When Super Mario Land debuted as one of the Game Boy’s many launch titles in 1989, it became one of the handheld console’s first big hits. Notably, it would go on to sell over eighteen million copies, surpassing figures of its direct predecessor, Super Mario Bros. 3. Three years later in 1992, its sequel, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins was released. While Super Mario Land impressed many enthusiasts by giving them what amounted to a handheld version of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Land 2 managed to improve upon the original. Featuring graphics and level design that wouldn’t seem out of place in the highly regarded, 16-bit Super Mario World, Super Mario Land 2 is considered even to this day to be one of the Game Boy’s strongest offerings.
After the success of two Super Mario Land installments, fans eagerly waited for a sequel. Super Mario Bros. formed the basis for a solid trilogy on the NES. It therefore stood to reason that Nintendo would make a trilogy out of Super Mario Land as well. Such a development came to pass, but in a way nobody could’ve predicted. Part of why Super Mario Land 2 remains a popular game is its significant contribution to Mario canon. Specifically, it introduced Wario, a character who stood for everything Mario opposed. His name is derived from the Japanese world for bad, “warui”, but other cultures could identify his diametric opposition to Mario simply because of the letter emblazoned upon his cap resembling an upside-down “M”. In other words, a nuance that could’ve been lost in translation found itself jumping between cultures seamlessly. He was the perfect rival for Mario. He was driven by greed and self-interest. He proved what an effective villain he could be in Super Mario Land 2. He was to be the protagonist of its sequel.
Nintendo was known for its unambiguously heroic protagonists; the idea of playing as Wario seemed inconceivable. Any chance of the ensuing marketing campaign being an elaborate joke on Nintendo’s part was dashed when promotional materials made the game’s name known: Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. Despite, or perhaps as a direct result of, having gone completely off the rails, Wario Land was a commercial success upon its 1994 release, moving over five million copies worldwide. In some circles, this game is considered the strongest entry in the Super Mario Land trilogy. With its unlikely protagonist, did Wario Land truly surpass its highly regarded predecessors?
Analyzing the Experience
Wario Land picks up exactly where Super Mario Land 2 ended. Mario has collected the six golden coins and handed Wario a resounding defeat. He then proceeds to unceremoniously eject Wario from his castle. Crushed by his humiliating loss, Wario swears revenge on Mario. Correctly assessing that success is the best revenge, Wario seeks to obtain his own castle – one bigger and more impressive than Mario’s. As he is unlikely to find one simply laying around, there is only force in the world capable making this extravagant dream a reality: cold, hard cash.
As luck would have it, he hears rumors surrounding the notorious Brown Sugar Pirates. They are headquartered on Kitchen Island where they have hidden many treasures and coins. Amount their possessions is a golden statue of Princess Peach, which they stole from the Mushroom Kingdom. Concocting the idea to retrieve the statue and sell it back to Mario for the price of a castle, Wario travels to Kitchen Island in search of riches.
The original Super Mario Land featured a very basic plot. A peaceful kingdom has been invaded by an alien named Tatanga and it’s up to Mario to save it from him. Though not exactly heavy on plot itself, Super Mario Land 2 operated on a premise that played with the series’ conventions. Though still unquestionably a hero, there wasn’t anyone to save in Super Mario Land 2. He was fighting for a completely personal reason: to retrieve something that had been taken from him. There were no princesses to save. Despite this, Super Mario Land 2 utterly eclipsed its predecessor in terms of scope. As if to punctuate this, Tatanga, the main antagonist of Super Mario Land, was reduced to being a boss of one of the six worlds in Super Mario Land 2.
To an outside observer, following up the first two Super Mario Land installments with Wario Land seems like an odd choice. One would wonder why Nintendo even bothered attaching the subtitle Super Mario Land 3 to their work. After all, it is much easier to declare what they created a spinoff rather than a true sequel. However, observing the shifting premises of the first two Super Mario Land games, I believe Wario Land takes the direction in which the subseries was heading to its logical destination. If the first game was about a hero fighting for altruistic reasons and the second made him fight for himself, the third proceeds to cut all of the pretenses. You play as the second game’s villain to fulfill an entirely selfish goal.
