Wario games have always stood out as being excellent venues for experimental game design. He challenged death in games by going immortal for a spell, helped Nintendo test the waters with motion control across multiple games and platforms and for the most part boldly goes where Mario dares not. He's seen a lot of highs in his illustrious career, but Master of Disguise is not one of them.
Developed by Suzak in 2007, who were the architects of the DSiWare Domo games, Wario's debut DS platformer seems to be operating under the modus operandi of wedging in as many touch-based mechanics as possible. Apart from moving and jumping, everything in the game is done with the touchscreen. As far as movement goes, it's all relegated to the D-Pad; the face buttons make up a secondary D-Pad for those who prefer to use the stylus with their left hand. The kicker is that jumping is done by hitting Up; if you've played a lot of platformers then this will feel so awkward that you might as well be playing with your toes. Even if you're new to the genre, the abundant diagonal jumps across the 10 stages are a pain to pull off. It's not inviting or intuitive in the least, and the game comes across as the exact opposite of how a typical Wario adventure, or any other quality platformer, should feel.
With such emphasis on the touchscreen, then, you'd expect it to be well-implemented and enhance the experience. It doesn't, really, and feels very forced. Swapping disguises and using abilities by tapping and drawing on the screen is fun and novel at first, but the sheen quickly fades once you rack up more disguises and are expected to use them in tandem to solve puzzles. The problem is the recognition can be very shaky and will often produce unwanted results, causing a lot of trial and error until you draw a shape just so under pressure and squeak by with the awkward jump controls. To open chests and collect treasure you're forced to complete a minigame, which can be anything from solving a slide puzzle to crunching cockroaches. They're not that fun to begin with and are there to showcase the "flexibility" of the touchscreen, but they wind up becoming tedious when all you want to do is grab that treasure and be on with it.
And while amassing treasure has been Wario's ultimate goal for, well, forever, the story manages to dilute an already thin premise. He's watching TV one day and comes across a show about a master thief named the Silver Zephyr, see, who uses crazy disguises to steal stuff. Not being able to distinguish reality from fiction, Wario builds a Telmet to transport himself into the show and steal all the treasure. He takes on the persona of the Purple Wind (who is silent but deadly, natch), yanks the Zephyr's wand and goes to town. It's a hokey plot, even for a Wario game, and the writing and humour is too reliant on bathroom jokes, even for a Wario game.
To top it all off, Master of Disguise is a fairly ugly game and lacks much of the charm of the Wario Land series. Wario himself and his various guises are appealing enough, but the environments are generic, bland and just plain boring to look at. For the world outside of the TV, Suzak opted for chunky pre-rendered CGI straight out of 1995 that makes the Donkey Kong Country TV show look good by comparison. Nor is the sound anything to write home about, with largely forgettable music and the occasional Wario snicker. The whole production just feels cheap and makes you wonder how in the world this game was published by Nintendo.
Ultimately, Master of Disguise is a victim of focusing too heavily on the DS's feature set. It tries too hard to be a touchscreen showpiece and in the meantime forgets to make the platforming fun. What we're left with feels like a half-baked minigame collection with an underwhelming game taped to it, all marred terribly by poor controls. Hopefully one day Wario will have a rock-solid DS adventure, but this, sadly, is not it.