A Forgotten Franchise
Playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate last year, I selected Wario. It was just once, I think—maybe twice. It's hard for me to get excited about playing as him. I should be ecstatic everytime I choose Wario, though. Wario Land II was the first Nintendo game I ever owned, and I once dreamed of him being a character in the Super Smash Bros. series. But ever since his debut in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, it's the same story time and again: choosing the character I should love is anticlimactic.
I miss the old Wario.
Today, Wario is a micro-games mogul rife with snarky laughs and disgusting farts. His character is as clever as potty humor. His uniqueness as a Nintendo property lies in minigame collections. All greatness of his past self is gone.
Perhaps via the travesty of his WarioWare guise is the only way you know Wario. If so, you can’t be blamed. Nintendo has not revisited or even referenced the classic Wario, not even in last year’s Ultimate mixup of all things Nintendo. This classic Wario is, of course, the one of Wario Land, and he needs a comeback.
Of all the Nintendo games I’ve played, the first three Wario Land titles remain among my top favorites. As a kid, I became obsessed with the lone, self-loving treasure-hunter Wario; the comical Brown Sugar Pirates and their leader, Captain Syrup; and the unique design elements of the series. I remember in those days I looked forward to all the future realizations of Wario Land’s delightful world: Wario Land 64, Wario Land: The RPG, and the series’ sure-to-come stages, music, and characters in the next Super Smash Bros. (at the time it being Melee).
Like many fans who become attached to ill-fated “cult” series, I have had to choke down disappointment for years on end. Wario Land is a long dormant series that never saw the Wario Land 64 I had dreamed of as a child nor much of anything else. While characters like Donkey Kong, Yoshi, Kirby, and Samus continue to experience remakes and rebirths, Wario—at least his classic conception—remains unloved.
Yet, it is a property abundant with potential. The original three titles’ design and setting would make for a valuable resurrected series akin to Donkey Kong Country Returns. Wario Land could become a renewed and highly ingenious property of Nintendo's in this era when they are riding high. Nintendo, hear me out: bring back the first Wario you made.
The Story of Wario Land
Wario was not always a comically gaseous buffoon. He once was a devious villain and a silent protagonist with some amount of dignity. He entered the Mario franchise as a final boss. In Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, Wario, established as "an evil creep" who had always been jealous of Mario's popularity, had thrown and locked Mario out of his castle. He didn't just keep the place as is, either: As the final level demonstrates, Wario warped it so it was dangerous and filled with baddies. Players, as Mario, had to collect the titular coins and face off against the thief. You first meet Wario, then, by fighting him.
When defeated, Wario would return to "being mean" before larking upon the next break: a golden statue of Princess Toadstool stolen by the Brown Sugar Pirates. Mario wanted this too, so Wario had to beat him to the score. In Wario's quest for the statue and more gold—the story of Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land—he would head to Kitchen Island and meet his adversaries, Cpt. Syrup and the aforementioned pirates. Right away, we have a unique setting and cast of characters. This was Wario's world.
By gameplay, Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land would not be as unique as its sequel, but it still differentiated from standard Mario games. Unlike Mario, Wario could pick up and toss enemies. There were powerup hats that included a Viking helmet and a Dragon cap. Wario's signature method of bashing enemies was with a body slam, as opposed to jumping on their heads. So there was enough difference to make the original Land a decidedly "Wario-flavored" Mario game.
Where the series really became its own was in the sequel, and my favorite, Wario Land II. It begins with the lone loot-hunter asleep in his castle, on his own island that he has all to himself. This is the Wario I know: not an attention-seeking klutz but a detached adventurer. Wario’s castle is the fruit of his plunder from the prior game (unless you got a planet, like I did dozens of times, but Wario Land II assumes you got the castle.) Wario only leaves his castle because the Brown Sugar Pirates—now Black Sugar Pirates—break in and steal (back) all his (their) treasure.
Wario Land II is when the series’ gameplay became more unique. Levels adopted a Metroid-esque non-linear style. Some levels placed you in the center of a large area with multiple doorways to choose from, for example. There were multiple endings and branching paths, as well. Another fresh touch? Wario was invincible—there was no “death.” If hurt by an enemy, Wario lost coins. Bosses could, by varying methods, remove Wario from the arena so players would have to find a way back to the boss room and start the fight over. Wario never died; you never had to leave a level or face Game Over. This was part of the story: Wario’s so tough that no one can defeat him, though he can still get kicked around and affected in other ways.
