Wario Land 4; An Underappreciated yet Classic GBA Platformer

Note: Since this review was released, the game has now been added for purchase on the Wii U Virtual Console.  If you have a Wii U, we would hence really recommend that you buy this game, since it’s absolutely fantastic and deserves all the promotion it can get.

When it comes to game quality, the Wario series is a pretty mixed bag. On the one hand, you’ve got some of the best 2D platformers around in the form of the Wario Land series, and some also pretty fantastic party games in the form of the better WarioWare games. But then… there’s stuff like Wario Master of Disguise or Game & Wario, complete rubbish with the brand slapped on it to get a few bucks out of the unwary.

Thankfully though, Wario Land 4 falls on the better side of that divide. Indeed, you could even say it’s the last truly fantastic Wario platformer, given how it came right before Nintendo outsourced the series to whatever random third parties were willing to work on it. Never the less, here’s my review of this excellent game.

Graphics: 10/10

Graphically, Wario Land 4 looks pretty much fantastic. The backgrounds and tilesets are colourful and full of detail and character, the character and enemy sprites are well animated and feel more lively than those in other 2D platformers, and generally the game looks very nice indeed.

But do you know what makes the graphics here even better?

The fact the game never reuses them. You see, other platformers, tend to be big on palette swaps and reusing the same tileset over and over to save on work. Like how Donkey Kong Country 1’s bosses were each reused at least once with a different colour scheme, or how Super Mario World used a fairly small pool of objects over and over again… or even how a certain eShop game I can’t remember (I think Mighty Switch Force) used the exact same foreground for every single level in the game with merely a bit of recolouring to hide the blatant laziness.

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Above: Crescent Moon Village, a unique level in both style and level design

Wario Land 4 doesn’t do this. Instead, it makes sure that each and every level has a brand new set of graphics to make it look unique and memorable. And once the new graphics are introduced? That’s it, no other level in the game will ever reuse them (except the bonus room tileset). As a result, the game really does feel more interesting to play, since you don’t know what graphics to expect in any given level or what new ‘look’ will be introduced when you go through a door or pipe to another part of the same level. For instance, Pinball Zone has what, about six unique backgrounds in it?

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Above: Look at that map. Impressive gfx work for just one level…

This level of graphics detail and care is one reason I score the game so high, because the people making it put all their heart and soul in the title and as a result made something that you never get bored of. So as far as graphics go, Wario Land 4 gets a 9/10. It’s not ‘perfect’ (perhaps because it doesn’t have as unique a style as the likes of Yoshi’s Island or Donkey Kong Country), but it’s damn near close to it and for good reason.

Music: 10/10

Music wise, Wario Land 4 is fantastic.Seriously, I would say the music is arguably the best the GBA has ever been capable of.

Why is this?

Because the music is both catchy and unique. There are at least ten different music styles represented here, and each and every one of them is done nearly perfectly. The Wildflower Fields level has a great country style theme to it, the Crescent Moon Village level has a catchy yet haunting song that beats any ghost house music in any Mario game to date and the likes of the Toxic Landfill even has what sounds like an electric guitar based theme with a feel totally unlike anything you’d expect from a Nintendo game. Have a listen to some of these songs and tell me they’re not impressive for GBA music:

Above: Heavy metal/electric guitar music in a platformer works surprisingly well…

Above: Ridiculously relaxing

There’s something else that’s neat here too. Yes, this game has actual singing in it! You know, actually audible vocals on a GBA!

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Above: It even manages to put the F bomb into a Nintendo game…

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Above: Japanese singing in an English game?

This game’s soundtrack is amazing. And you know what makes it even better? They came up with different remixes of the themes for different situations! So not only did we somehow get music that you wouldn’t think even possible on a 16 bit system, but we got Rare style remixing of it as we progressed through the levels, at least in some instances. Like this version of the Palm Tree Paradise song that has the cave echo applied…

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Wario Land 4’s soundtrack is freaking awesome. It deserves no less than a perfect score, for literally being the best soundtrack of any GBA game ever made!

