Welcome to “Diamonds in the Rough,” a feature in which I take a look at a few lesser-known and under-appreciated titles of the past. These are games that were fun and original, many of which I fettered away hours of my young life with, but for whatever reason just didn’t get the credit they deserved.Being a hero is a thankless job. The hours are long, the trials are many, and the princess is always in another freaking castle. Besides, folks like Mario can be so insufferably cheery sometimes. That’s why we have Wario. A fat, greedy, loutish brute who’s always good for a chuckle, and in case you weren’t aware, the protagonist to a refreshingly unique series of platformers on the Game Boy.
The original Wario Land started things off fairly similarly to its Mario predecessors – Wario came in two sizes depending on his health, there were a number of hat-based powerups contained in blocks, and the adventure was mostly linear with a few branching paths. The biggest departure here was the main character, who was tough enough not to take damage by simply touching an enemy (they had to actually stick him with the pointy end), and had his own crude repertoire of skills, including the now-iconic shoulder ram.
Wario Land 2 mixed things up quite a bit more by making Wario totally invincible. Far from making things a walk in the park, this introduced a whole new layer of gameplay by making Wario dependent on his enemies in order to solve a wide range of puzzles. You see, while he couldn’t be killed, Wario could still be effected in various ways by the baddies of the land – being crushed by a weight might make him pancake flat, for instance. These transformations could help or hinder the player, and the trick was often figuring out how to use them to your advantage. For example, a zombified Wario would fall through thin floors, which might act as a setback or allow you into a new area. However, walking into a ray of light would change you back, so if there was a specific floor you wanted to pass through, you had to plan your route carefully.
Wario Land 3 builds off this mechanic and refines it in what is in my opinion the best of the series. The list of transformations is much longer here than it was in the previous game, and this leads to a much wider variety of puzzles. If you’re anything like me, you’ll often allow yourself to be struck by every new enemy you encounter just to see what happens. There’s a sort of cartoony Mr.Bill-esque sadism to the whole thing…Mario would never stand for such indignities.
Wario’s third adventure is also much more freeform than his previous two. Each stage contains four seperate treasure chests and a corresponding four keys. In order to pass a stage, you must find one of these keys and unite it with its like-colored chest. The contents of these chests is variable but rarely useless. From half an amulet to a pair of overalls, these “artifacts” will usually open up a new stage, trigger a change in a previous stage, or reward Wario with a new ability. Opening all four chests in any given level is impossible the first time through, and so there’s a good amount of Metroid-style backtracking once you find the right item for the job. If this wasn’t enough, there’s even a simple night and day system that triggers its own changes across levels. Access a desert stage during the day and you might be confronted by a sea of quicksand, but come back at night and you may find that same area an empty ditch full of sleeping enemies. Like Wario’s transformations, these changes can be good or bad, opening up new areas but closing off others, and it adds yet another element to this already expansive puzzler.
However, every game has its flaws, and the Game Boy era was one in which gamers had a lot more patience (at least, I know I did back then – no way would I suffer through the blind trial-and-error and almost unfair difficulty of Final Fantasy Legend 3 today…but I digress). Wario Land 3’s biggest problem is that messing up will often set you back pretty far, and this leads to a lot of backtracking. This can get tiresome very quickly in more difficult portions of the game, as it only takes one hit to trigger a transformation that will drop you off a cliff or spring you out of a boss’s lair. There’s also a pervasive golf-themed minigame that isn’t really bad in itself but is entirely overused. It might have been a humorous diversion if used sparingly, but there’s really no reason Wario should have to sink an enemy into a tin cup under par in order to open up so many gates within actual levels.
If you can get past these slip-ups, though, Wario Land 3 is a very fun and rewarding game that manages to get you thinking more than the average platformer. The greatest thing it has going for it is sheer variety in powerups, collectibles, stages, gameplay, you name it. And let’s face it, Wario is just a more fun character than his goody-two-shoes counterpart. If you’re looking for something different from jumping on turtles to save a princess, try setting yourself on fire and running through a wall for sweet, sweet treasure.
What games do you think were tragically underrated? What hidden gems do you fondly recall from your own childhood? Let me know in the comments!