This brings me to the crème de la crème of Wario uniqueness that Land II introduced: the conditions. There were no powerups hats anymore. Instead, Wario adopted different “powers” by enemies affecting him in different ways. A mole-like creature with a cook’s hat would toss Wario a donut; if you don’t dodge it, Wario eats it and becomes Fat Wario. He can now slam through blocks in one jump instead of a ground slam; he can also bust through special blocks that, when normal, he couldn’t break at all. If an ape-like enemy smashes Wario with a mallet, he becomes the high-jumping Spring Wario. If a rodent lights Wario on fire, he becomes Fire Wario who can bust through fire blocks. There’s Flat Wario, from when Wario gets crushed, who can enter short pathways. There’s even Zombie Wario! And more. Each of these conditions allowed access to new areas, allowed Wario to annihilate enemies in a new way, or caused the player annoyance. They were central to the game’s design and made Wario “Wario.” These would also make great moves in Super Smash Bros., but I won't waste my figurative breath here. Suffice it to say, Vampire Wario would be a real final smash.
These conditions were also a large part of the game's humor. Wario's facial expressions as he gets set on fire, flattened, or messed around with in other ways (a giant snake boss swallows Wario and shoots him out as an egg) are where Wario's old comedic touches lied. This is true also when Wario grabs onto an owl in some levels for a flying section, leering up at it, or freaks out as he sees the Black Sugar Pirates run away with his treasure. The first level, provided you wake Wario up, is shutting off an alarm clock that the pirates have placed in his castle. In general, the game's music, sound effects, and Wario's expressions are where the comedic character lie. It was much more clever and likeable than the immature farts and snarky laughs of today's Wario.
Though Wario Land 3 kept the same gameplay and overall setting, Wario's island, the duration of the game is spent inside a world within a music box. There’s also a new antagonist and set of baddies besides Cpt. Syrup and her gang. I was sad to see the team of pirates go. They were part of Wario's character, and they should have remained as his adversaries just as Bowser and his baddies had remained with Mario. The loss of them and, eventually, Wario's classic setting would make the Land games feel much emptier. There was, however, enough Wario Landness in the third entry to keep me happy. There was a touch more Metroidness in this one, too: Wario unlocked new abilities that allowed him access to new areas. However, the loss of Syrup and her gang as a story element was unfortunately an ominous transition towards the gradual shedding of every characteristic of Wario Land until the franchise as a whole vanished.
Wario Land 4 brought back health and adopted a more linear style of left-to-right platforming. The setting was unrecognizable: a downtown metropolis replaced Wario’s quiet island castle, and the story, bereft of cohesive baddies or an antagonist, lost much of the prior titles’ character. The highly disappointing first 3D Wario title, Wario World, had an entirely new and uninteresting setting and enemies. Its beat-‘em-up gameplay was also a radical departure from Wario Land’s style. Wario Land: Shake It! was an anticlimactic resurrection of the series that saw no return to what made it great. Nintendo has not been able to get this franchise right for many, many years, and it remains colossally disappointing.
All this history to Wario I have just gone through, especially the first three Wario Land titles, has been forgotten. It is an uncelebrated, even unrecognized part of Nintendo's past. Even Super Mario Land 2 is rarely referenced - the whole tale of how Wario came about in the first place. I have never understood why this is the case.
No Room in Smash for Land
As testament to this claim, Wario Land never receives any worthy mention in Nintendo's largest historical catalogue: the Super Smash Bros. series. Indeed, the most disappointing and inexplicable Land letdown for me has been the lack of content from the series in Smash Bros.
Wario was noticeably missing in Melee. I held out hope until after the final character unlock, Mr. Game and Watch, that he would suddenly make an appearance, even going so far as to speculate that Mr. Game and Watch might have the ability to transform into Wario (I was desperate). All wishful thinking, of course. I deeply wanted to see the silhouette of my favorite Mario character as an approaching challenger. Then, I’d see the roof of his castle, or the S.S. Teacup, and hear my favorite WLII tune, like the boss music or the track from the ruins at the bottom of the sea, playing in a remix. Alas, that dream is still left unfulfilled, for even when Wario debuted in Brawl, it was in his WarioWare outfit amidst a cloud of flatulence.
You can imagine my personal disappointment that my long-anticipated sight of Wario in Smash was tainted by WarioWare. Wario’s motorcycle entrance into Brawl’s first trailer was antithetical to every “Wario in Smash!” dream I had ever had. The gut-wrenching disappointment of never finding the character, stages, or music tracks I so desperately wanted in Melee now became empty confusion. Here was Wario, yes, but not the Wario I knew and loved. Should I be excited?, I wondered. No, I shouldn’t. I represent one of the few fan bases whose character is in Smash but who can still yet complain because an entire world of that character is ignored in Smash.
That WarioWare references were included in Brawl was—I begrudgingly admit—fine and acceptable. But that there was not even the slightest recognition of Wario Land throughout the game—not even in the exhaustive collection of music tracks, from the most obscure games—was frustrating and puzzling, and a special cruelty to longtime Land fans like me. There is not another equivalent to it in Smash: if you're a fan of character "x," you either get it all or not. But if you're a Wario fan, you get teased and tormented. Here he is, but ... not really.