Gameplay: 10/10

But absolutely nothing else matters if the gameplay is poor. Thankfully though, Wario Land 4’s gameplay is the very opposite of bad, with the game being a brilliantly entertaining 2D platformer through and through.

On a basic level, the game is pretty much a cross between Wario Land 1 and Wario Land 3, with the standard health system and chances of dying from the first and the transformations and puzzle solving from the latter. For non Wario Land fans?

It’s basically a puzzle/beat em up platformer. You solve puzzles, beat up hordes of enemies and do basic platforming across obstacles.

Of course, there are a few twists to make it more interesting, You see, this game doesn’t have flag poles, stars or level ends. Instead, the very portal you enter the level through gets closed off and then reopened by a switch at the end of the level. You also need to get the key shaped creature (called ‘Keyser’ in this game) back out through the portal to unlock the door to the next level/boss. So instead of just worrying about how you can get to the end, you have to think about how to get BACK through the level after finding the Keyser and the various treasures you need in addition to this. Take too long? Boom, you get chucked out and have to start the level over.

Above: The Frog Switch makes Hell Literally Freeze Over in this level!

It’s a clever gameplay mechanic that provides a unique twist to the whole platforming experience, and it’s only made more interesting by how the switch doesn’t ONLY open the portal. Oh no, blocks appear or disappear when you hit it, paths open/close, obstacles disappear and in one memorable case (Fiery Cavern), the whole level literally freezes over and turns into an ice level. You know, like the whole adage ‘Hell freezes over’. This means that your return trip isn’t just a bland retreat of the same level, but a trip through what are sometimes all new areas with new enemies, obstacles and puzzles you have to figure out on the fly with a self destruct timer ticking down. It’s very clever and unique.

Another big difference from other platforms is in how the levels are laid out. You see, these levels are all about the exploration rather than punishing acrobatics. So they’re absolutely huge, filled to the brim with secrets to find… and most interestingly, don’t offer anything that kills Wario in one hit. Yup, nothing. Lava just does normal damage, bottomless pits don’t exist, Wario floats up in water and can’t swim to his death… it’s very much all about rewarding the observant and curious player rather than saying ‘ha ha, you failed!’ whenever they mess up. To aid this, Wario has a bunch of transformations which can give him new powers if he gets struck by the right attack. So while a giant smasher might turn Mario into a bloody pancake in a singl hit, it just turns Wario flat so he can travel through narrow passages and access new areas. While flames might burn and hurt everyone else, Wario runs around screaming on contact and can use the fire to break through certain blocks or defeat enemies. There are tons of these abilities, which occur based on everything from being stung by bees to zombified to eating too much, and they’re all used to great effect to open up new areas in the environment.

So that’s the core gameplay and how the basic level design works here. But that’s not all that’s good about the game. No, another important thing in its benefit is the variety in the levels and how they all introduce new ideas in a perfectly logical, fair way.

Yes, these levels work as differently as they look and sound, and all have interesting themes to boot. You’ve got a depressing rainforest, a landfill site, a pinball machine, a board game and a haunted village, and that’s just a tiny percentage of the areas! And they all introduce a new ‘mechanic’ that varies them up even further. So for instance, Pinball Zone lets you pick up pinballs and throw them in machines to open up new doors. The Big Board works as a board game and has various things happen to Wario and the environment based on the numbers rolled on the dice. And another level even has Wario fly around on flying carpets in an old town remniscient of Aladdin. These levels are fresh, they’re original, they introduce fantastic new elements and gimmicks and they do them fantastically well to boot. New Super Mario Bros? Needs to take inspiration from this game, since frankly, the themes and ideas introduced here are the kinds of things I sincerely wish the Mario series would take for its own and take inspiration from.

