Wario Land II
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Based on: Things to do in Mario Land when you're immortal.
Article by Jeremy Parish | July 31, 2009
Nintendo's EAD, the development division headed up by Shigeru Miyamoto and responsible for masterpieces like Mario, Zelda? and Star Fox?, is the company's Paul McCartney: a creative powerhouse capable of taking an interesting idea and whittling it down to its fundamentals, combining pop accessibility with a showman's virtuosity. By that token, the R&D1 division behind Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Wario is Nintendo's John Lennon: equally imaginative, if not more so, but less concerned with polishing an idea into something salable than in taking it to its logical (sometimes illogical) extreme, even if the results are challenging, or even discomfiting. The metaphor is perhaps a little too apt, unfortunately; like Lennon, R&D1's leader Gumpei Yokoi died young, and seemingly poised for a comeback after weathering creative missteps.
Super Metroid may be R&D1's crowning achievement, but Wario Land II is probably a better example of what the division was truly about. On the surface, it seems like a typical Mario game, but look beneath the surface and you get a sense of the creators' seething id. Wario Land II is Mario gone horribly wrong.
In fact, that's even true in etymological terms: Wario isn't simply Mario with the M turned upside-down. In Japanese, "warui" means "wrong," so the character's name really does mean "Mario gone wrong." (The joke's more obvious with Waluigi, which literally spells out the pun: yet another reason all of Camelot's additions to the Mario series should be rounded up and shot.)
While Wario began life as little more than a sort of nemesis for Nintendo's main hero -- Foreman Spike given flesh and substance -- he soon found himself taking over the Super Mario Land franchise, not unlike how Yoshi would go on to usurp the Super Mario World? line. And the Game Boy was all the better for it; much as Mario's portable outings had certainly been entertaining, there was a stranger in a strange land sense about them. Mario felt slightly at odds with the atypical settings he encountered on Game Boy.
Wario, though, was right at home. His foes weren't your usual Goombas and Koopa Troopas, and that was quite alright, because he didn't really go about dealing with them in the traditional manner. Rather than hopping on his foes' heads and kicking them to earn points, he tended to go for the more direct approach: plowing into them with the power of an unstoppable force, or close enough. Of course, he could do the head-stomping thing, too. But with the ability to ram into enemies or transform into savage beast-themed forms, head hops felt so darned prosaic.
Wario Land II threw an even bigger wrinkle into the fabric of platforming clichés. Where its predecessor had been a bit of a screwball concept, letting you play as the prior game's villain and dropping you into a Mario-esque world with more aggressive skills, Wario Land II inverted one of the genre's most fundamental assumptions: that death was an inevitability to be avoided. Unlike his rival, Wario simply couldn't be killed. He could be burned, frozen, squashed, or mutilated in any number of other ways, but those were mere setbacks that would cause him to react comically in the classic Warner Bros. style. Bump into flames and Wario would begin running and waving his arms frantically as the fire sizzling on his rear end slowly burned itself out. A strike from a large mallet would cause him to become springlike, bouncing erratically. Crushing simply caused Wario to become paper-thin until he encountered water. Not even the undead could stop him for long: he might become a zombie, but eventually he'd encounter sunlight and crumble into dust—only to regenerate, phoenix-like.
The concept of an indestructible main character radically transformed the nature of Wario Land II's challenges. No longer was the goal of the game to avoid dying long enough to succeed. Rather, it became a challenge to avoid the minor inconvenience of being afflicted with semi-fatal status changes, and to deduce when to use them to advance. Unlike typical Mario games, where death was simply death, Wario's mutilation could be used to the player's advantage—a flattened Wario could slip through narrow openings, while a springlike Wario could bound to previously unreachable heights. In effect, R&D1 ended up creating a puzzle platformer almost by accident... but one that avoided the usual tropes and techniques of other entries in the genre.
Wario Land would spawn a few sequels -- the third game in the series was a more tedious rendition of the same idea, and the fourth was polished nearly to surreal perfection -- but none would demonstrate the same brilliant creativity that made Wario Land II so remarkable in its time. Fair enough; the fevered dementia that led to this portable masterpiece was channeled instead into the likes of WarioWare and Rhythm Heaven. Like most geniuses, R&D1 never seems content to tread the same territory for long. That means we may never see a satisfying sequel to Wario Land II or Super Metroid... but if that allows R&D1 to continue subverting the safe predictability of Nintendo in new and unexpected ways, it's a compromise I'm happy to accept.