No one is coming for Mario’s crown when it comes to 3D platformers. Nintendo threw down the gauntlet when Super Mario 64 was first released into the world, and they’ve only improved from there, again and again. As for 2D platformers, however? That might have been where Mario got his start, but those games peaked with Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES, which came out in Japan in 1988 and North America in 1990.
That’s not a derogatory use of “peaked” there, as Super Mario Bros. 3 still absolutely rules, to the point that its experimental spirit, its ethos, whatever you want to call it, serves as the inspiration for the greatest of Mario’s 3D adventures: games willing to create concepts that could sometimes be entire games themselves, only to be cast aside after their brief use to move on to the next thing that could stand on its own. But the point remains that Nintendo’s efforts for making better Mario titles has been almost entirely in the 3D space since Super Mario Bros. 3 came out. Super Mario World on the SNES was a worthy follow-up, but it’s not a better game than its predecessor unless you’re talking visually or sonically, and almost the entire New Super Mario Bros. sub-series, as enjoyable as its games can be after the original DS entry, is focused more on “hey, remember side-scrolling Mario?” than on creating something truly new, as Super Mario Bros. 3 felt when it first landed.
The most fascinating bits from those games are, of course, the chaos of four-player multiplayer, but also New Super Luigi U—since its focus was its limited timer and breakneck pacing—and the unfairly maligned 3DS release New Super Mario Bros. 2, which built the entire game around the concept of collecting coins. So many coins. Those are the only times the New Super Mario Bros. games have felt significantly different than the titles they’re based on when you’re playing solo, and that was an intentional decision by Nintendo: 3D Mario is for experimentation, side-scrolling Mario is for competently mining nostalgia. And while Nintendo’s various studios and contract developers put together plenty of killer non-Mario side-scrollers post-SMB3—HAL’s Kirby Super Star (Ultra), Rare’s Donkey Kong Country 2, Pax Sofnica’s Donkey Kong ‘94 (hey, it counts)—none of them exceeded Super Mario Bros. 3 on a societal level. (Only among very brave and probably good-looking people who know how great Kirby is and are willing to say it stacks up.)
There is one side-scrolling platformer series that Nintendo produced that has clearly exceeded Super Mario Bros. 3, though, and that’s Wario Land. Not all of the Wario Land games, mind, but Wario Land 4 is of a high enough quality to broach the argument that it’s at least as good as Super Mario Bros. 3, and Wario Land 3 is simply the greatest side-scrolling platformer that Nintendo has ever put their name to.
There are many things that make Wario Land 3 a flat-out masterpiece, but here’s the short version: Nintendo R&D1 fully understood what made its excellent predecessor, Wario Land II, work, and rather than repeat that again from the ground up on the Game Boy Color, they broke the whole thing down to its component pieces and then made it share space with a different genre. Wario Land II is vastly different from the first game in the series, but like that one, it’s still a side-scrolling platformer, full stop. Wario Land 3 is a platformer built inside of a Metroidvania. It’s much more of the former than it is the latter, or else this would be an article about how Wario’s Metroidvania is nearly as good as Samus’ best (hey, even I have my limits), but there’s enough of that labyrinthian, pathfinder spirit in here that Wario Land 3 cannot just be considered a side-scrolling platformer only.
It’s this fusion that makes it as special as it is, still unique enough that, were Nintendo to do their usual remake thing and churn out a beautifully animated HD edition of this classic, it would be a modern-day hit in the same way The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening managed to be. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that this joining of platformer and Metroid-style gameplay worked as well as it did. After all, R&D1 was responsible for every side-scrolling Metroid title from 1987’s NES original through its 2004 Game Boy Advance remake, as well as all four handheld Wario Land games. If anyone had the right to turn the Metroid dial for a franchise that wasn’t already like that, it was R&D1.
In Wario Land II, Wario had all of his abilities from the start, but in the sequel, all Wario can do at first is jump and do a little dash that can knock over enemies and defeat them when stunned, and break cracked blocks. You’ll unlock some new abilities as you progress through the game, which will in turn open up new levels, but also new paths within levels you’ve already completed. “Completed” is kind of inaccurate there: every stage actually has four treasure chests in it, all a different color with a corresponding key for each, so a stage isn’t truly complete until you’ve opened all four chests—those chests contain new abilities, or ways to open up additional stages with their own chests and unlocks. Doing so is not a linear process, either: you might be able to see a red key in an early stage, but it could take you hours before you get the ability that will help you open up the path to reach it. Essentially, each stage is actually four different stages overlaid, and you have to figure out which of your unlocked abilities is the one that will get you where you need to be at any given time. There’s also a day/night cycle to consider, and with it comes different paths that are available to you for one reason or another, sometimes because certain enemies only appear during one state or the other. Zombies are a creature of the night, for instance, and as much of an impediment as they are a benefit to Wario.
