April 21st, 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.]
You can see a map of this level here.
Wildflower Fields, like the name suggests, is set in a field of flowers. By this point the player has passed through two levels, one which introduced the core mechanics and another which introduced the essential elements and structure of a full level, so Wildflower Fields is the player’s first chance to take on a fully-featured level. You can see this influence on the design immediately. The rooms are larger in size, losing the rigidness of the tutorial-centric levels.
The “fields” of flowers are the main context, but they’re punctuated by underground and water areas. Each part services a different take on the same basic idea of movement against opposing forces
Puffy Wario and water currents are the main two points of focus for education in this level. Both are taught to the player through a test-teach-test method of education where the player will likely make a mistake, a lesson is learnt and the player can self-correct. The fact that the player can only see a screen window around Wario inherently limits the player’s foresight into certain parts of each room (like the ceiling in the fields or underwater junctions). Or to put it another way, the player can only see what they can physically get near to. Taking the flower field rooms as an example, the player can only see the ceiling—and therefore what is open and not open—once they’ve floated up as Puffy Wario. It is likely that on the player’s first attempt they won’t float up through the gaps in the ceiling. That is, because of the inherent limitations of the game the player’s first attempt will likely be failure of sorts. However, key to this failure is the player’s learning of the game’s layout. Fly up on the first time, fail. But use that knowledge that you gained from the failure, ie. the position of the gap and then you can make your way through on the second time. The knowledge of the level layout and limitations of perspective facilitates the mistakes and thus the education. The Beezleys and Goggley-Blades push the player towards making that first mistake by trying to displace them.
Otherwise, the super smash attack is used a few times throughout the level, getting the player use to these challenges. In the final instance of thick block smashing, Fat Wario returns highlighting how his jump is equivalent to a smash attack.
Curiosity and Subversion
Curiosity is fostered through the use of upper layers in the first handful of rooms. It is possible for the player to see parts of these areas, but they’re blocked off by walls, frog and other blocks. It isn’t until after the fold the player has access to these areas. So as the player presses through the level there’s a lingering doubt that most of the level isn’t completed yet.
Spatial navigation against opposing forces and manoeuvrability is the key idea of this level. As Puffy Wario the player is continually ascending upwards and, in order to reach the higher areas, the only way forward is to avoid the incoming horizontal obstacles. On the other hand, moving in a water current plays much to the same idea. The player needs to move against a force in order to advance. In context the 2 examples may seem separate, however they are very much the same in terms of the player’s interactions and engagement.
Room 1 and 1.5
The first few rooms in Wildflower Fields sport an arrangement of layered high ceilings, spikes Beezleys and flowers. Beezelys turn Wario into Puffy Wario where Wario constantly ascends vertically, Beezleys can also get caught on flowers, ceilings turn Puffy Wario back to regular Wario and spikes do the same, but hurt Wario and make him recoil. Depending on the intent of the player, the game elements take on different meaning. When the player is on the ground they are either trying to move forward (ie. to the right of the screen) or they want to travel upwards. The former is the pursuit of progression and the latter of exploration.
Or to think of it another way, exploration is vertically arranged and requires the player to enter and exit the Puffy Wario state. Progression is horizontally arranged and requires the player avoids the Beezleys.
When Puffy Wario, the player’s ability to move horizontally is severely limited. Therefore Beezelys are an impediment to progression since they slow the player’s horizontal movement and lift them off the ground. The flowers help to hinder that impediment by stopping the Beezleys. When Beezleys are caught in a flower, the player can attack them, so the two elements work well together to create counterpoint. The ceiling and spikes don’t mean anything to the player trying to progress, unless they do get stung, in which case they’ll look to find the lowest hanging ceiling.
Here turning into Puffy Wario is to empower the player to move vertically and therefore gain access to raised areas. The Beezleys are therefore an initiator of exploration and the flowers are the impediment. So when trying to be stung by the Beezleys, the player must work around the flowers; they are now the hinderance, not the bees. The ceiling to Puffy Wario is the termination point of ascent and is a threat, but inevitable necessity.