Because of this radical change, it simply wouldn’t do if Wario was a little more than a palette swap of Mario. This is the character who was the final boss of Super Mario Land 2; suddenly being vulnerable to collision damage would make no sense at all. It is due to that exact reason players will learn just how differently Wario plays from his rival. While Mario is content with jumping on enemies to defeat them, Wario prefers to charge into them headfirst. You can make him do just that with the “B” button. Jumping on enemies, which is still performed by pressing the “A” button, is an option as well. However, this usually stuns them rather than defeating them outright. When an enemy is stunned, Wario can pick them up. From here, he can elect to toss said enemy into one of its comrades. If the attack connects, both enemies are defeated.
Because the game would pose no challenge to the player if enemies were entirely incapable of harming Wario, the team led by Hiroji Kiyotake and Takehiko Hosokawa had to find another method other than collision damage to make them a real threat. Accordingly, a majority of the enemies in Wario Land either bear sharp weaponry of some kind or otherwise wear protective gear that are adorned with spikes. A select few enemies even have harmful spines as a natural defense mechanism. As such, it’s important to know when and from which direction to attack enemies in this game. This aspect adds a layer of depth and complexity to the proceedings, almost making every individual enemy encounter a puzzle. Interestingly, this means the few enemies without any sharp objects at their disposal are completely helpless against Wario. This is quite a departure from Mario for whom even Goombas are deadly to the touch.
Despite its new protagonist, Wario Land does feature a power up system similar to that of a standard Mario title. The main difference between Wario and Mario is that the former begins with the ability to withstand a hit. Just like Mario, Wario shrinks in size if he takes a hit. Being in a miniaturized state is more detrimental to Wario than it is for Mario. In a select few cases, a smaller size could even benefit Mario, allowing him to access narrow passageways. Wario, on the other hand, loses his ability to charge at his foes in his small form. He can still stun enemies by stomping on their head and pick them up by bumping into them, but the form leaves him at a major disadvantage.
To combat the Brown Sugar Pirates, Wario has a small array of power ups to help him. They come in the form of pots, which in turn can be extracted from blocks with faces on them. Blocks that contain items have happy faces. They begin to frown when struck from below or the side. The first pot causes bull horns to sprout on Wario’s pith helmet. As Bull Wario, he can destroy multiple blocks and enemies in a row with his charging attack. He can also create shockwaves by crashing into the ground and use the horns to stick to the ceiling. The second pot causes Wario’s helmet to resemble a dragon. Appropriately, as Dragon Wario, he can spew fire for a limited time from his helmet. Despite what one would think, it works underwater as well, though it fires arrow-like projectiles in such situations. As a trade-off, Wario cannot perform a body slam in this state. The final pot turns Wario’s helmet into something resembling a small aircraft. Dubbed Jet Wario, this helmet intuitively allows him to glide for a short duration. Even better, it slows his descent, increases his walking speed, and boosts the height of his jumps. Wario can also obtain Garlic Bottles, which return Small Wario to his normal size. If he collects one in his normal form, he becomes Bull Wario.
Because the very premise of the game is for Wario to amass enough of a fortune to buy an extravagant castle, it is vitally important to collect as many coins as possible. While finding a large cache of coins was somewhat helpful for Mario, to Wario, doing so actively gets him closer to his goal. It’s a clever way of allowing players to synchronize with the protagonist. However many coins Wario collects are stored in a bank upon concluding a stage. They are safe unless Wario loses all of his lives, in which case half of them are forfeit.
