It feels as if Dr. Mario has been a near constant presence — in some form — over recent years, but the oddity is that the Wii U Virtual Console release of the NES version is the début for that iteration over the most recent system generations. We've had fresh DSiWare and WiiWare releases, with the latter perhaps halting a Virtual Console release. No such issues this time (at least in Europe at the time of writing) with Nintendo happy to re-publish this 8-bit entry alongside the far flashier Dr. Luigi on the Wii U.
If any comparison with a fellow 'Dr.' game is to be made, it's with the 3DS Virtual Console release of the Game Boy Dr. Mario. In Japan the two games were released on the same day, and offer near-identical experiences; the NES iteration will have no doubt had marketing to reflect its superior visuals and immediately accessible multiplayer. That would have made the 8-bit title a handsome upgrade in 1990, though to modern eyes these advanced features naturally mean much less.
The basic gameplay of Dr. Mario meets the falling block puzzle expectations of the era, though it does have an approach to distinguish it from its many contemporaries. Rather than all control of combinations being in the hands of the player — aside from pre-determined blocks coming down from on high — there are fixed targets in this title. Viruses are placed around the screen in three distinct colours, with your task being to use the assigned pill combinations to match up a minimum of four co-ordinated blocks, therefore clearing the virus. Early on the offending virus blocks will be relatively spaced out and the going will be easy, but within minutes placings will be awkward; more viruses in tighter spaces make for a challenging experience.
This setup, as opposed to the clearing system in something like Tetris, adds to the degree of punishment for a mistake. If you block a virus accidentally with the wrong colour pills, you may have severely limited real estate to produce a combo and clear that error; with a more crowded screen options are limited, and it adds a satisfying sense of strategy.
Like some other titles of the 8-bit era and its Game Boy partner, however, game options are very few, leaving your enjoyment solely down to your ability to become enraptured by the basic premise. The one player game allows you to choose a starting level and speed of falling pills, but aside from that there's little variety. That's the norm for the period, but is worth bearing in mind in modern times when we often expect more bang for our buck.
Multiplayer is also included, which was unfortunately lacking in the 3DS Virtual Console release of the portable version. That naturally gives this an advantage, with a GamePad player joined by another with any controller they feel like using — the D-Pad and one button for rotating pills is all that's needed. It's a standard splitscreen, with the goal to clear all viruses before the other player — the first to win three matches triumphs, while it's possible to give each player different difficulty settings to tilt the balance in any potential mismatch. This will add some valuable extra life to the experience for those that have a friend nearby.
As for the presentation, this has a basic look that stands up well under the modern eye due to its simplicity. The colours could still do with a little more vibrancy, while the choice of two music tracks are passable if not particularly outstanding 8-bit efforts; you can turn music off if the busy blips and bleep wear on your patience.
The arrival of Dr. Mario on the Wii U Virtual Console is a little odd due to its proximity to Dr. Luigi; the latest effort is the far superior effort, as it includes multiple modes and online multiplayer to enjoy. It's not fair to compare the two, but they are both available side-by-side, so at its standard price this NES effort is passable but not exceptional value. The gameplay, while enjoyable, lacks the compulsive impact of a classic like Tetris, leaving this pill a little tougher to swallow — the modern effort from Luigi goes down a little easier.