Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Wario Ware, Inc.

Wario Ware, Inc.: Mega Microgame$ is a video game that was published for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance in 2003, when I was thirteen years old. Although I didn't know any other people who owned this game at the time and it was considered a distinctly odd title, I enthusiastically purchased it when it was released. Seventeen years later, I still play the game regularly and find that some elements of the game have become exemplary of characteristics that I search for in different fields to this day.

Wario Ware, Inc. is a game that explores the idea of 'microgames'. 
At the time of its release the mini-game was a popular topic within video games, with a mini-game being a smaller game within a larger game. For example, in the 1999 title Shenmue, your goal of the game is to avenge your father's death, but within the game one can go to an arcade to play darts or go to 'work' and stack crates with a forklift. Mini-games thus consists of smaller and more contained tasks within the scope of a larger video game. They also commonly posses different control schemes than the rest of the game, further setting them apart from the larger game that encompasses them.

The microgames of Wario Ware, Inc., however, are presented within the lore of the game as the quick cash grabs of a new money-making scheme by Wario, the negative alter-ego of Nintendo mascot Mario. Wario has understood that videogames can make you money and in his scheme he creates the simplest games one can get away with in order to quickly make as much money as possible. This results in 213 of such microgames that give the player only a single task to complete and a few seconds to complete it. These games are divided over 9 different themes, which are presented with Wario Ware, Inc. as belonging to different 'developers' Wario has hired.
 
All the microgames of Wario Ware, Inc. are controlled with only the directional pad (or d-pad) and the 'A'-button. This was an important aspect of the collection of microgames that stuck out in my mind at the time.
In the early 2000's the more complex control schemes we're used to today were still being introduced and having more options, input wise, was considered important. The very popular PlayStation 2 had a controller with dual analogue sticks, possesing full 360 degree motion, four face buttons and four shoulder buttons, with Nintendo's own Gamecube having only one shoulder buttons less. Most popular games at the time were looking to utilise the maximum number of uses for these 16 possible inputs.
It was in this time that Wario Ware, Inc. gave the player a very limited number of input options. Only up, down, left and right were used for directional input and the A-button was used for everything else. The B-button, start, select and the L and R shoulder buttons of the Game Boy Advance were simply not put to use. The only other game in my collection of over 70 Game Boy Advance games that doesn't attempt to use all the buttons available on the the Game Boy Advance is Skip Ltd.'s Orbital. This game only uses the A and B buttons and was published a few years later, towards the end of the Game Boy Advance's life cycle. 

Despite the unconventional direction Nintendo took for the controls of Wario Ware, Inc., I am however strongly of the opinion that this extremely paired-down control scheme lies at the heart of the appeal of the game.
As one might suspect, the scope of each microgame in Wario Ware, Inc. is extremely limited. Each game lasts only a few seconds, often with nothing more than a single prompt given to the player, before the next game is presented. The entire game consists of figuring out what to do, quickly doing that thing and moving on the the next challenge.
 
Gameplay of Wario Ware Inc.
 
If one expects a newcomer to this game to figure out what to do and successfully execute that action within 2 to 3 seconds, their options have to be limited. Most of the time, one can either move something on screen with the d-pad or perform some kind of action with the A-button. 
In fact, 46% of the 213 games present in Wario Ware Inc. only require the player to press the A-button. 33% only employ the directional buttons and just 21% of the games require some combination of both.

