Version tested: GameBoy Advance
Portable gaming wouldn't be portable gaming without a staple diet of unimaginative platform mediocrity, and the GameBoy Advance has already had its fair share. Platform games are a tired concept and its all too easy for developers to knock them out for the GBA without batting an eyelid, casting aside any thought for concept, innovation or design. Thankfully then Nintendo have bucked the trend admirably with Wario Land 4. The story sees Wario heading off to a recently discovered golden pyramid containing untold riches which have of course attracted the attention of our greedy anti-hero. So this is basically the excuse you get for leaping about in jungles and lava-filled caverns collecting coins and jumping on the heads of a cast of meandering adversaries. The sacred pyramid acts as a hub for each of the game's levels and is separated into six sections of four levels, plus boss rooms for each section. It's not a case of simply running through a level and moving on to the next though, there is a twist on the usual mechanics of the genre. Wario must locate four gem pieces throughout each level in order to unlock a door to the next, then leap on a switch to open a portal back to the pyramid. Jumping on the switch also triggers a timer, and you need to get back to the portal, often on the other side of the level, as quickly as possible. This shifting of pace offers the game a great sense of dynamics and intensity that hasn't really been seen before. Naturally you are also able to pick up coins during your exploits and, as well as being able to buy your way into the sub-games with them, you can also buy items in a shop in order to aid your battle against each boss.
Wario Land 4 is aesthetically quite simple and doesn't come close to pushing the GBA to its limits, especially when you square it up against the likes of Rayman Advance. However, what the title lacks in superficial eye candy, it certainly makes up for in sheer imagination and intriguing design. While it isn't exactly groundbreaking (there's only so far you can go with platform games after all), it pushes the boundaries with the aid of some frankly ingenious level design and problem-solving concepts. Wario doesn't just run and jump, you see; when he comes into contact with various enemies, his form shifts slightly to momentarily give you a new ability. For example, if a wasp stings him, Wario's head bloats and he begins floating upwards until he touches a surface, allowing you to access higher areas of the level and giving him the ability to drop from a great height through surfaces that are otherwise unbreakable. There are ten different states for Wario to get into besides his neutral form, such as setting him on fire to burn through walls or turning him into a zombie to dissolve through floors. These all lend a strategic element to your progress through the levels and the design facilitates a great deal more thought about your approach than your average run-of-the-mill platformer. This is also apparent in the breakable areas of levels; often huge masses of scenery are made up of breakable blocks and it takes careful consideration of how to go about your progress as opposed to blindly smashing your way through, which will usually result in hindrance. Your persistence in the main platforming sections is rewarded with the ability to buy entry into three mini-games which are intended to pad out the action slightly. With the coins you collect during your adventure you can pay a princely sum to have a go at these frankly weak efforts to momentarily sidetrack you from the main game. Wario Roulette is a kind of photo-fit game, where you need to match pieces of a face to a picture you're shown beforehand. The Wario Hop sees you leaping over obstacles whilst rolling along on a barrel, and finally there's Home Run Derby where you turn the GBA on its side, and have to hit as many home runs as possible when a pitcher, ahem, tosses his balls at you (sorry).
Although things can begin to grate in the later stages of the game, the level design is mostly superb and the gameplay offers an interesting and fun take on the genre. Wario Land 4 is an above-average stab at progressing the genre whilst maintaining Nintendo's platform pedigree. It's nice to see such innovation and clever design in this notoriously stale area, and you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy for when you need a little light gaming relief.
8 / 10