Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 27, Wario Land 4

What, you didn't think I was finished with ranking Wario games, did you?

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Is there a Nintendo franchise I miss more than Wario Land? Probably not, considering that the greatest entries from this particular series, to me, outpace even the best of Mario’s 2D platforming adventures. Wario might have been relegated to “just” the handheld space for much of his existence, doomed to be overshadowed by the polygons of the console generations he sprung up in, but his games are just phenomenal examples of what 2D platformers were still capable of even after their supposed golden age, and, like with Metroid and the surge in modern Metroidvania titles, Wario Land games are a source of inspiration for a lot of the more offbeat titles in the indie-led resurgence of the genre.

The last entry we got was for the Wii back in 2008, and that was either the weakest or the second-weakest of the Wario Land titles, depending on your fondness for the original, the now confusingly subtitled “Super Mario Land 3.” It was still really fun, mind you, and stunning to see in motion thanks to hand drawn 2D animation, but Shake It was still a bit disappointing compared to the two games in the series that came before. And also, it came out in 2008! That was 13 years ago! The Wario Land series was itself only 14 years old when Shake It launched! Give me another Wario Land, you monsters, or I will keep using exclamation points.

The good news is that the games we’ve been able to play in the series still absolutely rule, and some are even easily found, which, as we’ve discussed time and time again during this project, is not always the case with Nintendo’s back catalog. Wario Land 4, sadly, is not one of the ones that’s easy to pick up, so, sorry to get your hopes up there. If you’ve got a Wii U, the Game Boy Advance title is on that game’s eShop. If you’ve got a 3DS, which is exponentially more likely, it’s on there, but — so sorry again — was only available as part of an early adopter bonus program for 3DS owners that switched from the original 3DS to the XL version. So, yeah, most of you who did not trade up at the XL’s launch have to rely on still having a system that plays GBA cartridges, and also getting yourself a Wario Land 4 cartridge. As you can imagine, given the game is ranked as the 27th best thing Nintendo ever put their name on, I think it’s worth the $20-30 you have to drop for it on the secondhand market, but it would be nicer if you could just spend a few dollars on it instead.

Anyway, enough about what it would cost you and more about why you would want to spend for it. Basically the rudest thing to be said about Wario Land 4 is that it’s not as good as Wario Land 3, and you might find people who disagree with me on even that note, as they prefer the structure of 4 to 3. Other than that it might only be the second-best Wario Land game out there, what’s to complain about? That still puts it ahead of every 2D Mario outing and a number of the 3D ones, too, which, well, there aren’t exactly a surplus of platforming franchises you can say that about, Nintendo or otherwise.

You can once again take damage, but that’s in part because Wario Land 4 completely revamps how you play the series, and adds difficulty options that lean on health and damage for challenge. Levels are split up into two distinct phases: in the first, you can take your time and explore the stage at your leisure, finding any jewels — used to open the door to a boss — or gems you might want to at your own pace. There are enemies that can hurt you, but otherwise, it’s a pretty relaxed experience, one in which you can take your time to check out every available nook and cranny of a stage without having to worry about running out of time. Pick up objects and enemies to throw them to clear obstacles, roll down hills to break through weak walls, and, of course, take on different forms like a flying bat or a swollen head that makes you float in water or just be running around literally on fire in order to solve environmental puzzles and find hidden goodies. Like I said, a relaxed experience.

Then you hit the mid-level checkpoint, and the experience becomes entirely about how much time you have left. A clock begins to count down, and you need to escape the stage before it collapses on itself and takes Wario out with it. You backtrack to the entrance of the stage to do so, but it’s not as simple as turning around and going back the way you came. Certain paths are now blocked off, and new ones must be found. Some jewels you couldn’t find might only be accessible when you’re in a rush to get out of the stage, and the key found in every stage might also only be found during this hurried part of the level, too. And oh, yeah, it’s a Wario game: treasures are basically the point, and even more so here where they’re needed to advance. So you need to balance your remaining time and desire for safety with Wario’s unchecked greed, or else what are you even doing here?

This feature shows off one of the things that Nintendo, and R&D1, especially, have been masters at for decades now, and that’s their ability to add layers upon layers to what might look like simple platforming stages. Finding all of the shortcuts, the hidden rooms, the tucked away treasures and gems, the fastest path back to safety: all of this is just right there waiting to be discovered, in what otherwise looks like a relatively simple stage. They are anything but simple, though, and they are also designed so that you’ll be happy to go back to them again and again, either to find the treasures you missed your first time around, or simply to play on a higher difficulty or revisit the game after a time away from it.

