land series are certainly better; furthermore, Master of Disguise does have a tendency to repeat itself sometimes. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, paired up with the complex structure of the stages, these disguise-based puzzles undeniably generate very impressive and engaging levels.
As good as they may be, transformations are connected to one of the biggest issues that plague Master of Disguise: its desperate desire to make use of the Nintendo DS’ touch screen, which comes quite close to dooming its gameplay altogether. Rather than being accessed via a button press or a even a tap on the lower screen, like the transformations of Super Princess Peach, the costumes of Master of Disguise are activated by drawing shapes with the stylus pen. Cosmic Wario, for instance shows up when a helmet-like circle is made around the character’s head; Sparky Wario requires a line that resembles a lightning bolt; and Genius Wario is triggered by a shape that recalls a magnifying glass.
The problems with that approach are many. Firstly, since switching between disguises is frequent, the same goes for the necessity to draw, an action that gets old pretty fast and that will make most players strongly wish they had a simpler way to access the transformations. Secondly, these constant interruptions disrupt the flow of gameplay. Thirdly, there are a few moments, especially during boss battles, when going from one disguise to another quickly is a must, and the drawing mechanics go against this required speed even if the intervals provided to execute the change of costumes are usually generous. And, finally, the game’s pattern recognition is a bit off, which results in frustrating occurrences when symbols drawn seemingly accurately either are denied by the game or trigger unwanted transformations.
This insistence on touch commands, unfortunately, does not solely affect costume changes; it is also present in Wario’s movements. Other than jumping, walking, and crawling (actions that can be done regardless of the transformation and that are thankfully mapped to buttons) the character also has access to actions that depend on the disguise he is using. As Thief Wario, he can perform a tackle; as Captain Wario he eventually gains the ability to shoot torpedoes; as Genius Wario he can use a mechanical boxing glove; and so forth. The problem is that all of these skills are tied to the touch screen, requiring that players tap Wario to trigger them. Consequently, in many instances, the simple act of attacking or deploying an ability will force players to let go off the system with one hand, which is unnecessarily cumbersome. The alternative to that is always playing Master of Disguise holding the stylus, which is made possible due to how jumping can actually be done by pressing up on the D-pad. This strategy certainly solves the matter of having to let go off the portable constantly, but the fact remains that the touch controls feel unnecessary.
Ultimately, what is frustrating about these problems in particular is that they could have been solved with ease. The Nintendo DS has plenty of buttons, and Master of Disguise actually uses less than half of them; had one or two of these keys been designated to these special moves, these annoyances would have gone away and the game would have controlled just fine. Likewise, if the main action had been moved to the top screen, with the level’s map, stats, and transformation icons relocated to the bottom one, simply touching them could have allowed disguises to be used. And without these issues, Master of Disguise would have likely clawed its way to greatness on the strength of its level design and on the precise tweaks it does to the Wario Land formula in order to advance it.
Even if that were the case, though, it is possible to say Master of Disguise would still be a little far from perfect due to how it has flaws, albeit much smaller ones, in other areas. The first of these is related to its mini-games. As yet another proof that this is an effort that strongly drinks from the Wario Land framework, Master of Disguise does not shy away from weaving these little activities into its exploration-heavy gameplay. In its case, mini-games emerge whenever Wario opens a treasure chest. Once that occurs, the bottom screen will exhibit a time-based challenge, and while succeeding in it will let the character get the treasure, failing will cause a bunch of bombs to appear and force players to give it another go (possibly triggering a totally different mini-game in the process).
If there was a place in Master of Disguise in which it was appropriate for developers to go crazy with touch commands, these mini-games would certainly be it; therefore, it is great that – without exception – all of them are controlled in such way. However, and on what is a very ironic turn for a title starting the same character of the incredible WarioWare: Touched, the problem here is that mini-games are neither varied nor fun. In total, these come in only eight types, and they are shockingly basic, lacking any sort of creative spark: there is filling in objects with the correct colors, a sliding panel puzzle, killing cockroaches by tapping them, moving a dot through a twisted path without bumping onto the edges, tracing the outlines of figures, and so forth.
Given all levels have a dozen chests or more, it goes without saying that mini-games repeat often, and even though each one has different versions which get progressively harder as the quest progresses, they grow stale fast. This nature, combined with the fact they are not that fun, means having to clear these challenges before opening every chest starts feeling like a chore rather quickly.
The last problem that holds Master of Disguise back is found in its visuals. From a purely technical standpoint, the game is decent: its scenarios are nicely detailed, its character models are smooth, and its songs and sound effects are pleasant. However, its graphics severely lack style. Wario Land 4 was one of the best looking efforts of the Game Boy Advance, featuring vivid colors and gorgeous animations; when put beside it, Master of Disguise simply does not measure up in spite of how the hardware on which it was built is far better. Unfortunately, it seems its art is missing that layer of visual charm Nintendo games tend to offer.
What this considerable pile of problems, both huge and small, leads to is that enjoyment of Master of Disguise will be heavily conditioned on whether or not players will be willing or able to look past these issues. Those who do have reason to celebrate; after all, what they will find here is a good twelve-hour quest that, to boot, has some replay value, which is extracted out of not just a scoring system that awards players points based on the number of chests they found and on how much time it took them to beat the stage, but also five special unlockable episodes that – taking place on scenarios used during the main quest – will challenge Wario to gather a certain number of chests in a specific order before time runs out. Those who are going to fail to endure the game’s mistakes, though, will be plenty, and they ought to serve as proof that Master of Disguise is an instance of blatant squandered potential.
Wario: Master of Disguise has a lot going for it. Putting Wario in the shoes of a thief is an ideal premise, and the game uses that starting point to resurrect the signature transformation mechanics of the Wario Land franchise while turning the series’ famously intricate stages into puzzling mazes so branching that they can only be navigated with the help of a map. And as it fills these areas with treasures, locked doors, keys, and backtracking to previously visited locations with new skills, it pushes its levels to the very alluring edge that separates platforming stages from full-blown mazes.
It is an utter shame, therefore, that its greatness in design is severely damaged by forced touch controls that affect its gameplay in numerous ways and by frequent mini-games that are sadly too dull to live up to the saga’s traditions. Wario: Master of Disguise, then, is best approached carefully and with the knowledge that frustrations need to be overcome for one to glimpse the quality that lies behind the problems. And if that is achieved, what players will see is a very unique platforming quest, one that interestingly pushes the Wario Land framework to a refreshing point, even if it does so with a lot of bumps and bruises.