Wario Land: Shake It! Review
If I were to fill out one of those awful MySpace personality quizzes that determine which Nintendo character you're most like, I like to think I'd be Wario. Despite his origins as a cheap Bizarro Mario meant to serve as a Bowser stand-in on the Game Boy, Wario has since been fleshed out as one of Nintendo's most distinct and interesting personalities. While his involvement in the ADD non-sequitur twitch-fest WarioWare games doesn't hurt, it's his moral ambiguity and pathological self-interest amongst a peer group of cutesy family-friendly goody-goodies that make him particularly compelling. Also, he's a crazy, ugly garlic-man with an old-timey prospector's cackling obsession with treasure who has been known to weaponize his farts. So, there's that.
Wario Land: Shake It!, his latest adventure on the Wii, builds on the basic formula of past Wario Land games. Since we haven't seen one of those since the launch of the Game Boy Advance back in 2001, it's OK if you've never heard of them, though suffice it to say that the Wario Land series has avoided comparisons to Mario's platforming adventures by focusing on gadgety puzzles and serpentine level designs. Shake It! adds some perfunctory motion controls to the mix, though its best feature is easily its all-new 2D graphics, which sport big, crisp characters and a level of detail that make you wish more games would invest their technical and artistic prowess into sprite-based presentation.
Shake It! operates under a suitably ridiculous and largely superfluous yarn about a parallel “shake dimension,” a realm whose queen has been imprisoned by the aptly named Shake King. Given the heads-up on the whole situation, as well as a magical globe and telescope, by Captain Maple Syrup, Wario plunges into the shake dimension, less at the desperate pleas of the queen, more for the Shake King's bottomless coin bag.
The world is divided up into five maps, each of which contain a half-dozen or so individual stages. The stages generally conform to a basic formula that sees Wario working his way through pitfalls and enemy patrols to rescue a little glowing pixie. Prisoner in tow, Wario then has to back to the start before a countdown timer hits zero. Wario definitely isn't as nimble as his blue-and-red counterpart, but he makes up for it in power and ingenuity. Wario can smash through rock walls and wooden crates with a running dash attack, perform a very sturdy butt-stomp, and toss enemies around like he was Yoshi. He also makes use of goofy unicycle contraptions, as well as a device known as the Max Fastosity Dasherator, which allows him to dash indefinitely, so long as he doesn't encounter any immovable objects. This gadget is particularly crucial in finding hidden areas and secret shortcuts during the backtracking parts. It's fundamentally a pretty clever platformer that takes its time ramping up the difficulty, while still requiring you to consider all of Wario's moves when confronted with an obstacle.
All that nonsense about the shake dimension at the start of the game plays into the action with a handful of waggle-based moves that Wario can perform. A quick shake of the Wii Remote performs a ground-pound move that will stun nearby enemies and triggers certain objects. If you grab a stunned enemy, you can shake the controller to either knock a life-replenishing bulb of garlic out of them, or rattle off any armor they're wearing. You'll find coin sacks throughout the game which you can shake to empty in a similar fashion. The most sophisticated bit of motion control in Shake It! involves tilting the Wii Remote to aim your shot when you've got a stunned enemy or other projectile in hand. It works well enough, though it's also sort of telling that, at this point in the Wii's lifespan, a game that uses the system's most gimmicky features sparingly is considered merciful.
In addition to the basic stage-to-stage progression, each stage is home to a few different pieces of hidden treasure to collect, as well as a number of performance-based side missions, which often require Wario to collect a certain amount of money, avoid falling in water or taking damage, or taking out a specific type of enemy. Most of these hidden treasures and side missions require previous knowledge of a stage, and many of them can only be done during the backtracking part. You'll find some side missions to be contradictory with one another, making it impossible to collect everything on a single run-through. The game is pretty clever, but not clever enough to mitigate the irritation of playing through a level a second time around, only to botch a side mission at the last moment.
This type of repetition is fostered elsewhere in Wario Land: Shake It!. While your access to stages within a map is determined by your completion of the previous stage, you have to throw down some cash before you can access the next map after playing through the previous one. Chances are, you'll reach a point before you hit the fifth and final map where you don't have enough scratch to buy the next map, requiring you to go back and grind out some more money on a previous stage. Each stage can be engaging enough the first few times through, but at a point it just gets tedious.
Even when the game starts to get a little old, it's a pleasure to look at. Wario in particular is a showcase of great 2D animation. It looks great when he shakes something so fast it turns into a blur, or the way he dives head-first into warp pipes, wiggling his hindquarters to make his way through. The bosses are often rich with detail as well. I also like the way Wario Land: Shake It! sounds. Wario's nasal cackle has long been one of my favorite of his character traits, and the game features an insane soundtrack that swings between blippy 8-bit tracks, guitar rock, and the kind of Japanese smooth-jazz that wouldn't be out of place in a mahjong game.
For as many times as I had to replay certain stages, Wario Land: Shake It! felt kind of brief, though there were aspects that managed to wear out their welcome before it was over. Still, a 2D game with this kind of detail is enough of an anomaly that it can be enjoyable for that alone, and despite some structural issues, it shakes up the usual platformer formula enough to be interesting.