January 31st, 2011
[The article below is a draft piece from my book, Rethinking Games Criticism: An Analysis of Wario Land 4. I strongly urge you read the book instead of this article. What you see below was edited and re-written several times for the final copy, so the analysis in the book is much deeper and the writing flows a bit more. Thank you.]
Just before Christmas I concluded that, having met a standard of writing I’d been striving for, the best direction for my little slice of internet space here would be to just continue to improve. Don’t worry about branching out to other publications or trying to make a name for yourself, just focus on honing the craft. And then it occurred to me, having reached a relative peak, if I want to better my writing I should gun for something a little more ambitious. Instead of just writing a handful of articles on a single game and moving on, why don’t I take the analysis to it’s logical conclusion? Why don’t I cover a game in it’s entirety, a complete piece-by-piece analysis of mechanics, interplay, level design, etc with accommodating essays? This way I am forcing myself to think deeper, whilst providing a sort of definitive design guide for the game in question. In the end I could collate all the articles into a PDF file (ala the awesome Popular Symbolism) or even a self-published book depending on how things go. But let’s not get to far ahead of ourselves now.
To kick-off this project I needed a game that I felt that I could write about extensively. Immediately that game came to mind. Currently said game isn’t in my possession though, and it will take some time before it reaches me in China, so I chose a smaller game that I had on hand and could cover in the intermission—that game is Wario Land 4.
In time I will come to better articulate my thoughts on this game, but for now Wario Land 4 is a just tightly packed concentration of platform design ingenuity with a flare for the irreverent. Personally, I can’t help but admire the design and, at the same time, chuckle at the self-deprecating humour—both things put a smile on my face.
My analysis of Wario Land 4 will be a bottom-up analysis, starting with the base mechanics and branching upwards. Some posts I will likely return to to edit as my ideas change, but having replayed the game and made extensive notes in the process, I’m certain that most edits will only be small tweaks—so far my ideas are down pat. Of course, I will still write about other games I’m playing, but that obviously won’t be many granted my attention to this project. My aim is to complete my analysis by June or earlier. I’m quite sure that this is a sensible target, but we’ll see. For now though…
Mechanics are like words, although they have a meaning, they can’t create communication on their own; they need to be placed into the context of a sentence to make actual sense. In Wario Land 4, Wario’s abilities (the primary and secondary mechanics) only communicate (have interplay and counterpoint) when they are placed in the context of a level alongside enemy types and level elements. In my first 2 articles I will simply take a bare look at the meaning of the mechanics on their own; their purpose, strengths and weaknesses. If the mechanics need some essential element to function (like a projectile required to throw for the throw mechanic) then I will obviously include it.
Integral to understanding many of Wario Land 4‘s mechanics is the fact that Wario cannot build walking momentum and transition into a run. His speed is constant. Wario’s walk is the second slowest form of horizontal movement in Wario Land 4 (the slowest being the crouch walk). This makes walking the least effective form of forward movement when in situations of haste. However, as walking is slow, it is also the most effective in situations where great care is needed. There is no risk of bounce backs when touching other surfaces as opposed to the offensive mechanics where Wario will recoil if he hits a wall.
Wario’s walk is pertinent to his obese size and the rules of form fits function. That is, of course he can’t run, he’s so large. Instead, he gains the most horizontal distance quickly by using his greatest asset, his size and strength
To give some scope to how Wario’s walk stacks up, I roughly measured the time it takes to move from one side of a 480 pixel room to the other using a series of traversal methods. Besides the crouch walk, the other mechanics are offensive mechanics (see part 2). Their long horizontal distance doubles them as traversal mechanics. These are the results I gained:
- Walk – 4 seconds
- Crouch walk – 8+ seconds
- Continuos use of the Attack mechanic – 2.5 seconds
- Dash attack (including launch) – 2.5 seconds
- Dash attack (with no launch) – 2.25 seconds
As Wario cannot run and build forward momentum his jumps don’t have the same horizontal variability as Mario. So jumping when walking or stationary commands no difference. Secondly, Wario, while still being able to jump surprisingly high (it’d be a tough platformer if he couldn’t), doesn’t jump as high as, well, again, Mario, nor can he stay in the air that long, meaning that Wario has very brief float. With less float, the player doesn’t have that window of time to steer Wario to safety as he falls.
As with the Mario games, Wario can jump higher depending on the duration of time the jump button is held down for. When we make higher jumps, we have a tendency to press harder on the button which has lead to the myth that control pads can detect the sensitivity of the press. They cannot—otherwise the sensitivity would wear and thereby tangibly alter the game—it’s only duration.
