February 16th, 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.]
What is notable about the transformations in Wario Land 4 is that they’re all governed by limitation (timers, cures and clashes). In Super Mario Bros. transformations (or power-ups) such as mushrooms or fire flowers can stay with Mario as long as the player can avoid getting hit. In Wario Land 4, transformations are more like the star man transformation, they last for a finite duration.
What is the same about timers, cures and clashes is that they limit the distance that can be covered when transformed. With time, there’s only a set amount of distance that can be covered in a fixed time limit. With clashes, there are walls and ceilings which box the player into a finite space. With cures, the curing items (water, light, decompressors etc) are like gateways present before a door. To get to the next area you need to move through the gateway and reset back to normal Wario. And lastly, Fat Wario is limited by distance itself. Each of these devices are organic.
If the transformations only last in a set proximity to when they’re first acquired, that means that the challenges pertinent to the transformations are always in close proximity to where transformation is first offered. Since the transformations last for a given instance, there needs to be a significant enough arrangement of level elements that the player can interact with when transformed to last that instance. What this means is that when transformations are present in levels, they demand quite a lot of design room. You could even call them set pieces.
If we think back to Wario’s core set of permanent abilities (mechanics) as defining the game world. The world is constructed of level elements which facilitate interaction with the primary mechanics. For example, platforms to jump on, enemies to attack, blocks to smash, coins to grab, slopes to roll down etc. These are the building blocks of Wario Land 4′s level design; blocks that bring about interaction. These elements by themselves are quite small and portable. A designer can place a set of, say, coins anywhere in the environment without much fuss and the player can get them without too much fuss either. By this admission, transformation elements are the largest building blocks of level design.
These building blocks usually constitute rooms. In a room you can impose limitations. Gateways near doors, walls and ceilings etc. So incorporating transformations into a level creates a design disposition: the requirement of at least a single room to function. This plays a huge role in the way level elements work together to create meaning. That is, an entirely different can of worms that we’re going to need to discuss separately. ^_^