Wario Land 4’s bosses are loads of fun, and, like with Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, how easily and quickly you dispatch them is tied into how effectively you actually managed to clear the world they’re guarding. Take too long to finish off one of Wario Land 4’s bosses, and you won’t get as many treasures from defeating them. As said above, if you aren’t going for all of the treasures, why are you playing Wario Land? You have to figure out on your own what you need to do to defeat the bosses, as there aren’t any real hints or clues in the levels themselves, or even necessarily in the boss fights. Experiment, use your head, don’t stop moving and thinking at the same time, and eventually, you’ll figure it out. You might have to replay the boss fights to get all of the unlockable treasures, but hey, you’ll feel compelled to, because the game leaves you with the feeling not just that you need to do better, but that you can do better.

This is not a particularly lengthy game, but that’s not a problem at all because of how it’s constructed. There are four different passages you can take after clearing the initial entry passage, and you can play them in any order. There are four stages within each passage that each have jewel pieces needed to unlock the boss door, which gets you the boss fight and the chance to win treasures, i.e. the reason Wario finds himself inside of this golden pyramid to begin with. As said, you’ll be replaying stages to find the jewels you missed the first time, to collect more gems in order to buy items that will help you out in boss fights. Well, the gems and cash and such are actually used to buy your way into minigames in which you can earn medals, and those medals are used to buy the items. You can see a direct link from Wario Land to WarioWare in these later titles like 3 and 4, that’s for sure.

These items that help protect Wario’s health and in boss fights are nice to haves on the normal difficulty, and while not essential, helpful against the final boss. They are basically required unless you’re the kind of person who uploads All Bosses No Damage Nightmare Difficulty videos onto YouTube on the tougher modes, though, so don’t avoid the deposits of gems or dollars you find in the game’s 18 stages: you’ll need them for minigames and medals.

There are three mini games to choose from in Wario Land 4, and you can access them after clearing the stages and before the boss of each passage. There is Wario Roulette, where you try to reconstruct Wario’s face featuring eyes, a mouth, and eyebrows that might not normally belong to him, as it was briefly shown to you. There is Wario Hop, where Wario stands atop a tire riding across the desert, avoiding obstacles in his path. The further you get into this game, the faster and more difficult it becomes. And you’re timing your jumps to the background music of the game, to, so consider it a Wario-style rhythm game.

Then there is my personal favorite, Wario Home Run Derby, which definitely feels the most like a precursor to WarioWare-style games. You tilt your system vertically, and attempt to hit home runs as pitches are thrown to you. That’s it. Timing is everything, as it’s very easy to foul off a ball or not hit it at just the right second in order to maximize contact, and striking out ends the minigame. Hit a home run, and the count resets. So, keep hitting dingers. Oh, and the pitches aren’t always just batting practice-style, down-the-middle offerings. The game doesn’t want you to hit home runs, and will actively work against your doing so, which makes it a nifty little diversion to attempt to master that feeds into the experience of the main game, thanks to the medals.

None of these are microgames, of course, but you still see how R&D1 decided it was time to go another route with Wario all the same, based on the success they had developing minigames both for this and, to a smaller extent, in Wario Land 3. These experiences in and of themselves are enjoyable, and never feel like they’re keeping you from the full Wario Land 4 experience. They’re a key part of the entire setup, and welcome.

I haven’t yet discussed what maybe sticks out the most about Wario Land 4 outside of just how much fun it is to pick up and play, and that’s how beautiful it looks and sounds. As is usual with Wario Land games, the sound is excellent: the music is great, and the over-the-top sound effects add to the entire experience. The look of the game, though, is where the non-gameplay elements truly shine. Wario is just so expressive, the animations so lovingly rendered: the game is legit funny to just watch play out, because of the way Wario reacts to the environment and what he does or is done to him. Every 3D remake of a sprite-based 2D platformer is a crime against God, and not even the cool kind that makes evangelicals mad. Luckily, Wario Land 4 understood the appeal and beauty of the 2D aesthetic, and, outside of Shake It’s Wii-powered rendering, it’s the most stunning entry in the series to just look at in motion. Just seeing static images doesn’t do it justice: the beauty is in the action here.

Wario Land 4 is a true classic, a rewarding and fulfilling experience even on the standard difficulty. It’s the kind of game that used to prove Nintendo was fully capable of excelling in the 2D platform space without a plumber to be seen anywhere, and playing it now well after the fact reminds you of that. Now, if only we could get them to care about making a Wario Land 5. Or 6, whatever, Shake It isn’t numbered but neither were most Mario Karts. Or, at least, releasing a long overdue Wario Land collection so anyone who missed out — or anyone who just wants to go back to the games of their youth — can experience one of the best, maybe most underrated franchise Nintendo has in their extensive library.

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