Wario's Woods has had quite a storied legacy over the last few decades, standing not only as the last officially licensed game released on Nintendo's legendary NES in North America in 1994, but also one of the very first titles available on the Wii's Virtual Console service. In-between those impressive milestones, it made an appearance as a playable bonus in Animal Crossing for the GameCube, and now it's arrived on another generation of Nintendo hardware with this Wii U Virtual Console release. What's so special about Wario's Woods - and what makes it worth another visit? In short, it's an addictive and truly unique puzzle game with a Toad-sized twist.
The premise is simple: playing as the ever-plucky Toad, you'll need to retake the Peaceful Woods from the newly-nefarious Wario, who's invaded the area as a stepping-stone for taking over the Mushroom Kingdom. Saving the day means mastering some classic falling-block puzzle gameplay by rearranging differently coloured enemies and bombs to create matching sets. Put together a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal chain of three or more like-coloured pieces with at least one bomb, and they'll explode - get rid of all the baddies, and you'll clear the stage.
The catch is that you'll do all this by controlling Toad himself - side-scrolling movement and all - who saunters and climbs around the playing field, picking up bombs and enemies and placing them where you please. It's a huge change to the traditional falling-block formula - not only does it invite a more immediate connection with the colourful blocks you're manipulating, it also means you'll need to take Toad into account when planning combos and placing bombs. Fortunately for our fungal friend, you can't actually blow yourself up - but it's easier than you might think to get in the way of your own chain reactions.
Toad's limited skill-set also complicates things - he can run up and over any sized column, and carry as many items as you'd like; but he can't do both at the same time, and can only toss bombs and enemies a few squares above his head. And while the stages start out simply, with enemy patterns begging for well-placed bombs, things get exponentially trickier as you get deeper into the Woods - before long you'll find baddies which change colours or need to be blasted twice, and enemies which can only be cleared by lining them up in a specific configuration - diagonally, vertically, or horizontally.
Along with its hands-on hero, a big part of Wario's Woods is the game's continuous cycle between Bomb Time and Enemy Time. While neither of those sound very pleasant on paper, Bomb Time is the more benign of the two: here, the bow-toting Birdo keeps the bombs flowing from the top of the screen at a constant rate, as you work to clear out enemies as quickly as possible. It's good to be speedy, because if you wait too long, Wario shows up to rain down baddies - as well as a few bombs, to be fair - in Enemy Time. He'll also stomp the ceiling down every so often, and since being squished under its weight results in an unhappy Toad and a Game Over, you'll need to work extra quickly to stay afloat until Birdo returns.
As in many puzzle games, the best way to deal with these dangers is by lining up combos, and while they're tougher to pull off in Wario's Woods than your average match-three affair, they're all the more satisfying for it. Not only do chain reactions cue a delightful snippet of the Super Mario Bros. theme, they also shorten Enemy Time and extend Bomb Time, so they're definitely worth trying for. Going big in a single blast has its benefits as well: clearing a line of five or more enemies and bombs creates a diamond, which acts similarly to a bomb, except that clearing it with a combo will wipe all monsters of the same colour from the board.
The main way to work your way through the Woods is in Round Clear mode, which is split into two distinct parts: in addition to the plain vanilla 'A' game, there's also an alternate 'B' game which introduces boss battles every ten levels in a wonderfully unique way. Like Toad, the varied (and very large) bosses move around within the playing field itself, and it's your job to chip away at their health meter by creating explosive chains which make contact with them. Each boss has its own attacks, from pulling the ceiling down a few levels to clearing the screen of bombs, tossing enemies around, or adding rows of junk baddies. It's frantic, action-packed fun, a welcome change of pace, and one of the freshest puzzle game ideas we've seen anywhere. It's also worth noting that the oft-lauded Super Nintendo version of Wario's Woods lacks these boss battles, so this is one area where its 8-bit brother has the clear edge.