When Wario becomes Puffy Wario, he continually travels vertically until he hits something. In this state platforms take on a different meaning. Instead of maintaining a vertical point of height when ascending, platforms are now obstacles which work to prevent vertical ascension. Avoiding the platforms is tricky as Puffy Wario rises until he hits a physical end point, so the player must be continually concious on how to navigate Wario horizontally. To reach the higher areas then is to have avoided most obstructions, so this is where the rewards lie. In the first room and the room above it (Room 1.5), we can see how rewards are layered with the biggest reward at the top and the lesser ones at the bottom. There’s also a convenience issue here as well. By virtue of reaching the top, the player must travel back down to the bottom, therefore making it possible to gain all the rewards in the one go. The rewards are two-fold: there’s the rewards themselves and the convenience of getting them all at once.
In regards to spikes, hitting the ceiling reverts Wario back to his regular state which can be bad if it happens prematurely, but spikes take damage, coinage and displace Wario too, making them more of a threat. They just add an element of risk and thereby persuasion to keep the player on track.
The overhanging vines also clue the player a little earlier on as to where the ceiling is.
On the first layer, access to room 2 acts as a curiosity marker.
Room 2 (Lower Half)
Room 2 is much denser than Room 1 and the ceiling is a little lower too. This is because in the first room the player needs more time to play around as Puffy Wario, so more leeway is given before they touch the ceiling. There are also no rewards in this part of the room either. They’re saved until after the fold in the upper area.
In Room 2 we see Puffy Wario’s ability to ascend used with the super smash attack to break a thicker block.
Moguramen are introduced for the first time room. The crystals are placed where they are as reaching to grab them puts the player high enough above the ground to avoid the Moguramen attacks. Just by arranging the crystals this way, the player is passively informed about the enemy. Otherwise, the player has already experienced much of this room before.
The Spearmen are placed on the platforms as their walking acts as a timer. The player must wait until they are a clear distance away and then jump at the right time. Basically, they add an element of timing to the jumping. The upper most platform is placed so high so that the player can see the Keyzer floating above (curiosity marker).
The pipe here is only used to draw the player’s attention to the need to super smash attack the thick block. The coins which are on the same screen reinforce this idea.
The arrangement of platforms that require the player to jump out and in again to descend slowly intentionally take up so much time so as to encourage the player to just fall all the way down on the right. Players who heed this impulse and smash attack too will break the block at the bottom. The closeness of the platforms also works to make the player move faster as they ascend after realising that they (may have) missed out on smash attacking the block. The heart piece also works it’s own piece of persuasion here too.
The Moguramen are here again, but now they’re above ground which tells us that maybe it is possible that underground Moguramen could somehow come out of that position. Since they’re above ground, they can’t dig up spike balls and thus they function as the Spearman in the other room. You need to bounce on the last one to reach the heart.
Water currents and Googley-Blades debut here. In fact, this is the first area where the player can navigate water and because of it, a few concessions are made to make it easier for the player. That is, the water ways are narrow, crystals are used often to lead the player and the currents automate a great deal of the traversal.
What does stand out to me though is the placement of the Googley-Blade. Here is an aggressive enemy placed in a narrow channel. As Googley-Blades move in rectangular movement patterns, the Googley-Blade here will be covering one half of the passage at one time. This means that the player only has one vertical half of the passage to travel through and that half is dependent on the position of the Googley-Blade. If the player gets in the way and somehow displaces the Googley Blade vertically then it can basically cover the whole channel and become even more dangerous.
With the currents, there’s a short looping channel that links back to the initial passage. A chain of crystals begin at the entrance of this channel; an attempt to lure the player into the break. If the player takes the bait, they’ll be swept up in the current. If the player can break out of the current they’ll reach the first junction, otherwise they’ll be sent back to the main passage and can try again. On the player’s first attempt they’ll likely miss the turn-off and be swept back around as they don’t have the prior knowledge of the layout. This is fine as this section employs a test-teach-test approach to tutorial. That is, the game allows the players to have a try at something they haven’t yet mastered, allow the player to see their mistake and then give them another opportunity to correct themselves.
