Originally released in 1994, Wario's Woods holds the prestigious honour of being the last officially licensed game to release for the NES in North America; that's a remarkably long time after the console itself launched in the mid-eighties. Yet while it's impressive that the legendary system received a first-party release more than nine years into its life, the game itself was somewhat overshadowed by the SNES — featuring vastly superior graphics and extra gameplay modes — which came out the next year.
Nevertheless, Nintendo has seemingly been quite keen to make sure we never forget this original edition. Long-time Animal Crossing fans may recall coming across it as a bonus game in Animal Crossing for the GameCube. The title has also been re-released in a downloadable form, making its digital debut on the Wii Virtual Console back in 2006 when the service was still in its infancy. And as we said in our review at the time, it was a great shame that Nintendo didn't choose the SNES version instead. Sadly, SNES games aren't (yet) available on the 3DS, which means that when it comes to this latest digital release, we've once again been treated to the NES version. It's just as well then that this is actually a pretty good game, and one which also has a rather addictive quality about it.
That's probably because Wario's Woods is a falling block puzzle game that is very reminiscent of classics such as Tetris and Dr Mario. In this one, unlikely hero Toad must battle his even unlikelier enemy Wario, who has taken over the nearby Peaceful Woods through the power of magic in a bid to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom. Putting the rather daft plot aside, it is quite unique in that it incorporates side-scrolling gameplay elements into the normal falling block setup; rather than merely controlling the objects that fall down, you actually move Toad, who is at the bottom of the screen, using him to pick up and move objects around. Your goal — which itself remains true to the classic formula — is to clear the board of all monsters. Doing so requires you match at least two monsters and one bomb of the same colour. No matter how many monsters you stack on top of one another, they aren't going anywhere unless you throw a bomb into the mix.
This sounds simple enough, but there are a number of factors in play that make things a tad more challenging — namely Wario. In the standard single-player mode, the game regularly switches between two contrasting gameplay settings. The first is Bomb Time, during which Birdo of all characters drop bombs into the area with the intent of helping the player. Wario, on the other hand, appears during Enemy Time, adding — you guessed it — extra enemies to the mix, as well as lowering the roof of the tree, making object swapping more difficult and potentially crushing poor Toad, too.
Therefore, you really have to make the most of your available bomb time, although using Toad in order to manipulate the objects that fall makes this all the more challenging. Everyone's favourite mushroom man is actually quite limited in what he can do; for example, he can run up and over a stack of objects, as well as pick up said stack, but he can't perform the former while doing the latter. Moreover, he can also only throw objects so far above and in front of him. Thankfully, he has a rather nifty kick ability, which allows you to get around carrying absolutely everything from one side of the screen to the other. This results in a rather fast-paced game, in which you really have to make the most of the easier Bomb Time segments. Moreover, the limitations that come with Toad being present within the actual playing field mean you really need to be thinking ahead and organising your stacks of monsters in a way in which he can easily and speedily traverse them. It's these deliberate limitations, as well as constantly being against the clock, which make Wario's Woods much more exciting than most laid-back puzzle titles.
Thankfully, it comes with a rather handy lesson mode to help you learn some surprisingly advanced techniques. It's quite simplistic as far as how the tutorial is presented, but definitely worth using if you're completely new to Wario's Woods. If you want to go up against some real competition, then you'll be pleased to hear that this version also comes with the original multiplayer thanks to the wonders of download play.
Meanwhile, those who are feeling a little more adventurous can have a stab at the main game's B mode, which includes boss battles. Here you must still match three or more objects, but they must be touching the enemy in order to do damage. Again, it's quite unusual, but it works surprisingly well, mainly because Toad can run up the side of a boss and catch monsters and bombs as they fall from above. This means that these encounters never feel too drawn out or difficult.
In terms of visuals Wario's Woods looks pretty impressive for a NES title, sporting a colourful and detailed design. It's by no means in the same league as it's 16-bit SNES counterpart, but everything is at least still presented clearly. Sadly, it falls down in the sound department, with the music in particular proving repetitive and nowhere near as memorable as of that found in most Super Mario-themed games.
Offering a rather challenging and unique experience, Wario's Woods is a well-made and addictive puzzle game. While it now looks quite dated — especially when there's a prettier SNES version that Nintendo could quite easily release — it's still very playable, and surprisingly advanced given that the game only uses two buttons. The inclusion of download play functionality also adds to the replay value of the title, provided you have a friend who's skilled enough. We can only hope that Nintendo releases the SNES version at some point in the near future, but in the meantime, the NES version of Wario's Woods is a worthwhile alternative, and one that is still very enjoyable to play after all these years.