Skip to main content

All hail Wario

Paying tribute to the original Nintendo anti-hero.

"Anti-heroes" aren't supposed to look like Wario. Anti-heroes aren't really supposed to have preset characteristics at all - the whole point is that they're defined by negation - but in the course of countless Gothic vampire stories and cyberpunk adventures, the role has come to involve certain visual traits. Anti-heroes must be lean, sexy, glowering and little-spoken, with a regulation two days' worth of stubble and a variety of intriguing scars. Their lips must be curling, bleached, sardonic. The eyes? Glowing, slitted, bionic and/or bloodshot. The apparel? Trench coats, mirror shades, knee-high boots, flapping bandages and anything cut from dark leather with sharp angles that smells ever so slightly of S&M.

Wario isn't lean or glowering, and I sincerely hope you don't find him sexy. Originally created to serve as Mario's foil in Super Mario Land 2 for the Gameboy, Wario is an odious bubble of fat and muscle wrapped up in ghastly purple overalls, wobbling about on stupid duck feet, his face all but obliterated by an enormous, lipless maw, hat clamped down like the seal on a barrel of toxic waste. Wario is a loveless abomination who exists to break things, pillage things and generally speaking indulge himself, which is to say he is pretty much like any video game character, only without the usual veneer of respectability. Wario is repulsive. Wario is brilliant.

Building a protagonist around the idea that most video game protagonists are glorified looters may not seem revolutionary in this, the era of "No Russian" and "Would You Kindly", but it was quite the shock to my system back in 1994, when the original Wario Land popped up on the Game Boy. Wario Land was actually the first Mario title I played - a Sonic the Hedgehog diehard, I'd turned my nose up at Nintendo's machines until the sight of Wario's obscene grimace in a friend's hands won me over. Alas, the folly of youth - but I like to think that Wario Land's producer Gunpei Yokoi, original head of the famous Research and Development 1 team, would have been tickled that I'd come to Mario second. After all, Wario Land is as much a cheeky revolt against the success and spirit of Shigeru Miyamoto, Yokoi's star protégé and subsequent rival, as it is an offshoot of the Mario franchise.

Wario's role in the Mario saga isn't just to oppose Mario but to undermine what he represents. At the beginning of Super Mario Land 2, Wario kicks Mario out of his own castle, obliging the poor plumber to scour the land for magic coins with which to procure access to his own home. The point, perhaps, is that Wario forces the upstanding Mario to see the world through cold, avaricious eyes in order to wrest back what's rightfully his. At the end of the original Wario Land, meanwhile, Wario discovers a gigantic golden statue of Princess Toadstool in the ruins of Captain Syrup's castle, only for Mario to swoop down in a helicopter and pinch it. Labelling this a critique of Mario's chronic objectification of princesses might be a bridge too far, but it's hard to look at how consistently Wario breaks the fourth wall - smashing through the side of the save file menu when you start the game - and not wonder whether a joke is being had at Miyamoto's expense.

Such satirical overtones aside, a few things define Wario's contribution to the merry language of the Nintendo platformer, the obvious one being brute force. Mario is the little guy with a big heart, all springiness and gaiety. Watching him tackle a level is like following the pointer from lyric to lyric in one of those old Disney sing-along videos. By contrast, Wario is a John Cena-grade apocalypse who shoulders enemies out of the way or hurls them contemptuously into one another. Mario's jump sounds like air escaping a flute. Wario's jump sounds like somebody dropping a bowling ball. Wario Land's levels can be as perilous as those of any Mario game - if nothing else, the character's sheer girth makes him easier to hit - but where Mario is a plucky kid on a magical adventure, playing as Wario feels like beating the other kids up for their lunch money.

Wario is also, however, something of a performance artiste for all his crude demeanour. In the course of the acclaimed Wario Land series he would amass a vast wardrobe of costumes and personas, from the first Wario Land's hats (I still get a kick out of the horned Bull Pot, which lets you staple yourself to the ceiling like a pudgy ninja) to the surreal "reaction" effects of Wario Lands 2 and 3. Mario is also fond of changing his clothes, but as Nintendo's favourite son, he's spared the wanton transformative abuse his disreputable cousin receives in later titles - bee-stings that cause Wario's head to inflate and carry him aloft, grindstones that pound him flat, zombie bites that turn him undead and baseballs (beer cans in the Japanese release) that make him vomit poison gas.

Wario is 'the Bluto to Mario's Popeye', according to a 1992 interview with Wario Land director and game designer Hiroji Kiyotake.

Above all else, Wario is openly about cash - grabbing it, hoarding it, spending it - where most games cloak their mechanisms of accrual beneath metaphors such as Dragon Age: Inquisition's power points. It's not just that the goal in most of his games is to have it away with as much loot as you can, or steal back booty from some lesser villain - in Wario Land, you also have to cough up 10 coins for the privilege of using a level exit. You even have to pay to end the game, handing over all your ill-gottens to an uncommonly mercantile genie in return for a place to call home (at worst, a birdhouse; at best, a whole planet with Wario's face tattooed across it).

Together with Wario's capacity for metatextual theatre, this lust for lucre perhaps explains how the character became integral to one of Nintendo's periodic design revolutions, 2003's WarioWare, Inc for the Gameboy Advance - a minigame compilation that embraces the notion that minigame compilations are, by and large, gaggles of misfiring design concepts, thrown together to squeeze a quick buck from idiot consumers. In WarioWare, you're chucked into an elevator and made to play games developed by Wario and his mates, each of which consists of a single timed exercise such as hitting a punchbag or moving a spotlight to keep a character in view.

WarioWare is, in reality, a fairly elegant assortment of bite-sized treats, perfect for a bus or train journey, but the game owes its critical standing to the fact that it's also a grotesque wink at what happens when art and business collide at too great a velocity. Later WarioWare games would serve as showcases for the Wii and DS, their piecemeal structure allowing the manufacturer to spotlight parts of the hardware, such as the Wii controller's gyrometer - a tactic that now seems an inextricable part of Nintendo's production strategy, even if the WarioWare series itself has fallen out of favour.

In general, Wario isn't the star he used to be, thanks partly to the shift in design philosophy wrought by the Wii - you're more likely to see him taking the inside lane in Mario Kart or pummelling Kirby in Smash Bros than rocking a box cover. But he remains a crucial component of the Nintendo pantheon, the counterbalancing touch of malevolence and cunning without which Mario's star wouldn't shine quite so brightly. Here's hoping for a big comeback someday soon.

Read this next