This exploration of how little one can give the player to do and still provide a fun experience was perfectly suited for the Game Boy Advance. The Game Boy Advance was a portable games console and somewhat modest in computational power. This was during a period where the industry as a whole was reliant on retail sales and the accompanying scale of budgets ask for a focus on 3D rendered games of great complexity. 
The Game Boy Advance however only provided two-dimensional graphics, with very limited 3D capabilities. This led to the Game Boy Advance sometimes being seen as a portable version of the Super NES, Nintendo's home console that defined videogames during the 1990's. 
In the eight years that passed between the introduction the Super NES and that of the Game Boy Advance, a lot had changed in the make-up of the video game landscape. Especially the introduction of 3D-graphics in the previous generation of home consoles had brought new perspectives on gameplay and two-dimensional graphic styles had evolved into shapes that simply weren't conceivable during the Super NES's heyday.
Wario Ware, Inc. is a game that took optimal advantage of these more nuanced and comprehensive views about the position of video games with two-dimensional graphics. The whole game is a reflection on the games and tropes that influenced the previous 20-odd years of video game production, something that would only be possible with the appropriate distance from its sources.
This distance was not only mental, but also physical. While home consoles often aim to leave players glued to their TV-screens for hours on end, portable game consoles are generally enjoyed in quick sessions of ten to twenty minutes. This fact made the Game Boy Advance the ideal platform for a game like Wario Ware, Inc., as it technically allows for a play session that lasts but a few seconds.
That a portable console possess a much smaller screen than a television was likewise a blessing in disguise, as a smaller screen demands games that are much more clear and legible.

Various Mario-related Games

The sometimes subtle ways that Wario Ware, Inc. toys with player's expectations and previous knowledge are perhaps best illustrated with a number of examples.
One of the microgames of Wario Ware, Inc. is titled Super Mario Bros. This microgame is a faithful recreation that looks and feels exactly like the first moments of the 1985 original, albeit in an extremely short version that only lasts a few seconds. Super Mario Bros. is perhaps the most classic example of a 'video game' and certainly the one a general public would be able to recognise. It's therefore telling that the creators of Wario Ware, Inc. chose to present a version of the game that doesn't significantly alter anything about the original formula. Other than its length, of course.
The approach they took in one of the introductory microgames is however very different. Super Wario Bros. is a sort of dumbed down remake of Super Mario Bros. The already simple pixel art of Super Mario Bros. is reduced even further and Wario, as its new main character, jumps automatically and continuously. This makes him pretty much invincible to the enemies he's confronted with and all the player has to do is to move Wario in the direction of the enemies in order to fulfil the 'Stomp!' command at the beginning of the game.
Somewhat later in Wario Ware, Inc. we encounter a microgame called Donkey Kong. The 1981 original  was the introduction of 'Jumpman', the character that was later to become Mario. Inclusion of such notable titles in Wario Ware, Inc. give an impression of the history of video games in general and Nintendo in particular. In contrast with the original arcade version, Jumpman is static in this short rendition and the player can only press the A-button to jump over the barrels that are coming towards him.
The next game, Grow Wario Grow, is a bit more complex. We're presented with a game segment from Super Mario Land, a Mario platforming title for the original Game Boy. A fully controllable Wario character is inserted into this world as a foreign element. This Wario is presented in the style from the game Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, a spiritual sequel to Super Mario Land featuring Wario as the protagonist, after he was introduced as the antagonist in Super Mario Land 2. In the microgame Wario has to steal the power-up mushroom that would 'normally' be intended for the small Mario on screen, thereby introducing a comical anachrony to the lore of both depicted games.
The last game in this list is titled Wario Bros. This is a brief remake of the original 1983 arcade game that introduced Mario's brother Luigi as Mario's counterpoint with similar abilities. Within the lore of Wario Ware, Inc., Wario himself is the developer that created this particular remake, so naturally Luigi is replaced by a Wario character that has to beat Mario. Otherwise the gameplay is faithful to the original arcade game.
 
The reduced form and simplicity of these games are what glues them together and allows these various iterations and critiques to be presented as a unified whole.
This pared down purity of game play also shows that it's frankly inherently fun to get feedback on some tactile sensation. Although I don't know the how and the why of this phenomenon, anybody who has ever pressed a piano key can understand the wonder of producing a sound, even if one doesn't 'know' how to play. Although the individual games of Wario Ware, Inc. don't appear to be much fun individually, the short goals one has to achieve are fun in and of itself, while the variety and sheer amount of them keeps a player engaged for longer periods of time.

