Released in 1990 for the NES and Game Boy, Dr. Mario was Nintendo's wildly successful spiritual successor to the puzzle game phenomenon that was Tetris. In 1994, the franchise was revisited and bundled with Tetris on the SNES, and many felt the new version was a vast improvement on the original. Now, seven years later and on the verge of its next-generation of gaming platforms, Nintendo has released the last solid puzzle game for the N64, Dr. Mario 64.
Fans of the series will feel right at home with what are essentially unchanged play mechanics, and there are a number of interesting, and for the most part intuitive, new play modes. Like its classic predecessors, the play field takes place in an oversized bottle that houses any number of red, yellow, or blue bug-like viruses. In order to clear the bottle, Dr. Mario continually tosses in colored pills. Your job is to place the pills so that three pill sections of the same color as one of the viruses are horizontally or vertically matched up with the virus, which eliminates it. Combos that eliminate multiple viruses reward you with extra points. Clearing one stage allows you to progress to the next one, and so on. Aside from the classic mode, where destroying viruses is the sole objective, players can compete in flash, marathon, and score-attack modes. Marathon mode challenges you to survive as long as possible. Time attack challenges you to clear a bottle in three minutes or less, while in flash mode, only the blinking viruses count toward victory. Flash and score attack are also available as two-player modes.
The single- and two-player games take a backseat to the focus of Dr. Mario 64, which is--as clearly stated on the packaging--four-player head-to-head multiplayer. In the four-player modes, pulling off combos sends different multicolored garbage pieces to one of your opponents. The two-on-two team battle allows you to stock up on garbage pieces and send them all crashing down on opponents at once. The four-player modes can be very entertaining, and a good handicapping system allows for new players and experts to challenge each other.
In order to unlock additional playable characters, you must embark on the entertaining story mode, which is titled Dr. Mario and the Cold Caper. Placing you in the role of either the good doctor or the greedy Wario, the simple tale focuses on the retrieval of Mario's mega vitamins through the defeat of the mysterious Mad Scienstein and the discovery of the menace behind his plot. Similar to exaggeratedly simplified versions of the characters in Paper Mario, the character caricatures are drawn on paper cutouts and are flipped, stretched, and wiggled in a laughably whimsical form of puppetry animation. While the skits taking place between the rounds of competition are by no means breathtaking, they're entertaining enough to merit watching the first time around. Going through the story mode and defeating the progressively more-challenging opponents without losing a round is the only way to unlock all of the 20 characters, all of which are given a star ranking of one to five based on their inoculating talents. It's a shame that there are only two very similar threads for the story mode, as a little more depth here would have made for a much better single-player package.
A small number of variables are available to mix things up a bit. There are 10 backdrops initially available, as well as four different background audio tracks, ranging from the mellow Cool to the upbeat Que Que. The audio tracks are a bit short, and they get repetitive very quickly, so turning them off is a welcome option. The other bits of in-game audio don't register as much more than the standard bells and whistles normally thrown into puzzle games, which, like the generally unimpressive graphics, are neither offensive nor extraordinary. For a puzzle game with such an endearing childhood figure, Dr. Mario has a very steep learning curve. Even on the easy mode, the game proves remarkably challenging and often frustrating, especially when you're trying to unlock characters. Slipping the pills through cracks and shifting them at the last possible second is tough, and when losing a single round disqualifies you from unlocking hidden items, this proves a tad unforgiving.
While not as exciting or enduring as Nintendo's last puzzle game, The New Tetris, Dr. Mario is a legitimate and satisfying puzzle game that is executed rather nicely in this four-player-focused package. Nintendo has made the decision to value-price Dr. Mario 64 at $29.95, which--along with the excellent multiplayer format--makes it worthwhile as one of the last N64 games to be released.