Wario Land: Shake It!

With the massive success (60,000 online sales and counting) of Mega Man 9, it is clear there is a market for old school platforming reminiscent of our gaming days of yore. A past favorite of many Game Boy owners, the newest chapter in the Wario Land series offers much of the same retro flavor that Mega Man 9 does, but with a very interesting twist.

That is, Wario Land: Shake It! may be the best post-modern video game ever.

First, a loose definition of postmodernism from dictionary.com:

Any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism, esp. a movement in architecture and the decorative arts running counter to the practice and influence of the International Style and encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity.

In short, it’s a reaction or satire of the tropes and themes of a modern art form. By my count, there have been very few postmodern video games. Eternal Darkness may be the best example, a title that is based on making the player think they are going insane by throwing false game freeze or memory card erasure messages at them. Metal Gear Solid may have been the first, with the unforgettable mind-reading fight between Snake and Psycho Mantis.

Last year’s No More Heroes could be seen as another, with its fourth-wall-shattering ending and maybe kinda sorta repetitive/odd design choices (pointless side quests, absurd gore) to comment on the state of modern gaming.

But where those games scream, “You’re playing a video game!”, Wario Land: Shake It! delivers its postmodern message ever so subtly, not to mention more effectively.

In the title, you play as Wario, the king of postmodern video game characters. He’s lazy, unlikable, greedy and rude — the exact opposite of every mainstream video game hero. The “story” of the game is nearly non-existent. There’s something about a princess. Treasure. Pirates. Weird elf-like things. The takeaway from all this is that the story doesn’t matter at all.

Wario Land: Shake It! is a platformer, through and through. Holding the Wiimote horizontally, you will make Wario run, jump and coin collect just like his older bro. The Wii twist here is Wario’s ability to shake enemies and bags of goodies for fun and profit. You’ll also aim Wario when he’s in cannons or driving his submarine using simple motion controls. It does feel tacked on, but it’s not pronounced enough to becoming annoying.

The ‘1’ button makes Wario dash into breakable walls or enemies, and the ‘2’ button makes him jump. ‘Down’ on the D-pad during a jump will cause Wario to perform a butt-stomp, thunderous enough to conk out enemies and break through certain floors. Wario controls nicely, feeling much like icons of the 8-bit era.

The game is divided into five continents, each with a boss and a handful of levels to conquer. Superficially, the levels are childishly easy. Enemies and pitfalls do little damage, there are no instant deaths, and Wario’s health is plentiful. It is very difficult to die in this game — a possible commentary on the difficulty (or lack thereof) in games today.

An interesting twist in the levels of the game is a timed race from the end of the level to the beginning. You’ll often find a booster that makes Wario run at breakneck speeds — think Sonic — in an attempt to get back to the entrance before the clock expires.

Just running through the levels would take almost no effort on the part of even a mildly experienced gamer. Still, there are three treasures in each level, and many of them are very, very hidden. On top of that there are multiple achievement-esque “missions”, such as “beat this level without taking damage” or “don’t defeat any enemies.” This commentary on a gamer’s willingness to jump through often ridiculous hoops in order to simply receive a congratulatory message, is just another one of the many postmodern elements to this game.

Another is the treasures themselves. Not only are the items ridiculous in nature (“Empty Piggy Bank”, “Piranha Dentures”) they also have no value whatsoever. They don’t grant you powers, like in Zelda games, or increase your money. They mean nothing. Remember poking around every corner in Gears of War for the hidden COG tags? How about renting Avatar: The Last Airbender or TMNT in order to grind out some easy achievements? This is the modern video game era we are in — and Wario is satirizing it.

Wario even jumps into a globe (simulating our own jumping into a game’s world) before the start of each level.

One of the biggest draws of Wario Land: Shake It! is the hand-drawn graphics. And they do not disappoint. This is one of the better looking Wii titles, not as polished as, say, Super Mario Galaxy, but beautiful and unique. If more Wii games looked this way I don’t think any Wii owner would complain.

The game will not take long to complete (somewhere in the neighborhood of 4-5 hours), but has a ton of extra content after the credits roll. Boss challenges, hidden treasure maps scattered throughout levels and the aforementioned treasures and missions, make this game well worth the sticker price.

Wario Land: Shake It! is a scathing commentary on the current state of the gaming industry wrapped in the guise of a simple platformer. Whether you’re looking for some non-Mega Man 9 old school gaming — with an epic final boss battle to boot — or want to delve deep into the underlying subtleties of this game, it’s worth a buy.

RATING 8 / 10