Review: Warioland – Shake It! (*** stars)

TL;DR – Warioland: Shake It!, simply put, exists in that dreaded “mediocre” category. It’s competent, surely, in presenting a fun, varied platformer-style experience with lush visuals and excellent music, but one can’t quite shake the feeling that they’ve seen all this before. Nothing new ever comes before the player, nor does any section of the game (barring an uncharacteriscally difficult final boss) challenge anyone with even basic familiarity with Mario games. Given the Wario’s series touch for the eclectic and experimental, it’s disappointing, yet still fun.

To play Warioland: Shake It! almost slaps one with a constant sense of deja vu. “I’ve been here before!” “I’ve played this before!” “This exact puzzle definitely appeared in another game!” If you’re copying the greats (in this case, the game copies its own franchise in multiple spots), there’s no problem with that at all. Darksiders, for example, manages to copy 3D Zelda and God of War in equal turns, making a game much better than either of them as a result. Warioland, however, doesn’t have any aspirations to improve on its plagiarism, merely content to trot out the same old game tropes and mechanics. That doesn’t mean it’s bad! Rather, it’s an enjoyable, but rout, assemblage of game mechanics that becomes fun in spite of its derivative content.

So, what’s the game like, then? Think Warioland 4; if not that, than an earlier Warioland game (except Treasure’s Wario World). This is platformer puzzle solving – how do I get to treasure X or coin vault Y? Wario, ever the greedy materialistic anti-Mario character, only desires these things, and it’s your job to get to them. As usual, Wario is fairly resilient with his own life meter, able to take damage from a variety of sources yet still live. This means that the game isn’t focused on razor sharp platforming or daring jumps over spike pits; rather, one analyzes a situation to figure out how to get something.

Delightfully, most game mechanic and ability usage isn’t fed to the player; there’s no big signs or arrows that say “stuff hidden here” or “solve puzzle using ability X!” The intro level does describe Wario’s basic skill set, but doesn’t elaborate on how many different ways they can be used. As such, a great deal of the puzzles actually use the player’s own intellect rather than some contrived setpiece. I can point out more than one moment when the solution to a puzzle became clear like an epiphany from the sky – I did exactly what needed to be done, and a sense of utter satisfaction washed over me.

To describe one such instance: there’s a particular pit where three enemies are floating. The apparent, and obvious, solution to bridge the gap and reach that oh-so-tempting treasure chest is jumping on top of all three enemies – since bouncing on their heads gives Wario additional lift in the air he couldn’t achieve otherwise, this seems like the right solution. Unforunately, these enemies float in exactly the wrong place – whereas most puzzles would put these enemies in a rising diagonal line towards said treasure, they rise in the opposite direction. This makes the jump frustrating as you JUST miss the platform over and over again. To the less observant (like myself, at first), you’ll get frustrated and just finish the level.

However, when you’re (inevitably) forced to replay a stage by virtue of not having enough coins (the game’s currency and arbitrary “progress stopper” to buy new levels), you’ll start to see things a little differently. Returing to the same exact puzzle, I found myself becoming more aware of the surrounding – seeing a destructible block in the ceiling, I picked up an enemy and threw it at the block. The giant pit filled with water, and I swam across with little effort to my prize. Now THAT was satisfying.

Shake It! shows a real attention to level design, in that sense, and patience. If you want to obtain every secret, you’ll need to observe and record any and every detail and all your techniques. This gives you time to enjoy the scenery, and Shake It! doesn’t dissapoint. Everything from the standard “haunted house” stage to a China-themed stage to explorations in jungles and even a Wild West-style train segment all provide enormous variety. Considering Production I.G., creator of Ghost in the Shell, were invovled for all the animation and artwork, it isn’t a surprise. There’s a sense of personality and fun to this world that hasn’t been replicated in many non-Nintendo games, although Warioland gives a distinctive feel even from its Nintendo brethren. Kiddie anime? You bet. Fun? Absolutely.

However – and here’s the kicker to all the praise – none of this is necessary in any way. As previously stated, you need coins to progress further in the game, but that’s all you need. The only thing gathering treasure does in the game results in an increased completion percentage – not exactly the greatest incentive in the world. Once I had figured this out, what was the point? You don’t have to explore the levels, nor do you have to do much of anything to complete it other than get to the end and race to the finish within an incredibly generous timer (why bother if it’s so lax?)

Now, that’s not to say it is completely arbitrary; all game difficult is arbitrary, in some sense. The best games, unlike Shake It!, give the player real incentive to finding such secrets, whether as new abilities or new levels or something. Warioland places them in to placate some “hardcore” audience that can easily find the lack of incentive as an instantaneous drawback to such ventures. The game never tries to kill you, so that would become the biggest incentive, yet there’s no reward to doing it. That’s what happened to me; by that point, finding that there was no real point to solving these puzzles, I continued the game until I beat it. The completion percentage seems as less of an accomplishment when you find out that level “objectives” (which grant additional percentage) don’t even have to be done all at once! You can do one objective per each playthrough of a stage and STILL get credit, which renders the whole enterprise a time-consuming waste, not a demonstration of skill.

At least the boss fights are fun. Each one of the six boss fights tries for something different, if a little standard. Like the treasure finds, they’re little puzzles in themselves, but these are required and have actual tension – hence, they become the best part of the game by default. Many take advantage of the “shaking” that the Wiimote controller foists upon the game. Like most Wii games, the motion control additions are contrived and inaccurate (especially in pressure situations), causing more than their fair share of frustration, but they work well enough (except in the submarine levels – let us not speak about them). That they could be replaced with a simple button motion is something you’ll have to understand as a necessary ‘Wii” thing, I suppose. The last fight, however, barely requires it, instead relying on pattern memorization and pinpoint jumping accuracy – frankly, who would have seen that coming? It’s a jarring and frustrating end to a light-hearted platforming experience with no precendent in the whole experience.

Warioland: Shake It! takes the best ideas from other games and doesn’t do anything interesting with them, all said. That said, it’s still a lot of fun for an afternoon or a couple hours. It’s just unfortunate that the experience is so…disposable. I can’t imagine anyone replaying this, nor coming back to the game in a few years to magically rediscover its lost treasures (see what I did there?). It’s both a lack of focus and the plagiarized game style that bring it down while the latter is also its biggest strength.

I want these games to test my intellect and reflexes in some way, but I hate going through the motions. If I’m just playing to do the same repetitve task over and over again, what am I learning or getting out of this experience? If I’m the Lord’s workmanship, than isn’t that just a waste of time?

Forby grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Rather, playing the same game for the umpteenth time isn’t a proper use such gifts. That’s Warioland’s greatest strength and greatest crime all in one: being the same game as a lot of other games without identifying itself as unique, even in reference to its predecessors.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.