It's not often an imitation can rise to the challenge and usurp its inspiration. How many knock-offs did Sonic the Hedgehog see in the 1990s? I'd need both hands and feet to count all the useless anthropomorphic mascots with 'tude.
Yet, when it came to the one and only Mario, who else could possibly create a memorable character to poke fun at the world's most famous plumber and still wring a fun game out of it other than Nintendo themselves?
Wario has survived the annals of time to become just as relevant to the Mario universe as any of his other pesky foes, and that is no small feat given how late he jumped into the game. He's appeared in every Mario Kart and Mario Party game, and even sees the occasional release in not one but two series to feature his name, his platformers and WarioWare Inc.
Even Bowser doesn't have his own series, and Wario has two!
To understand Wario's development, knowledge of his creative team, Nintendo R&D1, is essential. When most fans think of Nintendo as a developer, they really think of Nintendo EAD. These are the big boys centrally located, responsible for Mario and The Legend of Zelda.
Back in the early days, Nintendo R&D1 was the smaller, but still older, branch of Nintendo who generally focused on portable games. It started as the producer of Game and Watch handhelds for Nintendo before moving on to create some of Nintendo's most popular franchises on the NES like Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Ice Climbers.
All of these highlight its impressive resume of simple yet revolutionary and experimental games; but, the true value of Nintendo R&D1 came from a small success known as the Game Boy.
With the Famicom/NES tearing up the world and revolutionizing this new art style with massively popular and impressive games, R&D1 was given the task of recreating these revolutionary experiences on far inferior black and white technology. Headed by Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo R&D1 was able to crank out two Mario games, Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, the latter of which starred Wario as a new protagonist.
Yet, something was off about these games. Both were very fun and sold millions of copies around the world, but they didn't exactly feel like Mario games. The different style of platforming aside, the biggest difference is that Mario isn't exactly a nice guy.
He's not the selfless hero rescuing princesses time and time again, but rather a narcissistic jerk succumbing to greed and ruling his own kingdom called Mario Land. His fat mug is planted on the castle and can be seen everywhere by his subjects.
His motivation for sticking it to poor Wario is not for the sake of a princess but for the sake of himself, reclaiming a castle that shouldn't even be his in the first place.
Nintendo R&D1 had its own image of Mario as an overreaching self proclaimed prophet out to take over the world, just as he was in fact doing in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Rather than create its own selfless character to fight back against his spreading influence, Nintendo R&D1 decided to use its protagonist to upstage by creating an even more selfish and greedy jerk.
Wario was given the lead role in Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land and gave birth to a series of four games which make up some of the best 2D platformers ever created and the most underrated series in Nintendo's legendary library.
Of course, this image of Mario is just an envious one of the character seen through the eyes of Nintendo's B-team. He really is the selfless hero EAD makes him out to be, and Wario is the embodiment of all that R&D1 teasingly thought was wrong with him.
In Japanese, his name is even a pun. "Warui Mario" translates into "Bad Mario." "Wario" is the contraction of that phrase, and he is the antithesis of Mario in every way.
Mario can't take a hit from any of his enemies, but Wario is invulnerable to everything except spikes. Mario can run infinitely and never get tired, but Wario's bulk slows him down after just a brief charge. Mario can't break blocks from the side without a tail or a shell, but Wario plows right through them with his shoulders.
Mario's power-ups can help him in any situation, but Wario's are situational and best used at certain times. Mario runs through his levels with the intention of beating a clock to the end, and Wario explores to uncover treasure, secret exits and more coins.
Mario collects coins for a 1-up and jumps on foes for a high score, but Wario collects coins for a high score and jumps on his foes for a 1-up. Mario's roots come from Donkey Kong, jumping to save a girl from danger, and Wario's roots come from Wrecking Crew, destroying everything in sight to get revenge on a rival worker.
Mario saves a princess, and Wario beats one up to steal her castle.
Wario is a polar opposite to Mario in every way, from his personality all the way to his core gaming mechanics.
The Back Alleys
What good is a game if all it has is a clever character, though? Wario wouldn't be where he is today if his games were no fun to play, which is where excellent game design takes Wario Land to new heights.