When jump is used in tandem with the offensive mechanics however, the trajectory and horizontal distance of the jump can be modified. No matter the jump though, so long as it is a full one, the apex of the jump is constant. Let’s first look at the properties of each jump so as to understand their functions.
Pros: Steep ascent and descent, no recoil, unrelated to direction faced
Cons: Lacks horizontal distance, can’t damage enemies, little slow
Purpose: Standard leaps, quick jumps, jumping in tight areas, dodging horizontal attacks
The full jump has a steeper ascent and descent than the other jumps which gives the player an arc of safety to avoid tall obstacles. The height can be easily altered (as described above) as can the brief float when falling. It’s worth adding that there’s no recoil or bounce back when touching solid surfaces either. This much control in manipulating the full jump makes it the most functional of all the jumps. While the other jumps offer bigger pay-offs but equally larger punishments, the full jump is fairly low risk, low advantage, making it thereby the most functional in the game. Conversely, the full jump doesn’t cover a long horizontal distance, making it the least preferable jump for moving with haste or clearing large gaps.
Mechanics: Jump and Crouch
Pros: Can fit through raised tight spaces
Cons: Can’t jump very high
Purpose: Fitting through time spaces
When crouched Wario can fit through small gaps, crouching jump therefore allows Wario to jump into raised gaps and passages. The crouching jump is very naturally balanced, Wario loses height to form.
Mechanics: Jump and Object elements
Pros: The highest jump in the game
Cons: An object is needed to bounce off
Purpose: Attaining maximum height to reach high areas and items
Another relatively simple take on jump with natural balance. Enemies and other objects can be used as springing pads for higher jumps, but in order to rebound off objects, well, you need an object to rebound off of. This can lead to some interesting cases of suspension, where an enemy unit needs to be moved to an out-of-the-way spot and then jumped on to gain access to a raised area.
Mechanics: Jump and Attack
Pros: Can attack foes and damage terrain in proximity, good horizontal distance, can manage this mechanic fairly easily, reasonably fast
Cons: Less control over the float, recoil
Purpose: Short, medium-risk speed jumping
A jump attack is initiated by pressing the attack and jump buttons simultaneously. Since attack (essentially Wario’s dash) is an offensive move, Wario can also break blocks and hit enemies when jump attacking. As you can see by the diagram, the jump attack has a slightly better horizontal range than a regular jump. It is also a rather fast move too and can be linked together with minimal drops in animation to almost fake a series of jump dash attacks.
The direction of descent is determined by the attack mechanic, so a neutral jump attack has no control over float. It is possible to press in the opposite direction on the d-pad and cut the animation short allowing some minor manipulation.
The jump attack is the most portable mechanic for fast movement. It pushes Wario along, but doesn’t have an overbearing amount of risk. Several jump attacks can easily be strung together too. Therefore this mechanic is best in times when speed is essential or the player wishes to navigate a section quickly, but doesn’t want to put themselves in danger of moving too far forward.
Jump Dash Attack
Mechanics: Dash attack and jump
Pros: The best horizontal distance in a jump, doubles as an attack, strong speed, what is basically invincibility (bar spikes, fire etc)
Cons: Requires a run up and has a slide, fast speed means that terrain comes into view faster
Purpose: Speed running and clearing large amounts of obstacles in the way
The jump dash attack is in an entirely different league to the other forms of jump. The level of risk and reward is elevated. Although it allows the player to make large jumps, a run up is required and long skidding follows a landing. It is possible to stop the skidding effectively altogether by pressing in the opposite direction on the d-pad to stop the animation at any point once landing, facilitating high level play for those gunning for time. Similarly the animation can be interrupted after Wario leaps off the ground, reverting Wario to his mid-air state and maintaining the general momentum with some loss.
To the best of my current knowledge there are no mandatory uses of the jump dash attack in Wario Land 4, only the dash attack on it’s own. So, the jump dash attack is an optional jump mechanic for times of great urgency.
The pattern that we can see already is that Wario’s movement doesn’t have a great deal of vertical height and that many of the offensive jumps tail horizontally. A lot of the interplay then is likely to come from enemies which move contrary to Wario’s low verticality, taking advantage of horizontal sweeps. The more advanced jumps have increased speed and suspend Wario in a time frame of long horizontal movement which would in turn nullify the player’s ability to avoid attacks and heighten challenge. It’s still early days though, so we’ll see how the ideas I’ve presented develop.