It’s nothing more nor less than a bummer if you love the series as much as I do. Imagine my aggravation when Wario’s one Land move represented in Brawl, his body slam, was removed in Smash for 3DS and for Wii U. Mercifully, this was brought back in Ultimate. Disappointingly, Ware still dominates nonetheless.
I must also note disappointment in the lack of Wario Land representation in third party Mario games. Mario Tennis on the N64 is the only one that has any. This came in his court: it was set amid ruins and had a remix of Wario Land 3’s “Out of the Woods” tune playing. It is a Wario Land morsel. I remember playing as Wario on this court back in the day, assuming that this kind of content would naturally continue in Nintendo titles to come. Little did I know it would become something not to take for granted.
Ware and Waluigi
So Nintendo left Wario Land behind, shutting out virtually anything to do with the series. There was so much they could have done with it over all these years. For with Wario Land, you don't have a hero and a villain—Mario and Bowser, Link and Ganon, Samus and Motherbrain, and so on—you have a gang of pirates and someone who is as much a pirate stealing their gold. To contrast with Mario's world of the Mushroom Kingdom and Bowser, Wario had a world of pirate islands and Cpt. Syrup. This basis could have been used over the years to further extend and flesh out Wario's character and setting. Disappointingly, it was not. And what was it traded for? The shallow WarioWare and the bizarre Waluigi.
Cpt. Syrup had potential to grow as a unique Nintendo character. She was a rare female antagonist for Nintendo. (The instruction manual writer for Wario Land accidentally assumed masculinity by referring to Syrup as a "guy," so odd would it have been for a villainous woman in a Nintendo game). You never see Syrup or her little baddies recognized in Mario games. And why not? Syrup is a mischievous pirate lady with genies, contraptions, bombs, and all kinds of tools and traps up her sleeves. She led an army of cute little pirate dudes complete with cute little swords and bandannas. They all could have played a part in the Mario Kart titles as well as Mario Party and all the third party sports titles. Instead, we got Waluigi. From no game series of his own, he remains a bizarre character in the Mario roster and a drag upon Wario.
Waluigi gives Wario a partner in crime, but this goes against Wario's loner style. Waluigi's addition also makes Wario like the "fall guy" in a comedy duo, contrary to his lone protagonist state in the first three Wario Land titles. The character to compliment Wario all along should have been Cpt. Syrup. Like Wario, Cpt. Syrup cares only for her treasure. In all the Mario sports and Party games her presence would have kept Wario’s classic character alive, because instead of having a “brother” or partner in Waluigi, he’d have a competitor. This would have made more sense for Wario's self-centered, greedy character and allowed it to shine. Why would he ever pair up with Waluigi? He works on his own. Additionally, Cpt. Syrup would make a great villainous female in Smash Bros.
Cpt. Syrup did return in Wario Land: Shake It!, but not as the main villain. She tricked Wario into helping her and also served as a shopkeeper who sold Wario items. Nowhere could her cute little Brown Sugar Pirates be seen, and her role was a travesty compared to her status as main antagonist and final boss in the first two Wario Land titles. Again, we have a case of wasted potential.
On the topic of a travesty: WarioWare. The WarioWare games are fun, and I have nothing against them as games, but they aren't Wario. They don't need Wario. And they have ruined Wario's name. Wario's castle needs him. Captain Syrup and her little pirate dudes need him. This random minigame collection does not; within its groovy '70s vibes, Wario becomes nothing more than a placeholder, one caricature amid many. I wish Ware had just been a side series, but main series or side series, they complicate Wario’s character either way. How can the same Wario who lives alone in his castle on his island have a double life living in the middle of a big city running a company? It’s a world as indifferent to classic Wario as a non-Wario game would have been. A split timeline theory would have been needed.
The problem is, WarioWare became the mainline Wario series. It’d be like if Donkey Konga had continued as Donkey Kong’s main series. I know that WarioWare is a much better game than Donkey Konga ever was, but my comparison here has not to do with quality. In each case, Nintendo took one of their stars and placed them in an indifferent gametype or setting that didn’t need them. One of them died. The other killed the mainline series. Fans of the furry ape should consider themselves lucky: Donkey Kong Country Returns wonderfully brought back the classic series. Now we need a Wario Land Returns.
Wario Land Needs to Return
Nintendo needs to start a Wario Land renaissance. They’ve resurrected other series, and there is much potential in Land’s design. The unique gameplay, from Wario’s invincibility to his conditions; his unique character, a lone, loot-loving protagonist; and Captain Syrup and her gang of cute little pirates all offer a compelling and unique universe for Nintendo to explore. They’ve got a self-loving, lone protagonist. They’ve got a world of pirates. They’ve got a female villain. And they’ve got what could have been one of the best series in platforming. A new filing last year for the Wario Land trademark is suggestive. Make it happen, Nintendo. Give us Wario Land Returns. Bring back this classic, fun series. Make old Wario Land fans happy after years of unfulfilled dreams.