Super Mario World had already been released for three years by this point, so it became obvious that speed would not be the driving force of Nintendo platformers, but rather exploration. Wario Land takes this idea and crams it into smaller levels, some linear and some with branching paths.
The main goal of Wario Land is to earn enough coins to purchase a castle at the end of the game. Coins are scattered in every level, in back corners and secret areas. Even 15 treasures can be unlocked from giant chests and will boost Wario's fortune to epic proportions.
At its basic level, Wario can simply run through the areas, find the ending and win, just like the platformers of old. Completing the game in this way leaves secret levels closed off and Wario with nothing more than a birdhouse for all his troubles at the end of his quest.
The purpose of Wario Land is not just beating the game, but rather completing the game. Finding these treasures is the fun, a self-built reward system before the days of achievements. This was way before the internet had ever come into its own, so there was no Gamefaqs to look up and find the location of these codes.
Wario Land left many gamers searching for hours on end for that one final treasure, with no hints to its whereabouts.
Sometimes it could be a secret room beyond the borders of the screen, other times it might be a door in plain sight but only accessible with one of Wario's three helmet power-ups.
The Bull Helmet lets him do a butt-stomp, Nintendo's first usage of a move that now appears in every game, and charge through blocks easier. The Jet Helmet lets him glide through the air for an extended amount of time, and the Dragon Helmet let him breathe a ranged fire attack which can destroy enemies and blocks.
Wario can carry the power-ups from level to level, and sometimes the needed power-up might not be available in the level it needs to be. He'll have to backtrack, find the power-up, survive both the level its found in and the level the treasure is in, and then he is rewarded. Tough stuff, but what good is a reward if you don't earn it?
When exploring, it's important to experiment and try out all three helmets to destroy obstacles or cling to barely reachable places. Only then can Wario learn the intricacies of his deceptively deep mechanics, and he can tackle tough obstacles as they come.
There is no worse feeling in Wario Land than coming across a treasure and being stuck in his small form. Small form means no horizontal attack, which means no method of opening the chest. Gotta try again.
So You Know Video Games, Huh?
Wario Land provides many situations, but never an explanation. Unlike today's Nintendo games, which explain for HOURS even the most basic of game mechanics, Wario never once opens his mouth to talk. He never has a hidden narrator, assistant, or sidekick break into an extended explanation of how "jumping" works.
The game treats its audience like a functioning adult and slowly introduces mechanics and level design through simply showing it.
Oh, Wario can touch enemies. That's cool. WHA!? Oh, I guess he can't touch spiked enemies. Have to watch out for spikes from now on.
If this were Mario and Luigi: Dream Team or even Wario's own Master of Disguise, someone would put that into text and explain rather than give the gamers a chance to figure it out on their own. It's called "learning" and "pattern recognition," communicating from designer to player through gameplay rather than words, a lost art in the world of video games.
It's how we beat Mega Man bosses, completely flawless run-throughs of Contra, and even today, tackle tough bosses in Dark Souls and impossible platforming in Super Meat Boy. And guess what, those are the games that are remembered to this day.
Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 escapes with the highest of recommendations.
All the successes of Wario Land carried over into the four games which followed, but many of the team's makers went on to create the WarioWare, Inc. and Rhythm Heaven games, and it's obvious with how popular and great the WarioWare series was throughout its run.
Meanwhile, after Nintendo President Satoru Iwata blasted Nintendo R&D1 into a million pieces, Wario's platformers moved into the hands of unproven teams like Suzak and Good-Feel. The jump to another team is obvious with Wario's quests bogged down in dialogue and its genius level design stripped into barebones platforming.
These four games represent Nintendo R&D1 at its prime, and yet they are not regarded as classics by the Nintendo fan body. Stuck on the awkward Game Boy Color or just dismissed as simple portable games, these four games deserve a second look by anyone looking for good platformers, especially this first one.
For what it's worth, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 succeeds in making its players want to find all the treasure and see everything the game has to offer. There is a certain level of satisfaction when finding treasure chests and unlocking secret stages on your own, and I felt much more rewarded completing this than I have with any of the recent New Super Mario Bros. games.
Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 escapes with the highest of recommendations, and its sequels only get better. Pick up the other two as well on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console and Wario Land 4 on the Wii U once you close this tab. You won't be disappointed.