"Beautiful" isn't usually a word one associates with Wario. Nintendo's antihero is fat, ill-tempered, slovenly, and foul-smelling -- one big excuse for fart jokes and nose-picking sight gags. Wario games are about lowbrow crassness at their worst, and unbridled, surreal inventiveness at their best. But beauty? Forget about it. That's what makes Wario Land: Shake It! so remarkable -- the first thing you'll notice is that it's absolutely gorgeous to behold. Its visuals are striking, even disorienting at first glance -- no one makes high-resolution 2D platformers like this anymore, not without cutting corners and using cheap Flash-style trickery to create an illusion of quality animation. The thing is, Shake It! doesn't cheat. Its layered backgrounds and huge character sprites are hand-crafted by none other than Production I.G., the anime studio responsible for the game's intro movie and animated hits like Ghost in the Shell. Wario himself is fully animated through a wide range of actions and motions, as are his foes. Likewise, the game's environments are lush and detailed, with numerous layers of parallax scrolling and tons of visual variety: No two stages use the same theme or graphics.

Click the image above to check out all Wario Land: Shake it! screens.

In short, Shake It! feels like a relic from another world, a castaway from an alternate reality where the gaming industry didn't throw out two decades of craft the moment it laid eyes on polygons -- a warm and wonderful place where lovingly crafted hand-drawn art is allowed to coexist with high-definition 3D visuals, and where 2D gameplay isn't relegated to handhelds and cheap downloadable content. If the advent of the PlayStation hadn't driven a boxy, Gouraud-shaded stake through classic game design's still-beating heart in our own universe, an entire genre of games could've continued to grow and evolve rather than downscaling to fit within the tiny confines of the Game Boy Advance and DS. Games like Shake It! would be a common occurrence. As it is, it's instead an anomaly, the gaming equivalent of a velociraptor wandering out of extinction to set up its nest on your front lawn. Shake It! throws in a few modern tricks for good measure, including a number of lighting effects that alternate between subtle and vivid. Despite these hardware tricks, though, the game's unquestionably the progeny of the 16-bit era: a classic side-scroller with visuals evolved far beyond the chunky pixels of the old days, one that moves as smoothly as a cartoon. It's a work of visual art...which is precisely why it's so very disappointing as a game.

For all that Nintendo, Production I.G., and developer Good-Feel have done to transcend the genre's low-resolution roots to take this style of graphics to new heights, that bold ambition doesn't show up in the gameplay design itself. Shake It!'s mechanics offer a tried-and-tested platformer experience, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. But while Wario looks great and controls well, it makes little difference when the world he explores requires nothing more demanding than simply going through the motions.

You've never seen a platformer that looks like this, but you've played plenty. Chances are, you played one seven years ago, to be precise: For all intents and purposes, Shake It! is a sequel to 2001's brilliant Wario Land 4 for Game Boy Advance. Every game element on display has been lifted directly from Shake It!'s portable predecessor, from the tutorial stage to the odd level structure that sees Wario racing against time to return to the stage's entrance once he reaches its goal. Wario Land 4 was a phenomenal game, easily one of the top titles in the GBA's extensive library; unfortunately, Shake It! does nothing to improve on its ideas. On the contrary, it sands down all the quirks that made that earlier game so compelling. Gone are the imaginative, varied, and above all open-ended level layouts; missing are the goofy narrative tics and links that tied the levels together; absent is the gloriously psychedelic sound design. Nearly everything that set Wario Land Advance apart from hundreds of other platformers has been expurgated in favor of a relentlessly average experience. Even the recurring features, like Wario's "status effects" (catching fire to burst through certain obstacles as he runs in pain, turning into a snowball to roll down hills and smash barriers), are barely present and offer simple, obvious puzzles that require no real thought or creativity to solve. Even the bosses eschew imagination and simply overwhelm the player with a screen full of peons. The result is a game that looks vastly more sophisticated than its 16-bit ancestors but plays exactly like the humdrum cookie-cutter Super NES games that made everyone so eager to jump on the polygon bandwagon in the first place. The only particularly new feature offered is motion control, which is applied sparingly but doesn't give Wario any particular capabilities that couldn't have been implemented just as effectively with a more traditional setup.

Click the image above to check out all Wario Land: Shake it! screens.

Shake It!'s failure to innovate is particularly infuriating, because it'll only serve to confirm in most people's minds the notion that 2D graphics are synonymous with dated, uninspired game design. But that's not true at all. The older Wario Land titles were bursting with great new ideas and mechanics; the staleness of this game's action has nothing to do with the visuals and everything to do with the fact that the dizzyingly imaginative designers who helped make those earlier titles so memorable have moved along to the WarioWare and Rhythm Heaven series, both of which offer a blank canvas for their mad gameplay ideas and sonic experimentalism, free of the constraints of old-fashioned side-scrolling action.

Sure, Shake It!'s gorgeous, but it's destined to go down in the books as the latest of Nintendo's furtive attempts to build on its own history. Like Yoshi's Island DS, it seems to have been crafted by people with the noblest of intentions but no understanding of why the great games they're imitating were great. A pretty face only goes so far when there's no soul beneath the surface, and Shake It! is as hollow as they come.