Wario isn’t a complicated man, and making a decent Wario game isn’t really a complicated business. In fact, we’d boil it down to one very simple rule: capture his bulbous incompetence without succumbing to it. Give us clumsy, piggy-eyed foibles, but do it with class and intelligence. Obscuro developers Good Feel (they’ve got just three DS English-training games under their rather saggy belts) have certainly bagged some sturdy foundations for their stab at ol’ fatso.
The first Wario Land since the GBA’s wonderful Wario Land 4 (remember, Wario’s spinning GameCube platformer was a Wario World), Shake It! (or Shake Dimension in the UK) continues the puzzle-platformer skew. Where Mario hops, skips and jumps through his princess-liberation routine, Wario stoops, falls and suffers horrific bodily mutilation in his quest for gold. Pain ends Mario but it strengthens Wario, stings ballooning him into floaty Wario and zombies offering him the handy invincibility of the undead. Or at least they used to. Good Feel have pruned back the ‘hurt him to empower him’ angle. Instead we get Wario as brought to you by the Wii remote – another mascot enlisted to promote waggle tech. Shake the remote and he unleashes a ground pound, touch a stunned critter and a shake rattles the little fella. As a brutish, bullying skill it’s worthy of Wario, but he’s almost a little too controllable. Trying to tame a whirlwind of agony in earlier Lands was often half the fun.
And someone at Good Feel has clearly revisited Yoshi’s Island – Wario’s object-hurling trick is borrowed directly from the dino, bum-egg aiming reticule and all. He has more control over his lobs than the lizard: a remote tilt sets the trajectory with a judder of rumble as each angle clicks by, offering pleasant feedback. If only the move weren’t so half-heartedly implemented – an obvious switch puzzle here and a boss encounter there and it’s largely forgotten. The point we’re trying to make is that the ballsy madness of those earlier Wario Lands has been reined in by motion controls. Gesturing is beautifully realised, sure, but none of the skills it grants are as off-the-wall as the morphing states of past games. Considering that it was these multiple Wario forms that gave those titles their puzzling smarts, how does Shake It! intend to tease the old thought muscle?
As in earlier Lands, stages are divided into two distinct phases: a careful trek through the level, snaffling treasure as you go, and a frantic against-the-clock dash to safety as Wario triggers an alarm. It’s the gambolling gold-grabbing that interests us most – a few subtleties aside, the second part is little more than a reaction test as Wario sprints back to the entrance portal. Platforming in Shake Dimension lays down two gauntlets. The first, more of a soft, knitted gauntlet replica, is a basic test of dexterity. You know the deal: vine-swinging, spike-avoiding, lava-dodging. Oh so traditional. Oh so 2D. The second gauntlet, and one much more akin to the hefty metal digit protectors of yore, asks you to understand how Wario moves and reacts to the world around him, applying that knowledge to conquer seemingly impossible chunks of level design.
We’re not talking mastering basic jump distances but something far tricksier – the momentum of a slide, the height required for a flaming butt-stomp, the speed at which a shoulder barge becomes a super barge, and the stopping time for a flustered sprint. It’s all hidden under the delightful character animation (more on this in, ooh, three paragraphs), but there’s a satisfying demand for mastery that you rarely find in 3D realms. That said, for a title that prides itself on the bosom buddy relationship between movement and level design there are a few hiccups. Some level segments are designed to play a part only when Wario is hoofing it back at the end of each stage. Naturally, you don’t know this until you’re running said sprint, so it’s possible to do your brain and fingers an injury trying to get Wario to places he’s not meant to go. Is that tempting diamond for us now, or the run home? What clumsy design.
To pad out a rather skinny six-hour runtime, Good Feel have added bonus criteria to every stage – mini-missions not dissimilar to Mario Galaxy’s comet runs that place a new slant on levels. Some are a bit obvious – your usual ‘don’t lose any health, collect X amount of gold, final sprint time attack’ kind of thing – but the odd one mixes things up a bit. Not touching water in an aqua park and piloting a ship without crashing it once are neat asides. Do they motivate multiple returns? Not really. Problem is, they don’t alter your approach substantially enough to justify their existence. Your first time through most stages sees you just missing out on half of them; replaying for ten minutes to tighten up a 20-second segment here and there isn’t our idea of depth. And what’s our prize for completion? Ace a level and – drum roll – you unlock a track in the sound test menu.
But between you and us, who need trinkets and treasures when you’ve got visual gold streaming from your TV? A hand-animated style brings Wario to life brilliantly. From his roly-poly waddle to the dust kicked up by his pinwheeling pins, this is as close as we’ve seen to a real-time cartoon. Thought cel-Link was emotive in Wind Waker? Wario stomps all over him, making him look like a crude flick book creation sketched by an unruly youth. The seamless flow of one move into the next is the true animators’ coup. Beat-’em-up masters SNK and ARC have been pumping out stunning 2D sprites for years, but Good Feel’s jump from fixed animations to more naturally streaming behaviour is nothing short of astonishing. Chaining together complex moves to negotiate platforms not only bags you treasure, but also sights to match Tom and Jerry – particularly when it concludes with Wario pancaking into a cliff face at 100mph.
As a vibrant, physical piece of work, Shake Dimension is one of the more impressive on Wii. It channels the cheery primary coloured aesthetic last seen in Zack & Wiki, applying it to environments that don’t recycle the old ice/fire/jungle clichés (ignore the above screenshot) but split off to bring us casinos, runaway trains and sky palaces. And this brings about a shift for old Wario. Usually he’s the guy we turn to for a spot of messy fun, fully expecting rough edges. Here he’s a shining bastion of technical excellence, but missing that rambunctious energy that powers his finest gameplay. There are challenges and moments of occasional brilliance, but they’re smothered in overall simplicity. Good Feel deftly avoid emulating Wario’s clumsier moments, but they never truly celebrate them either.
Sep 23, 2008