Poor Muddy Mole has returned home to find his family kidnapped by the evil farmer Jinbe. That's the entire plot, and we're happy about that. After all, Mole Mania isn't about storytelling; it's about a massive gauntlet of clever puzzles, and that's exactly why we like it.
Divided into eight very large levels, Muddy's adventure finds him out-thinking his enemy rather than overpowering him. Every screen features an assortment of enemies, items and obstacles, and finding your way through them is rarely easy. In fact, every puzzle needs to be carefully considered, lest you block yourself into a situation from which you can't progress. You can always reset the screen by exiting and coming back, which you're certain to find yourself doing many times, but it's not trial and error that will reveal the path forward; it's cunning and forethought.
Muddy doesn't have much in the way of abilities, which lends an air of almost desperate resourcefulness to the puzzle design. He can push and pull certain objects, he can burrow...and that's about it. In fact, each screen might as well be divided into two halves: above ground and below ground. Muddy has to dig from one to the other regularly in order to bypass obstacles or otherwise open paths ahead, and that definitely leads to some interesting — and complicated — puzzle solutions.
However, it also leads to some frustration. When underground, pressing B pokes Muddy's head up through the dirt just enough that you can see where you are. That's an essential ability, and you'll be using it often. If you forget and press A, however, Muddy tunnels up through the ground and may create a hole in a location that renders the puzzle unsolveable without resetting the room. It's a significant punishment for a minor mistake — after all, both buttons do very similar things — and if it happens at the end of a particularly complicated puzzle it's bound to leave you frustrated.
Above ground the B button is used to pull or throw objects, but if you press it when you're facing the wrong direction, Muddy stumbles forward embarrassingly and leaves himself wide open to enemy attacks, and you can't retreat until he regains his footing. Again, it comes across as a needlessly harsh consequence for a minor mistake.
The controls can also be troublesome whenever you need to move with both speed and precision, such as during boss fights and bonus games. Pressing the D-Pad in a direction other than the way Muddy is already facing results in a split second of lag time while he turns. It doesn't last long, but when every moment counts it can lead to damage or death, despite the fact that you were telling Muddy to run.
Those are, however, relatively minor complaints, and we're happy to get them out of the way so that we can celebrate the game for all that it does right. Designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, Mole Mania positively bursts with charm. The visuals are crisp, the cut scenes are amusing, and the soundtrack is stellar.
There are also some impressive stabs at both variety and replayability. In the former category, you have the boss fights and bonus games, both of which offer more frantic action than the otherwise contemplative sliding puzzles that dominate the rest of the game. Every level rewards you with a number of points upon defeating the boss, and if you miss any cabbages, items or rooms along the way, you won't hit the coveted total of 100. It's a great way to encourage both replay and thoroughness, and it's very welcome.
How much enjoyment you'll get out of Mole Mania comes down to how much you like this type of movement-based puzzle game. If they bore you, Mole Mania isn't likely to change your mind. But if you enjoy them, Mole Mania could very easily become one of your favourite examples of the genre. It's a fun game with some genuinely brain-bending puzzles, and yet another hidden gem unearthed on the 3DS Virtual Console.
Some minor control issues aside, Mole Mania is unquestionably fun, and it earns our recommendation for fans of the genre. The visuals are great and the music is phenomenal. It's a worthy addition to the library for anyone who won't get frustrated over finding themselves stuck again and again. After all, in Mole Mania, getting stuck is part of the fun.