Like many Game Boy Advance games I can talk about, WarioWare holds a lot of nostalgia for me. I’ve got very strong memories of playing it for endless hours on car trips, playing the hardest stages over and over again, constantly trying to beat my records. It’s absolutely one of the games I played the most as a child, and like many games that I played obsessively in my youth, I’ve been wary about picking it back up to review. I always worry that the illusion will be shattered and older eyes will see too many flaws with games I once loved. That said, I’m not entirely sure how WarioWare could feel appreciably worse; microgames are pretty straightforward, right?
WarioWare, Inc. Mega Microgame$ (GBA)
Released Mar 2003 | Developed / Published: Nintendo
I sometimes get the feeling that Nintendo don’t really know what to do with their villains. Take Wario, for example. First introduced in 1992’s Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, Wario began as more or less your bog-standard villainous version of the protagonist. Like Mario, he wore plumber overalls, had a big moustache, and could gain the same powerups as our hero from picking up mushrooms and fireflowers. Since then, like many of Mario’s baddies, he’s joined our hero for casual games of tennis, kart-racing, and the occasional fisticuffs showdown in Super Smash Bros., all of which vaguely dilutes the sense of threat he carried in that first appearance.
However, unlike some of the Super Mario rogue’s gallery, Wario seemed popular enough within Nintendo to actually star in his own games. In fact, the very next game in the Super Mario Land series was titled Wario Land, and set the trend for what made Wario different to his rival. Not only was the gameplay a more action-oriented version of Mario’s platforming, but he also saw significant character development, turning him into a villain protagonist obsessed with amassing wealth at any cost. Somehow, partway through Nintendo’s experiment with this Wario sub-series, a decision was made to make a game that was a collection of wild and weird microgames. Then another decision was made to attach Wario, of all characters, to this project. I’m not sure why, but I will say whoever made that choice deserves one hell of a raise because WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$ is rad as all hell.
So what is WarioWare all about? You might not expect a collection of microgames to have a ton of plot, and well, you’d be right. There’s something though! Wario, clearly tired of his dayjobs of treasure hoarding and bunking off to play party games with Mario, seems to have hit upon the idea of making some quick cash by making a videogame based around microgames. That feels a bit too meta for my Nintendo games, but there you go. However, because Wario is a fundamentally lazy hack who hates the idea of putting in any real work or effort, he ropes the various denizens of the city he lives in to help him put it all together. That’s uhh… that’s your lot, honestly. Look, the plot is thin on the ground but this isn’t really a game that needs much of it; it’s a contrivance to give some shape to the game so as to stop it from being just a slapped together collection of microgames. I mean, it is kind of that, but to be fair WarioWare is more a huge array of marvellously well-designed games.
Amazingly, the game introduces a surprisingly large cast of characters who all chip in with Wario’s grand plan. Every character boasts a charming design, and each gets a stage to showcase them and the games they’ve picked. It’s a pretty eclectic mix of folk to boot; from the grumpy/dorky combo of cat and dog taxi drivers Dribble and Spitz, the ninja twins Kat and Ana, and the living embodiment of 70s disco Jimmy T, the creativity and effort put into this cast despite it being (and I cannot emphasise this enough) just a microgame collection is astounding. Their personalities even carry over into their stage designs; each one is filled with little references to the kind of person they are and each one is unique in very pleasing ways. Take 9 Volt’s stage, for example. 9 Volt is a self-proclaimed retro game fanboy with an interest in game design, so his stage features a giant Game Boy, into which get fed a stream of games as 9 Volt rips it up at a mixing desk in order to smash together his microgames for Wario. That’s way more imagination than I think this game deserved, and the fact that some bright folk at Nintendo saw fit to put this much effort and care into it goes such a long way to making WarioWare a joy to experience.
Of course, the main draw is these microgames I’ve been waffling about. I suppose an explanation is in order. If you’re unfamiliar, these are tiny, extremely simple game challenges that have to be completed in a very short time limit. This means that the games each have maybe only one thing you’re expected to accomplish, but the challenge often lies in reacting quickly enough or timing the action correctly. In my head, they’ll always be a relic of the internet age, and WarioWare, for all its charms, can’t help but in some ways feel like a tidied up version of Flash games like 4 Second Frenzy (although I will say I’m certain WarioWare came first).
In order to progress, you need to challenge each character’s stage. Just like the stages visually match the design of the character, so too do the games, as each member of the cast has a different theme which all their games fit. We mentioned 9 Volt earlier for example; given he’s obsessed with retro games, it makes sense that his microgames are all based off classic video games, such as having to bounce on Goombas with Mario or traverse a (very) small portion of Hyrule as Link. Others get more eclectic themes however, such as “nature”, “reality”, or “IQ”, and these allow the designers to flex ever more creative muscles in terms of what they can make into a microgame.
Beating each stage is a matter of tackling enough microgames. Each level throws a series of them at you and completing them in sequence causes the difficulty to shift up and the time limit to get shorter and shorter, while the microgames themselves get trickier. You start with 4 lives; failing a microgame makes you lose a life, and once you’re out of lives, it’s game over, but advance far enough and you reach a boss game. These don’t have a time limit but are a tiny bit more mechanically complex to make up for it, and once you’ve beaten the boss level, you can progress to another character’s set of games. When I say a tiny bit more complex, I mean it’s only a little bit; because you have such a strict time limit, by design no microgame can be more complicated than requiring a handful of button presses at most. The vast majority require you to either press A to time an action correctly, or use the d-pad to maneuver something around and that’s it; you don’t need any other controls to play WarioWare.
What’s amazing though is the mileage Nintendo managed to get out such a simple concept. There are literally hundreds of microgames in WarioWare, to the point where you can replay stages and see totally different games because the pool they’re picking from is massive. After beating the game you unlock a set of different endless modes that let you take on games until you lose your lives and it’s mind-boggling how long you can go before you hit a repeat. Herein is the secret to why WarioWare is such a success. The games themselves are simple, but fiendish; you don’t need to spend a lot of time working out what to do to succeed at any given game (indeed, given the time limit, you can’t spend that time) but each game has multiple distinct forms depending on how much the difficulty has stepped up, and that helps keep each game feeling fresh. By the time you know the games well enough to know exactly which version of which game you’re dealing with, you’re almost certainly been playing for long enough to have fed the addiction that is playing these rapid-fire, charming minigames. And it really is addictive; the combination of the simplicity, the difficulty, and the wonderfully encouraging design that ensures the time between failing a run and getting back in for another try is extremely minimal, helps ensure that WarioWare is one of the best times you can have with your GBA.
Some games you simply know you’re going to enjoy. Playing them, and seeing them live up to that expectation is a lovely thing. Some games, however, are a wild surprise. Perhaps they don’t look like the kind of experience you normally go for, or perhaps the concept is too far out for you to consider that they might be a ton of fun. For me, WarioWare was very much the latter. It’s a bizarre, weird, random game that I think, on paper, doesn’t sound terribly enthralling. And yet, playing it I found a game that was intense, exciting, and exactly the right measure of tricky yet addicting. If you’ve got a GBA, or access to one, I highly recommend giving WarioWare a go.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.