Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 10, Wario Land 3
Nintendo's best 2D platformer isn't a Mario game, and it isn't a console game, either.
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.
If you haven’t played Wario Land 3, you’re probably wondering how the hell it got itself into the top 10 games Nintendo has ever produced. The short answer is that it’s the best 2D platformer the company has ever put their name on, as it put a fantastic spin on the already excellent gameplay of Wario Land II (number 63) while correctly recognizing that what Wario was missing was elements of Metroid. And also a minigame where Wario kicks a round enemy across a golf course until it lands in the hole.
If you have played this Game Boy Color classic, well, you have no such questions, and know exactly why it’s here. Either way, let’s dive in to what makes this game so special.
Wario Land 3 built on the gameplay elements of Wario Land II by stripping them all away. Whereas in II, Wario had a slate of inherent abilities that helped him traverse platforming stages and solve environmental puzzles, in the sequel, Wario can barely do anything when the game begins: he can do a basic jump, and has a dash attack, but that’s it. If you’ve played II, then you’ll recognize similar environmental puzzles that you could solve — breakable blocks, a jump that’s out of reach, objects you need to throw other objects at — if only you had the ability necessary to do so. That thing looks like it can be butt stomped, you think, but you can’t butt stomp right away. You have to remember that butt-stompable object for later when you can, in fact, stomp butt-first, and unlock it secrets.
That’s where the Metroid-esque elements come in. Whereas in II, Wario would play a level once and that was that until after you completed the game and could revisit stages to work on reaching the “true” ending, Wario Land 3 has an overworld map. You unlock additional stages by completing the ones you already have access to, but through specific exits. There are four exits per stage, each of them a colored treasure chest you need to find a key of a matching color to unlock. Inside the chest is either an ability for Wario that will open up new areas within levels you already have access to, like the aforementioned butt stomp can, or you find an item that will unlock a new stage, or work toward that goal. This chest has an axe in it: Wario cuts down the tree on the overworld map blocking his path to another stage. This chest has half a medallion in it: find the other half in another treasure chest elsewhere, and it opens a door on the overworld that leads to more stages. And so on.
Wario Land 3 is not the only time Nintendo has placed elements of Metroid gameplay into other games not in that series — revisiting old spaces again and again as your growing powers change the nature of those areas for you, further unlocking more of the game and the layered secrets within — but it’s the most successful go at that strategy. The Game Boy Advance’s Kirby & The Amazing Mirror was a fun attempt at something similar, but instead of using the overworld to retrace your steps like Wario Land 3, it was a little more open-ended, like Metroid tends to be, and full of backtracking. The relative failure in that was that specific rooms and levels in Kirby aren’t designed for or include the depth to be revisited again and again like Wario’s 2D platformers, nor did The Amazing Mirror have the kind of elements of dread and horror that Metroid uses to keep you fully locked in regardless of how many times you’ve been in a particular spot. So, while the game was good, it doesn’t compare to Metroid or Wario Land 3.
In addition to the new powers or items that open up more of Wario Land 3 for you, there is also a day/night cycle that acts similarly. Some keys can only be reached at day or at night, because a door is now open that wasn’t in the other part of the cycle, or an enemy you need to borrow the power of is only there at night, or what have you. Oh, yeah, Wario doesn’t take any damage from enemies in Wario Land 3: if he bumps into a standard enemy, he just loses some coins. However, if an enemy that breathes fire hits Wario with said fire, well, Wario runs back and forth without you able to stop him as he’s consumed by flames. Then, you regain control of your protagonist while he’s fully engulfed in them, and walk over to blocks that can only be opened up by fire. Sometimes it’s a heavy, falling object that squashes Wario, making it so he then floats through the air. Sometimes it’s a zombie making Wario into a zombie who can then fall through certain platforms he could not have if his body was, well, less falling-apart-y.
Figuring out exactly where to use these powers granted to you by intentionally getting hit by your enemies is a significant part of the game. It will help open up access to the keys you need to progress through the game, and to the secret coins, of which there are eight in each stage. You won’t be able to get to all of them until you’ve mastered all of Wario’s various unlockable abilities, so don’t get too hung up on finding them early on. The time for that will come, and you’ll need to know much more than you do early on before that can happen.
As Stephen Swift wrote for Paste back in 2014, while declaring the Virtual Console release of Wario Land 3 the best game on the entire 3DS eShop:
Wario Land 3 is of the vintage of 2d games in which every floor tile serves a purpose. Platformer fans who enjoy testing the bounds of each level’s layout will be well-rewarded; many hidden coins and branching level paths can only be found by exploiting your knowledge of how the game’s engine and environment react to your poking and prodding. And there’s a lot of potential prodding one can do—with nine outfit upgrades and fifteen potential Wario States, the game’s puzzles are wildly varied, without feeling visibly-constructed. In order to 100% the game, you’ll have to push your understanding of tile types to the limit; there have been several occasions where I’ve surprised myself by pulling off an unusual trick, only to realize that it leads directly to a hidden Musical Coin.