Coins can also be used in the stages themselves. By pressing up on the directional pad and the “B” button at the same time, Wario draws a large coin from his savings that is worth ten. In turn, one can insert this coin into any machine that has a slot for them. Notably, checkpoints are activated in such a manner. This presents an interesting dilemma for players. Will you try to complete the level without a safety net or will you activate the checkpoint? The latter would grant Wario a decidedly modest fortune, yet it could be worth the investment should you face a particularly difficult stage. There aren’t many games that make players question whether or not they should use a checkpoint. Wario Land does so in a way that cleverly plays with its very premise. Other than that, coins are also used to open up passageways and, most importantly, the goal at the end of a given stage.
As your goal is to collect as many of them as possible, it would be incredibly frustrating for coins to spontaneously disappear if you collected one-hundred of them – even if they were to compensate for their absence by granting Wario an extra life. As such, hearts have been repurposed slightly, now functioning as a point system of sorts. Wario gains them whenever he defeats enemies or collects hearts. If he collects one-hundred heart points, he gains an extra life.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can risk your earnings in a game of chance at the end of a stage. One of the games is straightforward enough. Wario is given a choice of two ropes to pull – each of which is attached to a bucket. Only by pulling the string and turning the bucket upside down will its contents be made known. One of them contains a moneybag while the other has hidden in it a ten-ton weight. The former doubles Wario’s earnings while the latter halves them. The correct rope to pull is randomized each time, and you can do this up to three times per session. Whether you multiply your earnings eightfold or walk away with practically nothing all depends on the luck of the draw.
The other minigame affords Wario the possibility of amassing several extra lives at once. There is an enemy on the other side of a river, and your goal is to throw bombs at it. You are permitted to throw five bombs per session. The power meter determines how far Wario will throw the bomb. This game has three difficulty levels with Game A being the hardest and Game C the easiest. Game A costs one-hundred coins to play, Game B costs forty, and Game C costs twenty. This minigame operates on the principle that the greater rewards are directly proportional with the scope of your investment. While Game A is the most difficult and costs the most money to play, you can receive up to fifty extra lives from playing it. Conversely, a single extra life is the best possible reward you can receive from playing Game C.
As a logical conclusion to what players are made to do, the number of coins affects which ending you get. Simply put, the more coins Wario has at the end of the game, the greater his new castle shall be. A savvy player would take note of the fact that the bank has five digits and feel a sense of dread over the prospect of having to collect more than 10,000 coins to achieve the best ending. The maximum number of coins Wario can have at the end of a stage is 999. Realistically, this can only be achieved by gambling them. Assuming fortune managed to smile upon a player for all forty stages, they would only achieve 39,960 coins. It’s a far cry from the amount of money required for the best ending – in fact, a player having done this would achieve the second-worst outcome. It is therefore impossible to expect players to replay stages over and over again until they have the requisite number of coins. Fortunately, the developers fully realized this.
While you’re exploring a stage, you may happen upon a key. In the event you find one, it is wise to seek out a door shaped like a skeleton. This is the door the key is meant to open. By unlocking the door, Wario will be taken to a room with a treasure chest. By charging at the box, it will break revealing a valuable treasure. The value of these treasures range anywhere from two-thousand to nine-thousand coins and are automatically traded in at the end of the game. This is how achieving any ending other than the worst is realistically possible.
Though not apparent from the outset, Wario Land steadily reveals itself to be quite an intricately designed game. It goes beyond simply having good level design; the amount of thought you have to put into completing each stage seems to turn each one into a small-scale puzzle game. Collecting the treasures requires keen observation, and oftentimes, you’ll need a certain power up to reach them. Because Wario obviously can’t run underwater, he can’t normally break blocks. Instead, he will need to be either Dragon Wario or Jet Wario to accomplish this task. In general, if a treasure lies beyond a large gap, only Jet Wario can reach it. In other words, while Super Mario World had its hero utilize power ups to reach certain secret exits, Wario Land has a bit more variety when it comes to the situations that require their use. In doing so, it manages to play like a cross between Super Mario World and Kirby’s Adventure.
