Why Wario Land 4 Remains the Best Portable Mario Game «

With Super Mario 3D Land freshly delivered to the eager hands of gamers the world over, Nintendo’s portable platformer legacy is at the front of many people’s minds. Sure, 3D Land isn’t as closely related to the old Super Mario Land games as its name would suggest, but that doesn’t make it any less fun… even if it does err on the side of being a little too easy. Much as we’ve enjoyed 3D Land, though, it still isn’t our favorite portable Mario game. 

Admittedly, I’m using the royal “we” here, but I will cheerfully defend my claim that the best portable Mario game is the sublime Wario Land 4 for Game Boy Advance… which, by a handy coincidence, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this week. No, it doesn’t star Mario, but it can trace its lineage directly to Super Mario Land, and that’s good enough. Sadly, Wario Land 4 has never really commanded the loyal following and vocal praise it deserves. Launched in the early days of the GBA, it was generally overshadowed by Super Mario Advance and its sequel, despite the fact that (unlike those higher-profile titles) Wario’s game was wholly original, built from the ground-up for the system. What better time than its decennial to right the wrongs of fickle gamers and properly canonize Wario Land 4? Chances are you overlooked this portable masterpiece when it was released. Well, here are 10 reasons you need to correct that mistake.

1. It defies platform gaming conventions


If Mario is the Beatles of video games, Wario is the Rolling Stones. Where Mario is virtuosic, inventive, and medium-defining yet inevitably constrained by his own legacy and the expectations of fans, Wario exists to turn everything Mario did upside down. He’s the bad boy to Mario’s suit-clad mop-top. If Mario were to make a statement with his cover art, it would be pure white with his name embossed on it; Wario’s cover would feature an Andy Warhol piece integrating a naughty working zipper into a photograph of blue jeans. But I digress. Although Wario Land 4 actually takes a step backward from its two Game Boy Color predecessors by restoring the ability to suffer damage and rely on a stock of lives when failure strikes — something Wario Land II and III had abandoned entirely — the challenge in this game derives more from the unusual level designs and figuring out the puzzles inherent in shooting for the top scores than from hazards. Wario’s health meter only really comes into play with bosses, and even then you’re less likely to lose from taking damage than from running out of time. But hey, not to worry; you can always even the odds by buying extra time or various health perks for boss fights. The goal of Wario Land isn’t so much to get to the end as it is to be as thorough as possible. Mario collects coins because that’s just how the games are made and he likes 1UPs; Wario collects everything in sight because he’s a greedy bastard.

2. It makes fun of the concept of collectables


Despite the fact that Wario is obsessed with wealth and that the emphasis of Wario Land 4 is firmly on gathering as many gems and coins as possible to fatten the fatty anti-hero’s wallet, you never quite shake the impression that the developers weren’t taking the concept of acquisition entirely seriously. Yeah, you can trade currency for goods that level the field against tricky bosses, and there’s certainly a thrill of satisfaction in snagging one of the rare, valuable, giant gem stones, but for the most part you simply collect for collection’s sake and it doesn’t matter one way or another how comprehensive you are outside of a small medal displayed next to each completed stage. You’re ultimately graded on how quickly you defeat a boss, not how much crap you pick up. Meanwhile, the sole collectible good besides money and keys — CDs used to unlock sound test items — are basically an elaborate troll. You’d think the sound test would unlock a jukebox for the game’s great music, right? Nope. Wario Land 4’s jukebox is full of weird sound effects and Game Boy Camera photos of developers making faces at you. It’s especially ironic considering that…

3. …the music is amazing


Wario Land 4 was the work of what might be Nintendo’s most musically adept team, the group formerly known as R&D1. Not only did they compose their typically memorable tunes for this game, they also used it as a technical audio showcase for the GBA hardware’s capabilities. After years of portable games leaning on simple, jangling chip tunes, Wario Land 4’s composers and sound programmers really let themselves stretch with a huge range of styles — everything from funky jazz to gentle island ballads — and tons of sampling and vocal tracks. But it didn’t stop there! The music would warp and distort on the fly to reflect what was happening to the hero (er, anti-hero). A full-length vocal track which begins with a lady’s cheerful salutation of “Hello there!” was memorable enough for a portable game in 2001; hearing her delicate tunes run at an out-of-tune half-speed while accompanied by zany cartoon effects because Wario had been squished flat was amazing, especially on a handheld.

4. It looks great


Oh, yeah: Wario Land 4 looked as great as it sounded. It may well have been the best-looking portable game to date, in fact. You may not have noticed due to the GBA’s lack of backlighting, but seriously, it’s a pretty game. Wario was lovingly animated, bosses were huge and grotesquely rendered, and level designs were bursting with detail. Outside of the core game action, players were treated to fun (if brief) cinematic animations that set up the game’s semblance of a plot in style (and canonized the antagonistic protagonist’s vehicle of choice: A huge, gas-guzzling, purple Caddy). It easily ranks among the best old-fashioned sprite-based art Nintendo has ever issued — a real treat for the eyes.

5. It offers interesting themes and level formats


Those graphics weren’t wasted on the usual grass land/fire land/ice land level sets of other games. Although most of those elements appear in some form or another, Wario Land 4 has a very unusual theme — every level is set inside a room within different corridors of an immense pyramid lost to time — that justifies both the fact that every level has its own unique look and the way nothing really belongs together. Sure, the game doesn’t have a ton of stages (less than 20 total), but each one stands apart from the others. The first corridor, for instance, presents you with a peaceful beach, which is followed by pastoral pastures full of flowers and bees, after which comes a lake, which in turn leads to a jungle. Although similar in color scheme (they’re part of the Emerald Corridor, after all), each of those levels has a completely separate look, tone, sets of graphics, and enemies. The same goes for the levels in each of the subsequent corridors as well. This diversity from stage to stage is something that even the mighty Mario games never managed to pull off until Super Mario Galaxy — not bad!


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