Because the frantic and constantly shifting game play is a important part of the Wario Ware, Inc., familiarity with its controls is a key aspect to the prolonged enjoyment of the game. After this original game, Nintendo has released three other original games in the series; WarioWare Twisted!, WarioWare Touched! and WarioWare: Smooth Moves.
These games follow the same basic structure of short microgames that are divided in sections over different 'developers'. With innovation being a core part of Nintendo's game design philosophy, each of these games introduced a new way to control the games. 
Twisted! was released on a cartridge with a motion sensor that meant you had to control the game by moving the physical console in a circular motion. Touched! highlighted the features of the then new Nintendo DS, by showing multiple ways that the then-novel touch screen could be used and something similar was done in Smooth Moves, to highlight the myriad of possibilities of the new Wii Remote for the Nintendo Wii home console.
Because these controls were novel to all players, the sequels were structured very differently than the original.
In the original, there is a small collection of twelve games to introduce the gameplay and the controls of the d-pad in combination with the A-button, but after that any new player has all the tools to tackle the mishmash of actions that the game demands them to perform.
This faith in the player to understand what they have to do isn't found in the other games and as a result they are presented in a much more linear fashion. 
In Twisted!, the eight successive developers each add a small feature to the possibilities that the new control scheme brings. In the first section, there are rotational movements of 0 to 45 degrees, which is followed by somewhat larger movements of 0 tot 90 degrees in the second section of games. This is called 'mini spin' inside the game and is followed by 'big spin', where the console is rotated 180 degrees or more. After that the A-button is introduced with a collection of games that only require the player to use this button and nothing else.
In the fifth collection rotating the console is combined with pressing the A-button, completing the introduction of the controls, which are then taken in a few directions with minor gimmicks in the other four sections.
A similar succession is found in Touched!. It starts with games that require nothing but taps of the stylus on the screen. This is followed by wiggling the stylus, which is in turn followed by drawing lines, which is followed by drawing a line that connects specific points. In the fifth section there is then a number of games that ask the player to perform more than one action. The sixth section requires you to draw circles, echoing the games found in Twisted!. The seventh part requires you to use the built-in microphone and in the eighth and final section all the previous possibilities are combined.
Smooth Moves on the other hand was controlled by the Wiimote, a controller offering full motion control on the x, y and z-axis. The near infinite possibilities that motion controls in three dimensions offer had each microgame in Smooth Moves start with its own prompt on how to hold the controller. 

These changes in structure meant that the player was much more primed to the task that lays ahead. While this is helpful for a player to get acquainted with the game more quickly, it does greatly decrease the replay value of the game by limiting the ability to be surprised in the future.
While I have played, and enjoyed, the other games in the series, it is only the original that I still play regularly today. In the beginning what's enjoyable about the game is getting acquainted with the various microgames, so that one is able to finish them within the short time you are given. It doesn't take long however to become familiar with the many microgames and then the fun challenge is to see how many games one can finish while they keep on increasing in difficulty and speed, trying to improve on one's own high score. At this point Wario Ware, Inc. transforms from a game rooted in bewilderment into a game of skill. In order to allow this shift to occur in the player, steady practice is required. 
All games in the series offer a mode wherein every microgame is sampled, but only in the original the various microgames can be split up into smaller parts while still retaining a good amount of unpredictability of what the microgames will ask of you exactly. It is this variety and possibility to challenge oneself while gradually becoming more and more familiar with various components of the whole set of microgames that makes replaying Wario Ware, Inc. more fun than the later sequels.

In essence, Wario Ware, Inc. Mega Microgame$! is a game that is made up of smaller elements and ideas, that are distilled to their bare essentials and given cohesion through careful curation and presentation. It is a reflection on what came before it, as well as an exercise in expanding possibilities, by attuning to the specific characteristics of the platform it was created for.
It are these qualities that I have found, recognised and enjoyed in Wario Ware, Inc. The game was a an early introduction to the critical, yet embracing attitude to the world I would come to appreciate much later in life and I hope to enjoy playing it for many more years to come.