In fact, not only does Wario Land introduce a swath of fresh mechanics alongside its new protagonist, it even systematically addresses nearly all of the issues I had with Super Mario Land 2. One such issue was the fact that, because all of the worlds were made available to the player upon completing the first stage, Super Mario Land 2 didn’t have a natural difficulty curve. The worlds could be said to be difficult in different ways to the possible extent that while individual players would find some more challenging than others, with enough practice, it became a non-issue. The final stage then proved to be an extremely jarring spike in difficulty. The only way it could’ve worked is if the rest of the game built itself up to that level. In Wario Land, worlds are presented to players in a linear fashion. Only by clearing the first world can you move on to the second and so forth. It would be reasonable based off of this to assume the later stages are more difficult than earlier ones, and that is indeed the case.
Consequently, I feel this is the first handheld installment that truly captures what makes the Mario series so good. You will be privy to every relevant mechanic by the time you leave the first world. From there, you will encounter situations that test your mastery of these mechanics in increasingly complex permutations, never abandoning what you learned on level one. This quality didn’t get a chance to shine in Super Mario Land due to its short length or in Super Mario Land 2 thanks to its difficulty progression issues.
When I discussed Super Mario Land 2, I ended up criticizing how it handled its special stages. Much like in Super Mario World, they are reached by finding an alternate exit. Unlike in Super Mario World, they didn’t serve much of a purpose. Some had an abundance of coins, but lives weren’t particularly difficult to farm, rendering them somewhat pointless. Furthermore, players only had one shot to complete them; only by finding the exit again could they reenter them. The sole exception acted as a shortcut to a world’s final stage, raising the question of why they weren’t used in such a manner more often. Because of this, their only practicable purpose was for players to achieve 100% completion.
How does Wario Land fare when it comes to its special stages? To begin with, Wario Land has an immediate advantage over Super Mario Land 2 in that stages with alternate exits are clearly marked on the map. Stages are usually designated by a white circle. If there’s a smaller ring shape within the circle, it means that stage has an alternate exit. On rare occasions, special stages may provide players with a shortcut to access a later area, but for the most part, their purpose is to provide Wario with extra coins and treasures. This means even visiting the special stages that are dead-ends can often be beneficial. In fact, Wario Land goes further than most games in the series in that there is an entire optional world waiting to be explored. Coupled with Wario’s overall goal, the special stages have much more of a purpose while also organically encouraging players to go out of their way to explore them.
Level selection maps have been a common feature in the Mario franchise since Super Mario Bros. 3. In their original form, they allowed for dynamic world designs in which enemies would occasionally impede your progress while serving an additional purpose in multiplayer sessions. On a more basic level, they could potentially allow players to anticipate the theme of the next level. For example, if the level’s icon rested on or near a lake, you could safely bet it would, in fact, take place underwater. Wario Land takes that basic concept and improves upon it.
The first world in the game is known as Rice Beach. It is a basic seaside setting that serves as a tutorial for what the rest of the experience entails – just like all of the other first worlds you have doubtlessly encountered in other games.
What sets it apart from other first worlds becomes clear after you defeat its boss. As you can see, doing so causes the tide to roll in. Now, the icons representing the first and third levels rest on top of water.
Upon reentering either stage, you’ll discover that they have been flooded. Exploring these stages in this state allows Wario to access areas he couldn’t before. Super Mario World was notable in how it gave players an incentive to revisit older levels. What Wario Land does is encourage players to truly examine the world map to see if anything may have changed. In some games, these maps are effectively elaborate level selection menus. In Wario Land, they have a material impact on the gameplay – one that continues throughout the rest of the experience. The next world, Mt. Teapot, requires him to activate a mechanism that causes a floating island – or lid as it were – to crash into the summit. Later on, he needs to drain a lake to proceed. Because these changes to the landscape are permanent, additional playthroughs are all the more enticing – even if you find every treasure on your first try.
