Wario Land 4
Image: Gemma Smith / Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Scott ponders how Mario's nemesis number 2 deserves more respect...

In the conversation of all-time great video games you have many Nintendo faces who show up near enough every time; Super Metroid, Ocarina of Time, most main-series Super Mario games. And while all of those live up to their high praise and deserve to be mentioned amongst the greats, there are many Nintendo titles that unjustly don't get mentioned in that conversation. Games like Rhythm Paradise Megamix and Kid Icarus: Uprising, which — despite them being tremendous experiences — very rarely make the cut. While I could argue with you over how fantastic those two games are, I’m here to talk about another, which, despite a cult following and even receiving very positive review scores at the time, is rarely brought up in all-timer conversations: Wario Land 4.

Wario Land 4 is the fifth Wario Land game, released in 2001 on the Game Boy Advance, five months after the launch of the system. While I’m advocating specifically for this game, the series up to this point was no slouch either. Wario Land 2 and 3 are considered amongst the best Game Boy Color games, and Virtual Boy Wario Land is seen by many as the sole redeeming entry in the small software library of Nintendo’s migraine-inducing machine.

The core of the series features our beloved treasure-obsessed hunk as he explores a variety of different areas in search of treasure. While its lineage began with the third entry in the Super Mario Land series, Wario Land ended up somewhere in the middle of Mario and Metroid thanks to its increased focus on exploration.

Wario Land 4 Ghost
Image: Nintendo

So why advocate for the fourth game specifically? Well, while WL4 maintained everything that made the prior entries great, it added one crucial element: Speed.

Don’t get me wrong, Wario is a beast in every game, but the inclusion of his momentum-building dash ramps the power fantasy up to a whole other level. Wario manhandles his enemies and the environment as he blasts through each stage at max velocity. Yet, despite him being a tank, Wario Land 4 is simultaneously the most anxiety-inducing game in the series, thanks to one specific frog.

Wario Land ended up somewhere in the middle of Mario and Metroid thanks to its increased focus on exploration

At the end of every level of Wario Land 4 you come across this bizarre-looking totem with a frog atop it. Naturally, you jump on it, expecting it to be Wario’s equivalent of Mario’s flagpoles. Suddenly, the screen freezes; there's a distinct change in mood as a disturbing tune begins to play and Wario’s voice shouting "HURRY UP!" blasts from your GBA speaker. A timer appears at the top of the screen signifying it’s time to haul ass outta there. As the screen starts flaring red, it’s like the escape sequences in Metroid games, except now you have to do it in each level.

While this mechanic is brilliant for building tension, what truly makes it genius is the inclusion of frog blocks. They appear unusable during the initial run through the level — think Mario's P Switches. This makes your return journey through the level far more interesting, since you’ll be covering previously inaccessible areas rather than just playing the same thing quickly in reverse.

Granted, it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to just play the same levels backwards considering how great each one is. While it lacks the quantity of a game like Super Mario World — having only eighteen levels in total — Wario Land 4 makes up for it by each level being so drastically different from one another. Even though each zone of the game has a distinct theme (factory, horror), the four levels that make up these passages feel distinct from each other, both mechanically and visually. You’d think they were part of different worlds in a normal Mario game. Levels like Toy Block Tower have mechanics that you could base an entire puzzle platformer on, and here it is discarded after one stage as Nintendo R&D1 moves on to its next genius move.

So, why does Wario Land 4 not really get mentioned among the greats? First off, it’s just a super weird game. The general tone and experience is so distinctly odd — from the boss fights that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror game and the fantastic soundtrack that’s filled with weird samples of people talking — it lacks the consistent mainstream appeal of your typical all-time contender. This one is quintessential Wario.

But maybe being weird alone isn’t enough to bury it. People like weird things. WarioWare Inc.: Mega Microgame$ released a couple of years later and not only is WarioWare now the de-facto Wario series, but the original entry is remembered as one of the GBA’s crown jewels thanks to its — at the time — brand new, novel microgame concept. Could it just be the case that Wario Land 4 was overshadowed by the newer, shiner, Wario experience on the GBA?

Spoiled Rotten
Image: Nintendo

Well, yes, but there's also what I believe to be a third contributing factor. 2001 is a strong contender for the best year for games ever. We Nintendo fans got bangers like Super Smash Bros. Melee, Advance Wars, and Pikmin. Elsewhere, there were all-time greats like Metal Gear Solid 2, Devil May Cry, Grand Theft Auto 3, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Silent Hill 2, Sonic Adventure 2, Halo: Combat Evolved, Max Payne… You get the picture. Sadly, the most likely reason for Wario Land's underappreciation is that maybe 2001 was just too good and it got lost in the flood.

Thankfully all hope is not lost; as great indie developers have taken the torch and run with it. First, there's the excellent Pizza Tower which launched on Steam recently (and I reviewed for our friends over on PC Gamer) — which sadly doesn’t have a Switch release planned at the moment. Then there's the upcoming Antonblast, which blends Wario with the destruction of Crash Bandicoot, and is slated to come to Switch this year.

Kinda looks like the lovechild of Wario and Yosemite Sam

In case anyone couldn’t tell, I love Wario Land 4. If you haven’t played it, I wholly recommend it. But get on it soon, since the only way Nintendo currently offers to purchase the game — via the Wii U Virtual Console — will be unavailable when the eShop closes for business in just two months. 3DS early adopters also have access via the 3DS Ambassador Program, but otherwise there's no legal way to play right now unless you track down an original GBA cart.

Which you probably should, because it's still brilliant over two decades later and worthy of discussion alongside Nintendo's greats.