We missed our regularly-scheduled Retronauts podcast last week, but for a good reason: I was holding out until we could get Dragon Quest maniac and all-around rad guy Alex “Toaster Thief” Fraioli on the show. And we did! Although he is muted and fuzzy as he was on the phone from Japan. The result, though, is a fine example of the show…just in time for it to mutate radically for the next showing. Gracious, lordy, etc.
As noted in the show, this really is a shockingly good week for fans of all things old. Besides the obvious choices (Mega Man 9, Kirby Super Star Ultra) you have the less-hyped (Duke Nukem 3D, Vectorman, something else on Virtual Console that I’m forgetting) as well. And then there’s word of 7th Dragon, an old-school RPG created by three masters of the form (Reiko Kodama, Kazuya Niinou and Yuzo Koshiro). Joy and bliss, my friends. The only black mark is Wario Land Shake It!, and even that isn’t bad — just a bit short of its potential, and tragically overshadowed by a much older game for a much less powerful system.
But just what makes Wario Land 4 better than its glossy successor? Several things, which I intend to lay out over the next few days (if I can be bothered to shoot for consistency, of course). But let’s start with the most obvious element, the music.
Wario Land Shake It!’s music is, in a word, really bad. Well, as music it’s not terrible; some of it is pretty catchy, in fact. But as music for a Wario game, it’s not so good. Especially after WL4’s tunes, which were created by a group of people who really and truly love music. They later went on to make the WarioWare titles (all of which have mind-blowing music) and the Rhythm Heaven series (which has music so good it’s the entire point of the games). WL4 gave them their first shot at showing off their genius; as happened with a lot of early GBA titles, they went kind of crazy with the newfound power of the hardware and crammed a ton of (for the time) high-quality sound elements into their creation. The result was trippy, unconventional tunes like “Palm Tree Paradise” (sampled briefly here), a cheerfully lilting ballad with an extended instrumental bridge and a sense of relentless happiness that made a fantastic counterpoint to the hero’s sullen, disgusting personality.
But even that could be subverted through the gameplay: when Wario suffered status effects in WL4, the music became distorted — “wobbly” would be a good description — and was interrupted by bizarre sound effects. “Palm Tree Paradise” was no exception! I wondered when I first heard the vocal theme if it would suffer from distortion effects, and was incredibly happy when it did.
Furthermore, you could collect CDs throughout WL4 that would allow you to unlock options in a hidden sound room — which, unlike most games’ “sound rooms,” wasn’t simply a jukebox. It was literally a sound room, a chamber in which you could play random samplings of bizarre and inexplicable audio samples accompanied by equally strange Game Boy Camera-style animations. WL4 constantly teetered at the brink between genius and insanity, and the game’s music absolutely embodied that fever-dream sensibility. It’s an edge that’s been sanded smooth in Shake It!, literally; psychedelia has been replaced with smooth jazz. Of all its myriad disappointments, this was the one that perhaps struck me most.
But at least we have Rhythm Heaven Gold.