It’s also possible to access the first junction a little further down. In this channel the TTT approach is similarly used, however, this time the currents loop until the player breaks out. Crystals are placed at the first possible turn-off to lure the player to the upper platform and in the same way crystals are used to lure them off it.
So far super smash attacks have been used 4 times in the level to access mandatory and extra areas. These past constructions elicit a play habit where the player will smash attack from known high areas. Smart players will have already been coaxed into this and smash attack to reach the secret diamond from the raised platform. Other players will fall for the crystals as a sufficient award. Notice how the players who don’t discover the diamond won’t know of their “failings”? In this way the game doesn’t punish the players with the realisation of what they can’t have, but motivates them by the success they do have. Another trademark of good education.
Both initial passages ensure that the player must successfully use the mechanic in order to progress just like the tutorials.
The right fork of the junction leads the player to the room’s exit. In this channel the theme is not to teach the player anything new, but to get them to become more fluent with it. In order to collect crystals the player must attempt to be more effective at navigating against the force of the current and move toward the crystals.
The slope to the right of the door will send the player back down to where they started, however, the narrowness of the drop ensures that the player can’t miss the reward. What we have here is an automated sacrifice tester. The player can gain coins at the sacrifice of their own time and energy to repeat the challenges of the current room.
Just like the final passage of the last room, but wider. Freer practice.
The context of enemy types and level elements is really well done here. The caterpillar-esque Imomushi are placed along leaves with holes acting as platforms. I’ve discussed the placement of enemies on platforms twice already and this example is no different. Falling down because of one of the Imomushi does have a sort of coincidental charm as the context presents them as going about their own business and thus any fault is the player’s. Below the platform is a heart medallion box which can be easily overlooked and a jewel piece chest which can’t. This is a clear example of the way important elements are placed where the player can see them.
We pass through the upper layer of Room 3 before we get here.
Room 8 continues the theme of the first 2 rooms with some minor variation including a greater presence of spikes and Totsumen on a raised layer which the player can pass through. Totsumen are like moving horizontal obstacles. So where before the player needed to navigate immovable level elements, here they need to deal with more variable obstacles. The natural counterpoint that Wario can steer Totsumen off the raised platform into the area below, adds a player-influenced level of challenge.
This last room before the fold draws our attention back to super smash attacking, reminding us that a single jump from Fat Wario is equivalent to a super smash attack. The Ringosukis stationed near the ladder add a variable timing aspect to climbing the ladder. The player needs to climb only when the Ringosuki are pausing between an apple throw. Alternatively, the player can smash attack from underneath and send the Ringosuki bouncing out of their way. A good example of freedom of expression.
Also note the thick block in the bottom right. Observant players are, for the third time, rewarded for breaking the ground below them.
Whereas in prior levels the fold activated frog blocks which would block off areas so as to stop misdirected players from becoming totally lost, in Wildflower Fields the frog blocks are also used to set a new course back to the vortex. In brief, the entire water current section is avoided and the player is set along the upper, previously inaccessible areas of the first three rooms.
With the frog blocks turned to outlines the player can make their way through this area. The keyzer is placed right in the player’s path so that they can’t miss it and won’t have to repeat the level again.
The slopes provide a great deal of resistance which helps to maximise the tension of the timer. The hearts which are an example of a commonly used design practice after the fold. Collecting the hearts is a trade-off between time and the reward of hearts. A great exercise in risk/reward.
The player can slide down the slope here to make a fast exit, but doing so makes it easy to overlook the browned area which can be broken through with a smash attack. Doing so with grant access to the ground floor where the player can float back up again to room 2.6. Room 2.6 is the most difficult spatial resistance challenge in the level.
As was before the fold.