With 99 stages in both Round Clear's A and B modes, you could spend quite a lot of time exploring Wario's Woods - and the handy Round Jump function, which saves your progress every fifth level and lets you jump back in later, makes it significantly easier to see it all. And though there's no score to speak of in the main game, the excellent Time Race mode gives score-chasers plenty of incentive for replay value. Here, you'll race through sets of two to five levels at a time, aiming for the fastest run in each of twelve courses split over Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulties. Your best times are marked and totalled up on a Player Records report card - perfectly formatted for posting on Miiverse.
Miiverse bragging rights and 200+ stages should keep most players plenty busy, but for those with a puzzle-happy player two, there's also an excellent Versus mode. In a time-honoured puzzle game tradition, two players control palette-swapped Toads on their own playing fields, where successfully chaining combos will send generously-sized stacks of enemies over to your opponent's pile. As in the main game, each player's field cycles between Bomb Time and Enemy Time, which adds an extra layer of strategy to the standard junk-block attack - saving up your combos for when your opponent's Enemy Time hits is a wily move worthy of Wario himself.
The controls for all modes are relatively straightforward: the D-Pad controls Toad, 'B' picks up a single bomb or enemy from the pile you're facing, and 'A' picks up everything in the stack at Toad's level and above - once you're carrying something, 'B' replaces only the bottom item of a stack, while 'A' places everything down at once. There's also a handy kick to belt things quickly across the screen, as well as a helpful move that lets Toad hop on top of anything he's carrying by pressing up on the D-Pad (or 'A' and 'B' simultaneously). The manual treats this as an escape manoeuvre for when Toad finds himself trapped between stacks, but it's also incredibly useful for setting up combos and clearing chains of enemies.
It's a simple enough system, but it actually takes quite a bit of getting used to, if only because there's really nothing else like it. Since you're manipulating the bombs and baddies through Toad, instead of directly (as in Dr. Mario) or with a cursor (ala Tetris Attack), Wario's Woods lacks the precise, instantaneous movement of most puzzle games. At the same time, Toad doesn't control at all like you'd expect him to from his platforming days; his movement is somewhat stiff and totally grid-based, and there's a slight lag before he starts walking, which makes it easier to turn around in place, but can be frustrating when you're rushing for a falling bomb. With practice (and a run through the invaluable Lesson Mode tutorial) you can start to get into the groove - and once you do, Wario's Woods shines with a satisfying sense of urgency - but less invested players might find the controls to be a bit of a stumbling block.
As the very last title to grace the NES, Wario's Woods is predictably pretty for the platform, with bright, clear graphics that show off the system's (admittedly limited) colour palette. And while it might not impress much by today's standards, it's still easy on the eyes - even the menus are memorable, featuring fun, animated forest trail markers in place of more pedestrian selection screens.
Wario's Woods' soundtrack may be mostly remembered for the main Round Clear music - a cheery, carefree chiptune in Birdo's Bomb Time that switches to a sinister-sounding drone during Wario's enemy assault - but the best tracks are hidden in the game's secondary modes. Birdo's sing-along-style Time Race tune is one of the finest Famicom folk songs ever put to microchip, while Wario's pitch-bending Time Race melody and the rousing Versus mode music would sound right at home in any of the 8-bit Sonic the Hedgehogs. Of course, since all of these melodies are short loops which repeat level after level in a given mode, they can't stay fresh forever - but they're lovely while they last.
Wario's Woods is a fun, addictive puzzle game that's worthy of its role as the NES' swan song. It isn't as immediately accessible as Dr. Mario, as combo-friendly as Puyo-Puyo, or as timeless as Tetris - but it stands out from the crowd with a totally unique hook, inventive boss battles, and surprisingly deep gameplay. The unorthodox control is a bit of a barrier to entry, but players who persevere will be well rewarded; retro-curious falling-block fans looking for something completely different will have a great time with this one-of-a-kind puzzler.