With fancy graphical terms such as bump mapping, cel shading, and self-shadowing being thrown around with the release of the GameCube and Xbox, it can sometimes seem as if 2D gaming has been left in the dust. Nintendo built its empire on 2D games, and the company is not about to give up on 2D, as evidenced by the release of the Game Boy Advance, its latest handheld dedicated to two dimensions. Proving that it still has the skills to produce great-playing two-dimensional games, Wario Land 4 for the Game Boy Advance is an excellent example of a 2D platformer done right. And while the game falls a bit short of the excellence attained in past Wario games for the Game Boy Color, its first outing on the GBA is a stellar effort that is impressive from both a technical and artistic perspective.
While the story behind platforming games normally isn't that important, the story rather predictably sets up the gameplay in Wario Land 4. Always in the mood to plunder ancient ruins for treasure, Wario reads in the paper that a new pyramid has been discovered and that the previous explorers had to abandon it due to its treacherous interior. Unafraid and greedy, Wario jumps into his car in search of the pyramid and the riches that he has so desperately sought for years. While the plot follows the same simple premise that previous Wario games have contained, its gameplay more than makes up for it.
The most obvious change in Wario Land 4's gameplay from past Wario games is that Mario's antithesis can now perish. His health is measured in heart containers, and when they're all empty, you must begin the entire level over again and forfeit anything you have collected. Veteran Wario players will likely dislike his mortality and the fact that the game must be played with more caution when compared with past Wario games, but this new feature ties directly into Wario Land 4's design. The pyramid is composed of six primary sections that contain four levels each. The objective for each level is to find and collect four gem pieces, flip a switch, and return to the beginning of the level before a timer expires. It can be frustrating to find all the gem pieces, only to die before making it back to the entrance in time, but it also increases the intensity of the game substantially. If you manage to find a key-holding ghost and return to the beginning of the level with him, the next level will be opened for play. You can also collect a hard-to-find CD in each level that will unlock tracks in a sound test menu. After collecting all four pieces of gem from each of the six levels per pyramid section, you square off against a boss. Before fighting a boss, you have the option of going into a store and buying power-ups, which will aid you in the fight. You buy these power-ups with coins that you collect after you destroy boxes or enemies. The first few bosses are fairly easy to tackle, but eventually you'll have to find ingenious ways to defeat them--ways that require all of Wario's moves.
Speaking of Wario's moves, there are plenty. Some moves can be performed with no assistance, such as the butt stomp, the dash, the crouching slide, the roll, and the jump attack. However, some sections of the levels must be negotiated with the aid of enemies, and this is where Wario Land 4's level design really steps to the fore. When Wario comes into contact with specific enemies, he will mutate into a new form that allows him to access a new part of the level. If a zombie touches Wario, he will turn into one himself and will be able to dissolve and fall through the floor beneath his feet. If he comes into contact with a flaming enemy, he too will catch on fire and will be able to destroy blocks with a flame pictured on them. The game includes 10 different forms of Wario, and as you reach the later stages, you'll have to use multiple guises on each level to proceed. It's a unique way to approach game design, and some of the game's 20-plus levels can best be described as ingenious. It's also important to survey each room carefully, because recklessly destroying blocks can prevent Wario from reaching higher areas that contain hidden objects.
If you grow weary of the quest mode, you can always take on Wario Land 4's three minigames, which include a home run derby in which you must turn the Game Boy Advance on its side; a side-scrolling game in which Wario must leap over objects such as cacti, pigs, and rocks while running on top of a barrel; and a mix-and-match game that resembles Mr. Potato Head, in which you are briefly shown a face and must match the eyes, mouth, and nose. The minigames are simple and cost coins to play, so they manage to add little to the game other than being a brief diversion. The lack of any sort of multiplayer support cuts into Wario Land 4's staying power, but the single-player quest will take most players quite a while to complete. The gameplay in Wario Land 4 will be met with some resistance from fans of previous games in the series, but it still retains the addictive elements, smart level design, and challenging puzzles that have made the series so popular in the past.
The graphics in Game Boy Advance games have shown only marginal improvements since the handheld's launch in June, but Wario Land 4's visuals are slightly better than those in other games released for the handheld thus far. The color palette truly shows off the wide range of hues that the GBA is capable of and aids in making each environment unique. All the old standbys, such as an ice level, a water level, and a jungle section, have been included, and they're trimmed rather nicely with effects such as transparencies for liquids and gasses and some convincing scaling for large objects and bosses. The weather effects are also quite impressive, particularly the rain in the jungle environments. Sometimes Wario will form into a variety of ball shapes and begin rolling across the screen. In these cases, the scrolling manages to keep up just fine so that you're not blinded to any dangers ahead. Wario animates very smoothly despite his wide variety of attacks and moves and will even begin to juggle if you allow the game to sit idle. While not a drastic step forward for handheld graphics, Wario Land 4 falls squarely into the top tier of Game Boy Advance games in this regard. The graphics are clean, fast, colorful, and detailed without causing any undue confusion onscreen. And most importantly, there's no need for a direct light source to play it.
Handheld games rarely compare favorably with those on consoles where sound is concerned, but Wario Land 4 is the exception. There are a dozen full-length songs included, and they build in intensity as Wario nears death. Not only do the dynamic songs sound good, but they also come complete with vocals. The voice can sound a bit distorted at times, but considering how many voice samples have been squeezed on the cartridge, this is forgivable. Playing Wario Land 4 with headphones reveals sound effects that correspond to the action on the screen by moving from one side of the headphones to the next. It's not a first for the Game Boy Advance, but its execution is the tightest. The variety of sound effects is also good-- reverb is used to simulate the sound of being underwater, and an echo is used when Wario is in wide-open areas. While not quite on par with the sound streaming off a CD or DVD, Wario Land 4's sound is hard to beat--for sound coming from a game on a handheld system.
If you're looking for a quality 2D platformer for your Game Boy Advance, look no further than Wario Land 4. As Nintendo's first platforming game developed solely for the GBA, it shines in all the right places. The gameplay is tight and varied, the graphics are detailed and bright, and the sound is second to none. Wario Land 4 does have some confusing puzzles in its later stages that may be too difficult for younger players, but for everyone else, it comes highly recommended.