Review: Dr. Mario Online Rx (WiiWare)

Zany pill-popping madness with Nintendo's favourite son.

Dr. Mario was the perfect NES game. A bold, simple statement to start this review, but never has a sentence rang so true in the ears of our peers. This was a game that combined mad colours, infectious soundtracks and a delightful twist on the classic Tetris formula and is (in our opinion) the ultimate “one more go” game that epitomises the word “addictive”.

After such a big build up, it’s extremely refreshing to announce that Dr Mario Online RX (or Dr. Mario & Germ Buster if you are in Europe) retains all that was great about the original. Basically what you’re getting for 1000 points is a revamped copy of the original Dr. Mario along with Brain Age 2 / More Brain Training’s “Germ Buster” minigame from the DS. The standard Dr. Mario game is played with the Wii Remote held like an NES controller while Germ Buster is played using the remote's pointing functionality. Both games essentially share the same presentation and mechanics, it being the control methods that set the games apart.

For those unfamiliar with the Dr. Mario gameplay, the premise is simple to explain. The main playing field is dotted with bright-coloured viruses which must be eliminated by the pills that Mario drops from the top of the screen. In order to vaporise the little critters you must match up 3 like coloured pills on top of each virus. Each pill is split into two different colours (or occasionally two of the same) allowing more able players to create chains and thus maximise their score. The level is cleared when all the viruses have been removed from the playing field and a new level is then approached where there are even more viruses than the previous one. Obviously, the game ends when your towers of misplaced pills reach the top of the screen.

There are lots of options before you start a single-player game. For example, if you find the initial levels too mundane you can start the gameplay at whichever level you prefer allowing you to get straight into the thick of the action where there are a lot more viruses on screen. You can also change the speed and music, but we highly doubt anyone plays this game on a tune other than the classic “Fever” track.

Aside from the original Dr. Mario gameplay mode where you have to destroy all the viruses, a “Flash” mode has been included which is essentially a race against the computer to see who can destroy a number of “flashing” viruses first. It’s a nice way of mixing up the gameplay, but most players will probably stick with the original form of play. However, Nintendo has included a great Wi-Fi connection mode which works well, letting you play either the standard Dr. Mario game or the “Flash” mode against an unknown counterpart or friend. In our test-run we managed to match several competitors in seconds who all proceeded to annihilate us. The online experience is enjoyable and lag-free allowing you to send predetermined messages to your opponent before the game starts. Aside from the niggles of swapping friends codes again with all your friends just for this game, it works as well as you might hope for a Wii game.

There is also an online leaderboard used to rank you on your Wi-Fi battle dominance, which works similarly to Mario Kart Wii. Everyone starts with 5000 points and you then proceed to either gain or lose those points. We're a little bemused as to why there are no single player scoreboards. A game like Dr. Mario, which relies on setting high-scores, should have a means of showcasing these to the rest of the world and while the online leaderboards are a decent addition, the omission of single player scoreboards is unforgivable.

Something we thought particularly nifty is the ability to send a demo version of the game to people in your friend roster. By them accepting and downloading the demo version you can enjoy online matches against your friends without them ever having to pay for the game. It’s a concept extended from the DS’ “Download Play”, it seems, and while we haven’t tested it out yet we're pretty impressed with the idea.

Germ Buster mode plays in the same way as the main Dr. Mario game but allows up to four players to make use of the Wii Remote pointer to essentially drag objects into place. The four player co-op mode allows players to work together to eliminate the viruses but essentially becomes a contest of who is first to click on the pill and drag it into place. While the game does hot the action up a little bit by throwing more than one pill down at a time, the resulting gameplay is particularly muddled and crowded. This isn't helped by the action being zoomed, which, while allowing for more intuitive point and clicking, can become messy in later levels. It's the kind of messy that makes you want to quit Germ Buster mode and play a normal game of Dr. Mario either over Wi-Fi or with a friend. In saying that, though, the Germ Buster modes controls and physics work perfectly. We're just not convinced many people will play it more than once.

The presentation between the two games is what you would expect. The backdrops are rich shades of blue and white contrasted by the bright colours of the pills on the foreground. Everything has been kept in the same place as the original NES version, but simply been redrawn and rendered. It looks good but it’s not going to make you “wow”. A game like this relies on its gameplay over its graphics and with the colours all distinguishable and in place the visuals do their job adequately. The menu screens and opening title screen are disappointingly bland but it’s a small niggle and detracts none from the experience.

The question on everyone’s lips is whether the game is really worth 1000 points? Sure there’s an online mode but take that away and you basically have the original NES Dr. Mario game with more colours and a 3D Mario in the corner. Essentially you’re getting a NES game without the nostalgia so it is entirely up to you to judge if this would represent good value for money. If Nintendo had released the original NES classic on the Virtual Console for 500 points already then it would be hard to justify paying double to download this when all you are really gaining is the ability to play a game online. As it stands this is probably the most convenient way to play Dr Mario now on the big screen so we cannot grumble too much.

Conclusion

Dr. Mario looks great, sounds great and plays great, just like the original did 18 years ago, and the inclusion of online multiplayer adds value. Newcomers to the series will be thrilled, but puzzle veterans may be a little disappointed. Dr. Mario was and still is a very, very good puzzle game and that fact remains unchanged here. If you’re a fan of Tetris or puzzle games in general then you will be delighted with this game. If you already own a copy of Dr. Mario on NES, Game Boy, SNES or N64 then think twice before picking this up unless online multiplayer really floats your boat.

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