It stands to reason that with an abundance of new ideas, there would be scant execution issues, and it turns out Wario Land has a few. Yet again, the developers had to deal with the stiflingly small size of the Game Boy’s screen. While Super Mario Land compressed the visuals to the point where pinpoint platforming was made unnecessarily difficult, its sequel opted against that approach. The game had graphics similar to that of Super Mario World, but the screen needed to scroll more often to keep up with Mario. The screen in Wario Land typically scrolls vertically in response to the player jumping onto a higher or lower platform as the situation warrants. This does address the issue plaguing Super Mario Land 2 by permitting players to accurately analyze the environment. The downside is that because Wario is markedly larger than his rival, it has the unintended side effect of making the world feel unduly cramped. Admittedly, this isn’t a glaring flaw, but it does rob Wario Land of the large scale the Mario franchise has on consoles.
Another minor problem stems from the control scheme. To be fair, the controls in the game are good; they have enough polish that whenever a jump is missed, a reasonable player will not blame them for their failure. However, discounting “START” and “SELECT”, the Game Boy only has two buttons to work with. With one assigned to jumping and the other permitting Wario to charge forward, this game lacks a mainstay feature: the run button. Because of this, Wario, for all of his advantages over Mario, is not particularly maneuverable. This isn’t noticeable for a majority of the experience – a key exception being certain boss fights. I actually give the bosses in Wario Land a lot of credit for taking full advantage of the game’s unique mechanics. Unfortunately, whenever they’re faster than Wario, dodging them is extraordinarily difficult. Prepare to take several hits when you realize your own reflexes are quicker than his.
This issue is a little ironic because what I would say is the biggest flaw with Wario Land is how easy it is to trivialize its difficulty. The most obvious way is to access debug mode by pausing the game and pressing the “SELECT” button sixteen times. This allows you to manipulate Wario’s form as well as the number of coins, hearts, or lives he has. You can even use it to give yourself more time. Even without cheating, you can still pull off several stunts to give yourself a big advantage. This includes using the drawn 10 coin to instantly knock out enemies and the fact that Jet Wario can fly as far as you wish with the right button presses. You don’t even need a specific form to break the game, for he can perform super jumps whenever you press “A” and up on the directional pad. Almost any obstacle can be bypassed using this skill, and it’s available fresh out of the box.
At the end of the day, the key difference between Wario Land and its two predecessors is that it has enough innovative ideas so the experience as a whole is not subsumed by these problems. Even with its fair share of shortcomings, it’s easy to appreciate this game for what it does well. The sheer amount of imagination that went into its creations outshines everything else.
Drawing a Conclusion
Even if it would be more accurate to declare it a spinoff than a true sequel, Wario Land is, to me, incontestably the best game in the Super Mario Land trilogy. With its new protagonist, plethora of interesting mechanics, and potentially high rewards awaiting the diligent, it’s quite clear that the relatively simple gameplay of Wario Land belies an impressive level of ambition on the developers’ part. Despite the numerous advantages it has over its predecessors, I feel the reason Wario Land succeeds where its predecessors fall short boils down to one basic reason: it forged its own identity. In the grand scheme of things, it was easy to consider Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2 inferior versions of Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World respectively. That one could eventually play all four games on the same platform has only thrown this perception into sharp relief.
Wario Land was a game identifiably cast from the Mario mold, yet Hiroji Kiyotake and Takehiko Hosokawa experimented with the formula to the degree that the end product is nigh unrecognizable. With its subtle emphasis on using power-ups in specific ways to open up new paths and discover treasure, we have this game to thank for helping codify the puzzle-platformer as a genre. It is because of these reasons along it having stood the test of time remarkably well that I can declare Wario Land one of the strongest entries in the Game Boy’s library. As such, I highly recommended this game for any enthusiast – even those who don’t particularly care for the Mario series or are skeptical about early Game Boy games. Taking the antagonist of Super Mario Land 2 and giving him his own game was a risky venture on Nintendo’s part, and I’d say it paid off.
Final Score: 7/10