Wario is pretty good, for a bad guy. To look at him you wouldn’t think he’d have a heroic streak at all; he’s got the squiggly moustache of a pantomime villain and a nose that would put any alcoholic to shame. Despite all this he’s secretly a sweetheart: considering that the rotund treasure hunter started life as an antagonist to everybody’s favourite portly plumber he’s saved the day a fair few times. Admittedly Wario’s heroics are often a side effect of his constant money grubbing and thieving ways, but it goes to show that, in this case at least, it’s not the thought that counts.
Recently released as part of the 3DS Ambassador programme, Wario Land 4 is a 2D platformer that sees the greedy so-and-so catching wind of the discovery of a jewel-filled golden pyramid deep in the jungle. With the dollar signs still rolling in his eyes he jumps in the Wariomobile and sets out to swag himself some loot, inadvertently stepping into the role of reluctant hero once again. Upon entering the pyramid, Wario follows a mysterious black cat straight into a trap and takes a tumble to the bottom of the structure. While the moggy scarpers, Wario is left to navigate his way through the stages of the entry passage to reach the main hub area for the game. Once there players can choose to tackle any one of the game's four passages: emerald, topaz, ruby and sapphire in any order you please, adding a level of choice to the game's structure that will be appreciated by repeat players. Completing a passage’s four stages and boss battle brings you one step closer to unlocking the golden pyramid and all the lovely treasure inside, a feat that can be accomplished by skilled players in roughly six hours.
Navigating your way through each stage is slightly different to your traditional platformer, but luckily Wario’s got some smooth moves that set him apart from the other dungaree-wearing hero whose name also ends in ‘ario’. In addition to the standard running and jumping, Wario can also dash attack to break blocks, and start an almost unstoppable charge by holding R while running left or right. The classic butt-stomp makes an appearance too, gaining power if you drop from a serious height; handy if there’s a particularly tough block you need to shift. Wario’s full repertoire will be needed to escape the golden pyramid, because jumping on enemy heads just doesn’t seem to cut it any more — instead a jump on the noggin will only turn most enemies over, allowing you to pick them up and start lobbing them around, used to great effect in both action and puzzle sequences.
Transformations are another element that put a nice spin on the platforming formula. Certain enemies that Wario encounters on his travels won’t damage him, but instead their attacks will produce a whole host of different effects that Wario can use to his advantage. For instance, being stung by a wasp causes Wario’s face to swell up, allowing him to float until he hits a ceiling. Other effects include being set on fire and zombification at the hands of the undead; the former forces you into an arm-flapping run before being engulfed in flames and as a shambling zombie you can pass through floors, albeit very slowly.
Each stage in a passage gives Wario unlimited time to explore the environment collecting treasure and hunting down the level's Keyzer. These ghost-key hybrids are quite literally the key to unlocking the next stage in a passage and once found they will merrily follow you until you complete the level. The act of finishing a stage involves locating and jumping on the frog timer, a blue frog-ish totem with a bomb attached, starting off a countdown before dashing back through the level to the spot where you warped in. These high-tension races against time are only made all the more brilliant by some absolutely fantastic level design.
Each stage in Wario Land 4 is a platform gamer’s heaven: simple enough that you’ll never be at a loss for where to go, but harbouring enough secrets to make exploration a worthwhile joy. Every passage has a loose theme that dictates the type of stages within: the topaz passage is themed around toys and games, featuring a Wario-style take on pinball and puzzles that give new meaning to the phrase "pencil pushing". The true skill in the level design is normally only revealed after the frog switch has been pressed, as previous areas are shut off and new ones opened up your bid for escape will take you on a whistlestop tour of a stage from a completely fresh perspective.
The way that a level switches it up for the return journey makes each sprint all the more exhilarating; a stand out moment is the way the lava-based level freezes over as the plunger goes, a change that allows you to reach previously inaccessible areas by standing on frozen lava flows. In fact many of the game's secrets can only be found during the countdown phase, meaning you have to balance the need to escape with the desire to snag collectibles, creating a high-pressure situation that gets the adrenaline pumping.
Generally speaking the game looks and sounds great. The musical score is wacky but fits each stage well, the escape music heightens the tension and some tracks are even voiced, although you’ll never know what's being said. Cunning adventurers can even find a hidden disc in each level to unlock the music to listen to later in the sound room. Although the graphics don’t push the GBA too hard, they look good and fit the gameplay well; the environments are varied and vibrant, Wario’s transformations are comically animated and the enemy design is distinct and ties in to the overall stage theme. For Ambassadors, the game looks great on the 3DS screen, retaining its detailed and colourful look, its chunky look well suited to the larger screen.
From a design perspective the bosses really stand out, with each one superbly animated and about as off the wall as they come. Taking on a giant cuckoo clock is funny enough, but when a condor busts out of it and starts expressing genuine anger at being dash-attacked – that’s hilarious. Each battle is not only amusing but also represents a genuine challenge: working out the way in which to conquer each boss can be quite taxing, especially in the tight time limit you’re given. There are three treasure chests on offer for beating the boss, but as the timer ticks down some or all of the chests can disappear leaving you severely lacking in loot for your troubles.
A passage's boss battle is only unlocked once you’ve collected the four pieces of the hidden gem in each stage. Scoring all four gems unlocks the door, opening the way to the mini-game room and item shop as well. The mini-game room offers three Wario Ware-style mini-games: Home Run Derby, Wario Hop and Wario Roulette, which can be played for an extortionately high fee. These mini-games make for a short diversion from the main experience, but they are too simple to warrant longer play. Most players will only revisit them to earn more tokens to trade in at the item shop. The wares on offer at the shop are used to damage a boss before a battle begins; purchasing a black dragon to savage your opponent is a funny, if slightly cheap way to make a boss battle easier.
The Game Boy Advance isn’t exactly short on platformers: many of gaming’s greatest jumpers have had titles on the system, and most of Mario’s back catalogue is available on GBA. That's why it's so pleasing Nintendo chose to give Wario the Ambassador spotlight in favour of his comparatively over-exposed competition.
A masterclass in level design and compelling gameplay, the switch from exploration to escape is just one of the game's idiosyncrasies that make it stand out from the platforming pack. If you dig Wario and his money-grubbing ways or you’re just looking to play a solidly entertaining and offbeat platformer, then Wario Land 4 is a real treasure.