In short, in order to 100 percent the game, you’re going to need to fully understand how to use each Wario power in every context, whether they be his or temporarily granted by an enemy encounter, in every possible situation. The game encourages experimentation, so that’s a positive in that regard, but it also helps you out quite a bit with tutorials. While much of the tutorial system is basic, leaving exploration of the game and its mechanics up to you and your own pacing, it does give you an idea of how each new power granted to Wario works once you acquire it. And not just hypothetically, either, as it gives you a visual cue for a previous stage where you can now use that new power in a productive way.
Overall, the game is pretty good about showing you all it needs to so that you can beat the game, but not complete it. There is no real guide as to what to do next, but if you go back to the temple at the game’s start, it will give you a hint as to where you need to go to progress the story. You won’t come anywhere close to collecting all of the game’s treasures if you play that way, though, much like how, in the assist modes of New Super Mario Bros. games, they’ll help you beat the level when you turn it on, but the assist won’t reveal the locations of any hidden paths or items. The bare minimum of information to keep you from getting stuck is no small thing, though, and can certainly be welcome even for players being hardcore about 100 percenting the game after they’ve veered off course for a while to seek out non-required treasures.
One area in which you’ll receive no help is with the game’s bosses, which makes some measure of sense: you can’t die, so the challenge from boss fights had to come somewhere. The game’s bosses know they can’t damage you, so they don’t fight to kill: they fight to kick you out of their room, nest, to knock you off of a platform you can’t get back up to, whatever. This ends the boss fight, which means you get sent back to an earlier room in the level and have to work your way back. So every boss encounter has to go perfectly for you, basically, in order for it to end. This was certainly surmountable on the original Game Boy Color iteration of Wario Land 3, but if you’re tight on time or patience, you can always use the save state feature on the 3DS’ digital version of the game to just go back to the beginning of the fight. You have to figure out a boss’ weak spot, and how to attack it, in a hurry, and generally, it’s not as obvious as it tends to be in a Mario game, and relies more on pattern recognition so you can find your in to attack. Just try to avoid getting hit while you’re figuring it out, because once you’re struck, you’re out.
Let’s talk about that golf minigame for a second. It is often required that you play it in order to progress through a particular point in a level. It does not necessarily control super well or accurately. Some people hate it. And yet, I love it. I love it so much. I would play an entire game of just this goofy-ass minigame. Rather than use a golf club, Wario kicks a ball-shaped enemy across a 2D, sidescrolling golf course, attempting to avoid classic golf hazards (water, sand) and also more video game-centric traps like lava en route to scoring at least a par on the hole. It’s the kind of minigame that lets you see exactly how Wario got to a place where he was the star of WarioWare instead of Wario Land, and while I miss having new Wario Land games, I do love me some WarioWare.
The sound, as is the case with Wario Land games, is wonderful. Nintendo had nailed songwriting for the Game Boy well before Wario Land 3 released on the GBC, and it shows with all of the playful themes and sound effects found throughout the whole game. Bringing golf back into it for a second, whatever your thoughts on the minigame itself, the theme you hear while playing it is just so good, and perfect for the oddness of the moment. “Perfect for the oddness of the moment” basically describes every song and theme you hear in Wario Land 3, which is how you know it works. The whole soundtrack is on YouTube, because of course it is, and I suggest you listen to it.
The sound isn’t the most standout element of that part of the experience, though. While it doesn’t look as good as Wario Land 4 (number 27), which released on the more powerful Game Boy Advance system, that’s the only thing it does worse than its followup, and it’s still incredible from an animation perspective. Don’t look at gameplay videos online where people playing on emulators smoothed out all of the pixels for some godawful season: that’s no indication of how this game looks in motion. It looks great, by the way, limited as it is by the Game Boy Color’s palette.
Even the simple act of climbing up a ladder has so much effort put into the animation of Wario: it’s really a joy to watch his every move and reaction, and if you want to 100 percent the game, you’re going to be watching a whole lot of Wario.
Maybe you prefer Wario Land 4 to 3, since it tightens up the exploration a bit, adds the element of health back in so it feels a little more traditional — well, for Wario, anyway — and includes more elements of speed and racing around than the admittedly, by-design, plodding 3. Wario Land 3, though, doesn’t feel slow to me. It feels intentional, and there is a massive difference between those two speeds.
As an example, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island feels slow to me these days, with levels that are long and occasionally grating because of how the game’s mechanics work. Wario Land 3, though, is all about short burst stages with puzzles to be figured out through experimentation and familiarity. The enemies can’t hurt you unless you want them to for the sake of said experimentation and exploration. You’ve got all day to figure out the puzzle right in front of you. And usually, once you do, there’s a treasure or key or chest to reward you for your efforts, not just the promise of a checkpoint and more stage. It’s an exceptional balance of reward for effort, and holds up better than any 2D Mario, or any of its many offshoots, including the other Wario titles, because it took this extra step to overload the game with depth you feel compelled to mine.
You need a Game Boy Color or Game Boy Advance to play a physical copy of Wario Land 3, but if you have a 3DS, you can download the digital version for the grand total of $5. Just five bucks! For one of the 10 best games Nintendo has ever made, an absolute classic of 2D platforming and Nintendo at some of its most inventive within the genre. If you’ve played this before, you probably already have a copy tucked away, and do not require my advice here. If you haven’t played Wario Land 3 before, though, well, you see where I ranked this thing. Get to it. Just don’t smooth out the pixels when you do.
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