Wario needs to leverage the temporary skills and powers that enemies like zombies can grant him: Zombie Wario will fall through thin floors if he jumps, because his body is falling apart and kind of melting. If he’s stung by a bee, his face will swell up like a balloon, causing him to float. If he’s flattened by a hammer, he’ll turn into a living, bouncing spring, able to reach areas that might otherwise be inaccessible. Catch on fire? All Wario can do now is run back and forth, bouncing off of walls unless you can time some jumps just right and get him to where he needs to be as his entire body catches flame, turning him into a fireball capable of burning away certain obstacles. Wario is invincible: he either loses coins from being hit by an enemy, or is changed in some significant way like described above. You’ll find yourself experimenting often with taking “damage” in order to see if it opens up a new pathway to a key or a chest, or if it reveals how to get to one of the eight music coins hidden in each stage. The worst thing that happens is you guessed wrong and have to try again elsewhere.
The entire game is, in essence, a puzzle. You’re platforming your way around, but you have to use your head, both figuratively and literally, in order to progress. Is this enemy an impediment or just what I need to move on? Where would the ability to butt stomp or throw enemies come in handy now that I can do that? How can I possibly time this jump/roll/float without messing up or having an enemy interrupt me? There’s a reason there is no clock in Wario Land 3, and it’s so you can take the time to puzzle this all out for yourself, as often as you need to. It’s certainly a slower-paced game than you’re used to from Nintendo’s usual platforming fare, but there’s an intentionality to all of it, and plenty of action, too. (Want a little more speed? Wario Land 4 is right there.)
It’s a blast to play because of this combination of… well, traditional for Wario platforming, anyway, there is a mini golf minigame you have to master if you actually plan to open up all the paths and chests, wherein Wario kicks an enemy past sand and lava traps in an attempt to make par… with the pathfinding aspects of a Metroid. But Wario Land 3 also animates beautifully, with the kind of attention to detail that people who did not have the portable might not be aware the Game Boy Color could even manage. There’s a bounce to every step of Wario’s, and all of his expressions are incredibly animated in every sense of the phrase. His little shimmy as he goes up or down a ladder makes me laugh no matter what number time it is that I’ve noticed it, the way his face and body contorts as he’s set on fire or inflated or flattened or caught up in a web or every other terrible thing that happens to him that he’s mercifully—or unmercifully—not harmed by. Every frame of animation within is a little gift, and if Nintendo had any sense, they’d remake this game using the hand-drawn art style of the otherwise inferior Wario Land: Shake It! to give it the modern flourishes it deserves, rather than shifting things to side-scrolling 3D.
And the soundtrack! Just excellent work by Kozue Ishikawa, to make something that manages to have the appropriate amount of bounce and horror to it that a game that embraces its cartoon nature but is also one where the protagonist can be burned alive or flattened or cartoonishly inflated to become a balloon—it was her final Wario title, and she went out on a high note.
The only negative things to be said about Wario Land 3 have nothing to do with the game itself. The style changed up once again for Wario Land 4—a game that also rules but is not as good as its predecessor—and then the good, but not quite up to par Wario Land: Shake It! came out on the Wii, and that was it for Wario Land as a series. R&D1 itself had shifted to WarioWare, and the last two Wario platformers (Shake It! and Wario World) were both developed by outside studios. Which, with Nintendo, is basically the end of things for a franchise, unless yet another third-party asks for a shot at things—ask F-Zero and Star Fox and Kid Icarus about all of that. No one seems to be asking about Wario, and no one already at Nintendo seems keen on focusing on anything besides more WarioWare. Which, to be fair, is also great.
And the other negative is still briefly a positive: Wario Land 3 can still be had on the Nintendo 3DS eShop for all of $5… but only until the end of March 2023. You can thank the rush to close down digital storefronts rather than pay for their upkeep, and the shift from purchases to subscription services for classic titles for that decision. Get Wario Land 3 while you still can: it’s Nintendo’s greatest accomplishment in a space they showed mastery of years before it was released, developed by people who understood everything that worked about both of the genres it smashed together. It might not be as widely available as Super Mario Bros. 3 is either historically or at this moment, but that’s the only thing Mario’s greatest side-scrolling achievement has over Wario’s.
Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.