Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 63, Wario Land II
It's not as popular, no, but 2D Wario is, generally speaking, better than 2D Mario, and that all started with the first Wario game fully detached from Mario's universe.
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.
Before there was Wario Land, there was Mario Land. A launch title for the Game Boy, Super Mario Land brought us what was basically Weird Mario. It wasn’t developed with any involvement or input from Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario, and was instead made by a team at Nintendo, helmed by the creator of the Game Boy himself, Gunpei Yokoi, that as the story goes resented having to work on a Mario game at all, rather than a brand new property or one of their own invention. Mario was a big deal in 1989, sure, but not like you think of today, where many developers might do unspeakable things for a chance to work on his titles. Other Nintendo studios wanted to make the next Mario for the company, not Mario itself.
This doesn’t mean the developers made a bad game when given a task they weren’t thrilled by: far from it! Nintendo R&D1, responsible for titles like Metroid and Kid Icarus, just decided to make Mario their own way instead of Miyamoto’s. There were no fireballs, but instead bouncy superballs. Koopa shells could not be picked up, but would instead explode after Mario bounced on them. There were side-scrolling shoot-em-up levels, a different princess from a different land to rescue, and hearts were introduced for 1-ups, likely because that was simpler for players to recognize than different mushrooms on the limited Game Boy palette would have been.
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins followed in the footsteps of the original by both being and not being what you expect from Mario, but most importantly, it introduced the world to Wario. Everything about Wario is exaggerated from Mario. He’s bigger, he’s stronger, his features are caricatured features of Mario’s, and his need for collecting coins goes well, well beyond a desire for earning extra lives. Maybe you know this, but just in case you do not: Wario’s name is a play on words, at least for Japanese audiences, as “warui” is the word for “bad” in that language. And so, Wario’s name is much more than just an upside down M that represents his alignment in comparison to Mario’s. It also tells you who he is when you hear it! At least, if you know Japanese. I don’t, but I do know that story, which in this case, gets you to the same place.
Wario was a villain in 6 Golden Coins, but that role did not last long. Super Mario Land 2 released in 1992, it would be the last of those games to feature Mario, as its sequel was 1994’s Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. Even though it was a very different game with a different lead, Nintendo attached it to a preexisting, popular series like they had with Yoshi’s Island, which was actually titled, at least for its SNES iteration, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island.
The spin-off-of-sorts experiment worked, to the point Super Mario Land would fully vanish from existence, and Nintendo R&D1 now got what they really wanted: to make games with their own character and their own rules, not bound at all by the expectations set by a series they had nothing to do with. They took that ball and ran with it to a place far unlike what was seen in even their first Wario Land title, which featured slow-paced exploration, secret paths, power-granting hats, and an emphasis on collecting coins and secret treasures in order to achieve a better ending. And that’s what brought us the annoyingly numbered Wario Land II, the only entry in the series it spawned from and the series itself to go the roman numeral route.
Wario Land II, released first on the Game Boy in 1998 and then in an enhanced version on the Game Boy Color less than a year later, features an invincible Wario. Like, always that way. There are no lives, no way to die or to so directly fail at an attempt to play in a level. No, all that happens when Wario is struck by an enemy or obstacle is that he will lose some coins. However, since the coins are central to unlocking the game’s true potential and unveiling its full slate of levels, that’s no small thing, and you’ll want to avoid colliding with enemies even if doing so won’t cause Wario to die and you to retry.
Well, usually you want to avoid them. Sometimes, enemies and Wario will bump into each other, and the result is that it grants our treasure-seeking anti-hero some temporary powers. Stung by a bee? Wario is clearly allergic, and his face swells up like a balloon… causing him to float endlessly through the air until he crashes into something in his way. Burned by fire? Wario will run back and forth, nearly (but, important for platforming puzzle-solving solutions, not entirely) out of control, until he is eventually consumed by the flames, which will allow him to more easily defeat enemies or even open secret paths that are only susceptible to a walking, Wario-sized fireball.
Wario can be flattened by heavy objects, which allows him to walk or float in the air through narrow entrances, or cross gaps he’s normally not compressed wide enough to walk over without falling through. He can be caught in a bubble to float through rushing water he normally can’t bypass, he can turn into a spring to jump much higher, or he can become a bouncing ball. These powers are all achieved by purposely crashing into or being attacked by an enemy, and they’re integral to not just finding secret paths and treasures and coins, but also to completing many of the base levels. You’ll find yourself experimenting with the various enemies and the powers they grant you, and your reward will be unveiling the game’s hidden secrets.
