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Irritating = Challenging?
on 25 August 2012
Wario is flying his biplane. He crashes, right next to a cave. Inside the cave is a clockwork snowglobe on a pedestal. Because he has the audacity to touch it, he gets zapped inside. A "hidden figure" appears and tells Wario a hackneyed sob story about how it used to be the god of the clockwork snowglobe world, and blackmails Wario into recovering 5 music boxes in exchange for Wario's freedom.
Blackmail isn't the best way to get a player caring about the plight of an in-game character, just as tedious, frustrating gameplay won't keep them playing. Ah, where to start...
I bought this game after reading the countless positive reviews, and games with day/night cycles and open-ended structure usually appeal to me. The music sets the mood well, the graphics are good, and initially it looked like a fresh take on the Wario series.
Then, the niggles began to set in.
The main quirk of the Wario series is that unlike his arch-enemy, Wario is invincible. It's something that worked well enough in the previous game, but the changes made to the structure of the levels means that this time it's little more than a constant annoyance. Obviously, if the main character in a game is invincible, challenge has to be introduced in different ways to that of a standard platformer where death is possible.
Unfortunately, the tactic that was resorted to here is to make enemy attacks maximise the amount of movement inflicted on Wario. So whether it's being set on fire/being frozen/sent dizzy/being hit by one of those damned fish on the bridge level, you can be sure it'll send you respectively running/sliding/staggering/rolling back to the start of that section, or even the level itself. When I started out, it wasn't much of a problem, but such enemies are ubiquitous, and super-aggressive (those with projectile/charging attacks will often starting going for you the second they appear on screen) and getting sent back countless times just trying to make it to the top of a series of platforms or to the other end of a bridge is unacceptable for any game. I'm well aware many of the changes inflicted upon Wario are necessary for progression through the game, but they more often cause irritation than elation.
Boss fights have fairly interesting designs behind them, but the aforementioned game mechanic means they're almost always nothing but extremely vexing. Like the tortoise/hare battle where you have to jump on the hare to make him ball-shaped, and then shoulder-barge him past the tortoise-goalkeeper into the goal three times. But it's in a very confined space, and if you don't strike the hare-ball from a very specific point, the tortoise will save it every time. To add to the misery once you've made the hare all spherey, if you're on the wrong side, jumping over the hare is incredibly difficult, as the game's bouncy physics don't allow such moves to be easily made. If the hare knocks you goalwards three times, you're instantly floated up to a place from which you can't directly get down, and so have to go the long way round to start the battle again. It's the same scenario with the squid boss or the section where you have to barge through rock walls ahead of a giant invincible mole robot (it always catches up before you can get through them all), except this time if you so much as get touched by either of these enemies, you get ejected back outside and have to start all over again.
This leads nicely on to the levels themselves. They're set on a world map, which is based around the north, south, east and west sides of a volcano. Once a level is completed, or the player chooses to exit through the pause menu, it changes from day to night, or night to day (with accompanying changes to enemies and level layout). They are generally large, with many different sections, most of which only become accessible as one gains abilities through the four treasures hidden in each level. At first only one treasure chest is directly available and once the player has obtained it, the next level will open up. Then after treasures and subsequently abilities are learned, one can go back to get the previously-unobtainable chests. Often newly-obtained treasures will change the layout of a previous level, making new sections accessible (though these are often bizarre - blowing a hole in the side of the volcano/causing giant snakes to appear/turning a hill into a castle?!). The settings are varied, from forest to town to desert to swamp to ice cave to spooky temple.
But carrying on from my criticism of the enemies, the levels work very well in conjunction with the enemies to maximise annoyance. Often if the player falls, or is knocked into water, the platform above is just out of reach, or currents in the water won't let you go forward, forcing you to go all the way back around. But why can't I just jump straight back out? Is this "challenging"? Another example is where there are blocks that can only be broken by throwing a barrel/boulder at them, though there'll only be one present in the level, meaning it needs to be carried across platforms and through hordes of enemies. The only problem is, the game's twitchy physics mean that if, when you jump or move forward, the item being carried touches the ceiling or wall in front, Wario will instantly drop it and it'll smash on the ground, meaning you have to go all the way back to its 'spawn point' and start again. Is this the developers trying to add realism to the game? It's completely detrimental. It was at least fixed in Wario Land 4.
While I was playing it, I always got the feeling that the open levels and the freedom with which the player can go from level to level really aren't suited to the game. I appreciate that the developers tried to do something different with this instalment, but somehow this aspect of the game really doesn't work as well as it did in the previous games.
I realised after a while of collecting these treasures that I had no idea why I was doing it as the basic premise is incredibly flimsy and there's no narrative keeping things going. Wario Land II had amusing cut scenes that gave the player a general idea of what was going on. In this game there's nothing. You'll complete a level, there may be a small scene where the piece of treasure you just got opens up something new, you go to that level, get the treasure, it opens up something new, and so on and so on. This just meant that the only reason I was playing the game was out of obligation because it was something I'd spent money on. I certainly wasn't enjoying it, and as the plot is non-existent, it had no meaning.
In terms of appearance, the game is of the usual Nintendo standard. But the gameplay just isn't enjoyable and there's no incentive to carry on grinding through ill-fitting levels and irritating enemies to appease the utterly forgettable "hidden figure" who you don't care about anyway! It's entirely unfortunate, but the game has few redeeming qualities. There's no Nintendo magic here this time.