And the levels themselves are still only part of this whole experience! How about the bosses, which are cleverly designed battles with unique foes you’ll never see the likes of in any other game!

Above: Cuckoo Condor is the very definition of weird

Or the mini games! Oh yes, those things you get to play to win coins to use in the shop. You’ve got the fun Wario Hop that has you charge through an auto scrolling Western setting on an out of control unicycle, the Wario Roulette that lets you mess up his face and the Baseball mini game that lets you play a competent yet slightly less interesting game of baseball. They’re all pretty good fun, all comes with high score saving for those who want to see how well they can do and are definitely a nice bit of bonus fun after a hard days treasure hunting!

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Above: Only Nintendo could come up with a fat guy charging through the wild west and over random farm animals and cacti on a tyre…

Really, Wario Land 4 is one of the best platformers ever made. It’s got great level design with some excellent and original ideas for levels and bosses, it’s got fantastic controls and basic gameplay and it’s got tons of unique systems like the ‘run back to the start of the level with the key’ and transformation ones. Definitely recommended on the gameplay front.

Length/Value: 9/10

Onto the whole ‘how much value does this game offer’ thing, the answer is simple:

Way more than you think.

Yes, the basic ‘normal’ mode is hardly something that takes a lot of effort to beat. Indeed, if this was the only difficulty, I’d say the game wasn’t much more difficult than the likes of New Super Mario Bros 2.

But the good thing is, Nintendo actually put in multiple difficulty levels this time around! And more importantly… they change the game significantly. At least one new type of enemy is added, treasures and items are moved around, more enemies are added to levels, and the ending itself is extended/changed in various ways based on what difficulty level you’re playing at.

One of these difficulties levels, is the unlockable ‘Super Hard Mode’. And true to the name, this is where the bulk of the game’s length/value comes from. Frog Switches have been moved to earlier points in the level (sometimes so they’re right underneath the vortex you enter from), enemy counts have been literally tripled to the point you can’t walk four feet without bumping into a vicious monster and time limits have been reduced so drastically that at least one boss fight gives you just fifteen SECONDS to win. Did I forget the mini games have been changed too? Such that the baseball one has an all new type of AI opponent you never see in easier difficulty levels? It’s a brutal experience, and it really extends the game’s length significantly.

To add to all this, there are also some interesting other unlockables in the form of the music room CDs and the karaoke thing. How do these work? Simple…

1. Each level has a CD very cleverly hidden in it
2. Collecting it gives you unique music to play in the music room

And yes, I did say ‘unique’. You see, where other games make you unlock the sound test and hear the music you played throughout the game… Wario Land 4 gives you a bizarre second soundtrack to unlock, made of strange tunes with unique names that are only ever heard in the music room. Here are some samples:

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It’s… strange to say the least, and is certainly a ‘different’ type of bonus to give dedicated players. The other replay extending thing here is the karaoke song, which has to be unlocked by getting gold crowns in every single level. Think that’s easy? Try getting 10 000 coins or so in every single stage across three difficulty levels! It’s nowhere near as easy as you think it is, and will definitely keep you playing for quite a while.

All in all, Wario Land 4 has a fair amount of longitivity and gameplay value to it, what with all the different difficulty levels, options and other such things. It’s just you’ll actually have to do more than just charge mindlessly through the main storyline to get the most out of it.

Conclusion

Wario Land 4 is a great game. It’s fun, it’s got great level design with a ton of unique ideas and its a technical marvel to boot. Forget New Super Mario Bros, forget any modern Yoshi or Wario games and forget most ‘indie’ platformers you’ve ever seen in your life, this game beats them all.

If you have a GBA, buy this game now. If you’re a 3DS ambassador, download and play it now. And if you don’t have either? What the hell are you waiting for? Go out and get this game, since it’s one of the best 2D platformers ever made and arguably one of the top GBA games too.

And if you’ve got a Wii U and access to the eShop?  Buy this game.  Now.