Consider the history of Nintendo mascots and their personalities for a moment. We are far beyond the time when design decisions have any bearing on character creation. As far as I understand Mario’s history, he was designed with a moustache because graphical limitations made that the best way for his face to be articulated. The overalls made it easier to illustrate the fact that he was jumping. Given those roots, I find his ubiquity both in and out of the games industry fascinating. Personality was borne from almost nothing. As such, you’ve got to hand it to Nintendo—as they’ve added characters to the Mario universe, they’ve each come with distinct personality. It’s never felt like the stereotypical little kid that shows up to resuscitate any given long running sitcom. They’ve genuinely added something to the proceedings.
But generally, games featuring the Nintendo band of mascots actually tend to exhibit some sort of global personality. Their charm seems to lie in the character of the Mushroom Kingdom as a whole. That traditionally hasn’t been quite true, however, with Wario-based titles. Using the broad character trait of semi-adorable greed, Wario has starred in a number of interesting games that don’t necessarily subscribe to the same Mushroom Kingdom aesthetic as, say, any given game in which Mario is the protagonist. That’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s typically been somewhat refreshing, particularly since the introduction of the stroke of frenetic and puerile brilliance that defines the WarioWare games.
Clearly, certain Nintendo franchises have eschewed the defined stereotypes of genres to which they ostensibly belong. The Super Smash Bros. franchise is a fighting game in some sense, but it certainly brings enough of its own rules to the genre to essentially spin its own subgenre off of the more established one. Where Nintendo gets its well-deserved reputation as an innovator is in this creation of genres. For example, the Super Nintendo classic Super Mario Kart was like nothing before it, and spawned countless imitators. It had been some time since something of that caliber had come out of Nintendo when the first WarioWare game reared its head. These games have been consistently creative and original, and moreover have made dynamic use of the control schemes on the systems they’ve appeared on. While Mario is at home being the protagonist in essentially any type of game, I’d be comfortable having the WarioWare games as the only ones helmed by Wario himself.
It is within the context of all these points that Wario: Master of Disguise is something of a disappointment. While reasonably fun, it’s also extremely unremarkable, and that’s disappointing given Nintendo’s pedigree with games featuring its mascots in general, and more recently starring Wario in particular. It goes without saying that many of the best games for the Nintendo DS have made creative use of the system’s touchscreen functionality. However, in Wario: Master of Disguise, this functionality feels forced. Kirby’s Canvas Curse innovatively proved that it is possible to have a compelling control scheme primarily governed by the stylus. In Wario: Master of Disguise, however, the heavy use of the stylus simply doesn’t work. It’s as though the whole game had to be stylus-driven, even though it doesn’t really feel appropriate, simply to make the portion that is reasonably controlled by the stylus more accessible. Unfortunately, these “reasonable” mechanics, namely the costume switching motions, are clumsy and prone to error.
Alternatively, the opportunity to create a new game with Mario characters, particularly one that isn’t part of an existing franchise, might have been used to take a stab at a new genre, as Nintendo has done so many times before. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case here either. Master of Disguise plays it extremely safe. That’s not necessarily bad by itself—counterintuitively, given my point that innovation drives some stellar DS games, others seem to have come from otherwise dying genres. With the power of the home consoles these days, 2-dimensional platformers and top-down role playing games have largely hit the chopping block. Wario: Master of Disguise might have been more successful had it evoked platformers of old, particularly the well-regarded portable Wario Land titles.
While Nintendo clearly can’t control the ways in which third parties approach the innovative and popular consoles they’ve brought to the marketplace in recent years, they do have firm control over games starring their stable of mascots. As such, you would think that their bold hardware decisions would make their way to these games as well, developed outside of Nintendo’s internal studios or not. I’m not sure if this game would be such a disappointment if my expectations weren’t molded by the fact that it stars Wario. That said, the experience is lackluster enough that it probably wouldn’t jump-start the career of an all new mascot either.