To be real with you, the 3DS eShop is COMPLETELY BANANAS right now. It doesn’t have the iOS App Store’s profitability upper limit, and it isn’t enjoying a flush of console-race enervation like Steam is, so I get why few people are talking about it, but it does a bunch of terrific things neither of those services do. Consider its embarrassment of English-localized niche Japanese titles (HarmoKnight, Attack of the Friday Monsters); M2’s bespoke Sega console ports, which restore long-missing game content and add autostereoscopic 3D (Sonic the Hedgehog 2; Streets of Rage); its excellent handheld-suitable PC ports (Cave Story; VVVVVV). (And, of course, its titles mostly notable for their quality, like Shantae: Risky’s Revenge and Pushmo.) Nintendo has a lot of work to do on its digital strategy at large, to be sure, but they’re not hurting for great games.
The latest Nintendo Direct implied a doubling-down on Nintendo’s interest in their eShop, with announcements for a half-dozen new downloadable titles, so now’s a good time to get familiar with the best of what’s already there. Let’s cut to the chase: Every game named above is worth your time and money, but if you want to know my favorite? My for-real, hand-to-god, pick of the litter? Out of alllll of them?
It’s the vanilla Virtual Console port of Wario Land 3.
I was as surprised as you.
So: Wario can’t die. Not ever. There are enemies littered about the stages, though, and so enemy damage actually becomes a puzzle mechanic: certain attacks cause him to change states into useful (and hard-to-control) forms. Flat Wario can glide and sneak through tiny gaps, while Actively On Fire Wario can destroy certain types of blocks. Swollen with Allergens Wario, who you become when you’re stung by a bee or mosquito, can float up to hard-to-reach places. The game is still a difficult platformer, but it forces you to think about that platforming from an unusual perspective: Which enemies may you kill outright? Which must you keep alive to exploit as state-changers?
The earlier two Wario Land games experimented with making themselves less linear, with gameplay-reactive narratives, branching overworld maps and multiple stage exits, but Wario Land 3 is soaking in Metroid. You start the game with a basic set of controls, and as you progress throughout the game you find more, each of which allows you to access new areas in previous stages. A day-and-night cycle subtly modifies course landscape and enemy behavior, keeping you on the lookout for newly-opened nightclub doors and now-dozing Para-Gooms. And because you’re Wario, you also find treasures which permanently change stage geography—by setting off a volcano, or rusting iron, or making octopi grow. As a result, unlike with Metroid, the game world actually evolves as you play through it, not just by being more navigable in your hyper-capable endgame form, but by opening itself up to accommodate your passage. It. Is. So. Dope.
I mean, it speaks for itself. Every sprite in this game has had attention lavished upon it. (I ripped these GIFs myself, if you want a measure of how much I like them.) The cartridge this game uses is four times the size of Super Mario Land 2’s, and the Game Boy Color had twice the processing power of its predecessor; color palette aside, this is where all that increased capacity shines.
Whenever you return to the first area on the world map, you’re pointed towards one of the chests you’ve missed; since there are only a few such chests at any given time, and you generally need to open them all to continue, this winds up being invaluable information.
There’s also an in-game tutorial which teaches you how to use each of your current powers, and explores how these powers can be used, and how they work differently on various enemy types. It’s brief and hands-off, in the way a lot of early handheld in-game instructions can be, but that distance is welcome in this game, where you can’t die, and are therefore free to experiment for yourself against oncoming enemies and level architecture.
5a. You are forced to become extremely good at minigolf
That’s right: there’s an unskippable minigolf mini-game in Wario Land 3, and it shows up A LOT, and you’re occasionally prevented from progressing in the game until you can sink a chip-in from sand under par. It makes no sense. The controls are incredibly finicky. It’s horrible. I LOVE IT.
