Being a platformer fan has you spoilt for choice. Whether you decide to pick up an entry from Nintendo’s huge catalogue or venture out for some indie games, the platformer genre always provides a fix. But there’s been a series long dormant since the Wii days. Despite the variety you’ll see in today’s age, it’s difficult to find a platformer that experiments with its own medium. The Super Mario Bros series over the decades have experimented with gameplay ideas. But it has stayed within the confines of its cute art style, simple core design and mainstream appeal.
An avenue for heavy experimentation rose in the 1990s and 2000s, which led to the casting of a certain anti-hero to our beloved plumber. Defined by a moustache resembling his cap’s letter, stashes of treasure in his garage and the result of only arm days, Nintendo decided that Wario should be given the chance to star in his own games — the Wario Land series. The yellow plumber, who was originally casted as a villain, getting his own game? Seems exciting for everyone involved! But what Wario didn’t expect was that he became THE icon of breaking the conventions of the platformer genre.
In a YouTube video called Wario Land 4: Breaking Conventions by Hotcyder, he explains that Nintendo was establishing and standardising the direction Mario would take; running to the right, dodging enemies and reaching the goal. It was defined by linearity, and designed around Mario’s jumping capabilities. Wario would instead focus on exploration, using enemies to progress and having multiple different goals; making the series be about puzzle platformers. The Wario Land games experimented with an interactive overworld that changed how levels would look based on what you did before, multiple mandatory secrets in a single level to collect and power ups that activated by having an enemy jab, squish or fatten Wario.
Wario Land 4 was a beautiful subversion of all those experiments. It’s strange, goofy; changing its artstyle from time to time. And yet, it’s intricate, detailed and expressive resulting from the years of experience in 2D that these developers had. It challenges even its own conventions through a frog switch in every level that when set off, demands you run from the end of the level back to the start. It becomes a test of your exploration and knowledge of the level while making it an anxiety-inducing mad dash. Where did you come from? Do you remember? And can you think on the fly? It was a great change of pace for platformer fans starring a character that was transformed and clowned upon for our entertainment.
There were 6 games in the series, and ever since, Nintendo shifted their focus towards the WarioWare series in favour of more wacky experimentation incorporating even more of their Japanese humour.
So, what’s up with Pizza Tower?
Released in January, Pizza Tower is a masterpiece that innovates on Wario Land’s design. Everyone says it’s a contender for the best game in 2023. It’s as if Wario has returned better than ever before, albeit, with a humble career change from stealing treasures to cooking pizzas.
It gives homage to its source material while still holding an identity of its own through its 90s cartoon art style. It looks like it was done in MS Paint, infecting you with childish joy just from its animations. Its gameplay harkens back to Wario’s exploratory design but at Mach 10. It lends itself to a completionist’s mindset with tons of secrets and a speedrunner’s mindset of optimising your runs through Peppino’s finely tuned movement.
You can casually play and beat the game, but the real fun comes with getting the elusive P-ranks. You have to run through the entire level grabbing all the secrets, then run back from the end to the beginning under a time limit (twice) all the while keeping your combo. There are 19 levels and, by god, it’s the most adrenaline-inducing rush I’ve ever experienced.
Pizza Tower is what a Wario Land game strives to be; a game that separates itself from other platformers and its predecessors. It breaks the conventions of the platformer genre that Mario pioneered even when it seems like there are no more conventions to break. It shouldn’t be a triumph over more standard platformers though, but rather a celebration of Tour De Pizza’s experimentation with ideas that were tweaked and polished over 5 years of development.
Even with the obvious influence, Pizza Tower still has its own ideas and shows how there is still room to innovate in the platforming landscape. With more Wario-likes coming soon like ANTONBLAST, it’s an exciting time for us Wario fans!
Nintendo’s experimentation with Wario’s character and inspiration for his creation to influence the gameplay began as a fun outlet for developers. Now, it laid the foundation of inspiration for future game developers when they make their own platformers. And I’m excited to see what’s next!
Writer’s note: Please go check out Pizza Tower, it’s really good and I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack, just listen to ‘It’s Pizza Time’ and you’ll know what I mean!
Editor: Anh Noel