Enemies aren’t just there so you gain powers from them, or to impede your progress. You also need to use them to solve some environmental puzzles, like carrying an enemy around to a place where you can then jump off of them, in order to reach a higher ledge or coins, or to charge up and throw an enemy through a wall in order to break it open and progress that way.
Boss fights are also different than you are used to, since there is no risk of Wario dying. No, instead, bosses attack Wario in ways that will see him ejected from the arena in which they are fighting. If you get stung by the giant bee boss or its tiny bee compatriots, for example, Wario will float right on out of the arena and need to find his way back in to try the whole battle again. It makes learning the patterns of the bosses absolutely necessary instead of a luxury: a perfect fight against the bosses is the base requirement for defeating them.
The animations are both enjoyable and incredibly impressive for what was at one time “just” a Game Boy game. Wario, as he should be, is the star of the animation, whether he’s getting ready to go shoulder first through a brick wall, or has been set on fire, or blown up like a balloon, etc. He’s just so expressive, his reactions so fun to watch, and it helps, too, that the game’s sounds and music are also top-notch. It’s not the best Wario soundtrack going, but that’s only because Wario games have killer music, and R&D1 would top what they produced in II just like they bested the original’s soundtrack with this entry.
Wario Land II’s structure was odd at the time, and remains that way, which is not to say it’s bad. It’s just, like Wario himself, different. You play through the game, one level at a time, with no overworld to speak of. You get to one level’s exit and end up in another level afterward, which is pretty standard. What’s not standard is that you might be leaving a stage through a hidden exit that helps you unlock more of the game, including “The Really Final Chapter",” or you might be leaving through the more traditional path. It’s possible you not only missed the secret exit, but also the door that leads to the stage’s hidden treasure, too, and you aren’t able to try any of the levels again to find what you missed. At least, not at first.
When you complete your initial playthrough of the game and defeat one of its end bosses, you can finally see the world you’ve unlocked so far, as well as information on which stages you’re missing the “real” exits from. You can return to those stages to find said exits, which will eventually result in you getting to that “Really Final Chapter” and the true conclusion of Wario Land II. In total, there are 12 chapters and 52 levels, and you’ll want to explore every inch of them to find all of the coins and treasures you can. And not just because that’s what the game wants you to do: the act of exploring and discovering in Wario Land II is extremely rewarding, and you’ll feel compelled to do so hours and hours before you ever figure out that you need to be doing that in order to see everything the game has to offer.
There is no time limit, either, unlike in the original Wario Land, which also encouraged exploration, but not to this point. So you can take your time to experiment, to seek out hidden passages and coin vaults and doors that lead to the minigames that cost you coins but earn you treasure. And those treasures aren’t just collectibles for the sake of it: there are five endings in the game, and, along with those hidden exits, the end boss and ending you’ll see is determined by the treasures you’ve collected.
This system works so well. Explore for and collect coins, because you need the coins to play the minigames that earn you treasures and a map. You can keep paying to try to earn these treasures and to make solving the map puzzle easier, but you need the coins to do it. You’ll find them if you bother to look, which is also how you find the hidden treasure games and hidden exits. All this exploring and its rewards feed into each other in a way that makes playing Wario Land II more enjoyable, never mind that it also gets you access to all of the chapters and the true ending.
I love a game that rewards you for wanting to learn all of its secrets, to discover everything there is to know about it, that so obviously offers replayability. It should only take you about five hours to play Wario Land II, unless you want to do and see everything, in which case it’ll take you about three times that long. And you will want to see, maybe not everything, depending on how you yourself play games, but a whole lot of what Wario Land II has to offer.
If you have a Nintendo 3DS, you can download the Virtual Console version of the Game Boy Color edition of Wario Land II for the grand total of $5. If not, you can find Wario Land II on ebay without breaking the bank — especially if you are fine with playing a Japanese import of a platformer on the gloriously region-free Game Boy family of systems, not that I’ve uh ever done that sort of thing. Regardless of whether you obtain it through Nintendo or the secondary market or some other means, you should: Wario Land II isn’t the best Wario Land title, but that says more about the two that follow this one than it does about II, an excellent platformer in its own right that just happened to lead to two even better ones.
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