Happily, you aren’t over-penalized for sucking at it. You’re charged between 10 and 30 coins every time you try a hole, but money doesn’t serve any real gameplay function, and by the midpoint of the game you’re drowning in cash as it is, so unless you’re stressing about Wario’s retirement fund, you can try as many times as you like. And yet, it remains unskippable, ergo quintessentially Warioian.
5b. There are tons of weird, hard minibosses
You can’t die in this game, true. The game’s minibosses know this, though, and rather than trying to kill you, they inconvenience you; you change state when they hit you, sending you out of the boss arena entirely, and requiring you to backtrack to it and retry. And since you change state in a single hit, your only option is to 100% the bosses without suffering a scratch.
Each boss has a learnable series of movements, of course, and since there’s no penalty for backtracking, only time and practice stand between you and success. And they’re all ridiculous to behold, from the rabbit who forces you into a game of 1v1 soccer to the skeleton ghost with a lamp problem. Just gird yourself for lots of pattern recognition.
Look, nobody’s watching. The minigolf stuff is alright but you aren’t in the mood. The collision detection on the soccer boss is horrible. It’s cool! Nobody’s honor is on the line here. Just tap the bottom screen on the 3DS, save your place right before you start, restore it if you lose, and brute-force your way through the stuff you don’t like. (100 points to Nintendo for adding Virtual Console save-state functionality to their emulator shell, incidentally; it smoothes out the rough edges of scores of VC titles.)
While key-and-chest pairing is the metric by which you progress through the game, there are tons of optional treasures to collect. Additionally, each level has eight Musical Coins to collect, each of which is tucked away somewhere hidden, many only accessible with Wario’s late-game abilities. Players who assume they’ve seen everything the game’s early levels have to offer will likely surprise themselves along the way to 100%-ing the title. Happily, the game rewards you for ferretting everything out, with both a Mini-Golf free play mode, and a Time Attack mode, which records how quickly you can collect each key in a given stage. (And ohhh, how I wish those were StreetPassable.)
Wario Land 3 is of the vintage of 2d games in which every floor tile serves a purpose. Platformer fans who enjoy testing the bounds of each level’s layout will be well-rewarded; many hidden coins and branching level paths can only be found by exploiting your knowledge of how the game’s engine and environment react to your poking and prodding. And there’s a lot of potential prodding one can do—with nine outfit upgrades and fifteen potential Wario States, the game’s puzzles are wildly varied, without feeling visibly-constructed. In order to 100% the game, you’ll have to push your understanding of tile types to the limit; there have been several occasions where I’ve surprised myself by pulling off an unusual trick, only to realize that it leads directly to a hidden Musical Coin.
Seriously, I had to sit down when I realized this. The Game Boy Color had an embarrassment of awesome titles, most of which are represented here: Mario Golf, a golfing-RPG hybrid; Legend of the River King, a fishing RPG by Harvest Moon’s Natsume; the two Oracle Zelda games, which can link together to unlock extra content even in their virtual form; and Shantae, the cult platformer classic whose loose carts still eBay for $150. Each of these games is terrific in its own right; as a collection, they’re unfuckwithable. I’m as anxious as anyone else for the GBA titles to start hitting the Virtual Console, but if Nintendo needs to empty its chamber of GBC classics before it gets there, this is hardly an unfair compromise.
Look—you need to play Attack of the Friday Monsters. NEED to. And buying those Sega ports helps ensure that M2 can continue to localize them. And my hope really is that other people start to more closely peruse Nintendo’s online marketplace, Wario notwithstanding, and vote through sales to make it a force to be reckoned with, even by the Playstation Network’s standards. It might do us good, therefore, to remember that Nintendo’s deep back catalogue, as it already exists, with only a sprinkling of modernization, can handily compete with modern handheld titles—especially when they’re helmed by the weirdest and most invincible protagonist Nintendo’s ever offered.
Stephen Swift lives in Boston with the world’s tiniest and loudest cat. He has previously been published in the Village Voice, Maura Magazine and Nintendo Power’s Classified Information.