Mario's antithesis is back with yet another fantastic 2D platformer.
I've been a fan of this series ever since the colorized version of Wario Land 2 became my first purchase for Game Boy Color. At their best, the Wario Land games epitomize dense, puzzle-based level design with a light-hearted style that is distinct from their Super Mario cousins. Shake It is the first new entry since Wario Land 4, a mildly disappointing Game Boy Advance sequel. In fact, Shake It is most similar to WL4, but it solves most of that game's problems and feels like a superior experience overall.
The story is irrelevant, so I won't bother describing it. In most stages, Wario's goal is to reach the end, rescue a floating elf, and then race back to the entrance before time runs out. This structure has an interesting influence on the level designs, as they must accommodate a leisurely exploration on the front end and a frantic race against time on the back end. Usually, there's some clever way to prepare the escape route that will let you get back faster and/or reach a tricky treasure chest that is only available while escaping. The timed portion is hardly ever frustrating, because the time limit is generous, and there's always a checkpoint at the end of the level in case you do run out of time and need to try again.
The best aspect of Shake It's levels are how they incorporate puzzles that are solved with Wario's standard set of moves. Quite a few secrets involve using the enemies as tools, either by jumping on them at the right moment or throwing them into blocks high above. Most stages also have contraptions that make Wario run very fast until he hits a wall; while running, the controls and Wario's abilities are quite different. Learning to control him while sliding around at this higher speed is challenging but heavily rewarded by the level designs. Finally, in a nod to earlier Wario Land games, there are also fire and snow transformations for Wario, though they don't happen very often.
Aside from its excellent level layouts, Shake It's best assets are the wacky, diverse soundtrack and the drop-dead gorgeous 2D visuals. The music is truly a delight, as every stage has two different songs – one for the exploration phase, and another for the escape. Songs span numerous genres, including funk, jazz, rock, and even cheesy 80’s-style synth-pop. One of my favorites is a sparse, beautiful piano piece that plays during one stage's escape phase – the effect is oddly unsettling. You can unlock all these songs by completing each level's challenges, which are exactly like Xbox 360 Achievements. The challenges are completely optional of course, but you may want to seriously pursue a few of them in order to get a particularly beloved song.
The game's artwork and animation require special commendation. This is one of the best-looking 2D games ever created. Each level has distinct art, including a unique background that does not simply repeat as you scroll by. Sprites are crisp and colorful, reflecting the Wario Land style that has always been a little different from the Super Mario games. But as nice as the art may be, animation is the real star here. You've probably never seen 2D characters animate this well in a video game. The combination of clarity and fluidity make Wario the best-looking ugly character around.
I had some trepidation regarding the shaking in this game, but the motion controls end up playing a smaller role than the title would indicate. Shaking is a tacked-on mechanic, but it's not really a chore because you don't need to do it too much. It also helps to realize that you can shake the Wii Remote very gently and still get the same result. Tilting to aim throws and control vehicles works beautifully, and all the conventional controls are very smooth. I sometimes had trouble getting the butt stomp to activate, though.
Finally, no discussion of Shake It would be complete without addressing the game's longevity. Many gamers have a hard time reconciling the old-fashioned 2D platformer genre with a modern, full-priced Wii game. Putting aside any prejudices about the type of game it is, Wario Land is a medium-length game that can be traversed in 5-10 hours. If your intention is to play straight through and see the credits roll, you may be better off renting it.
However, fans of the Wario Land series know that it's really all about exploration and discovering all the fun secrets. Shake It has quite a few secret levels that become easier to access after beating the final boss, and these levels are larger and more challenging than the normal ones. You can also go back to completed levels and play them again to find more treasures. Far from being a simple scavenger hunt, the optional quest to find all the treasures is actually the key to experiencing the best puzzles in the game. If you don't spend the time to try some of these secret levels and treasure hunts, you'll miss a significant chunk of the game's content. If you do pursue the secret levels and treasures, the game's value increases dramatically, and purchasing it becomes a much better proposition.
Either way, fans of 2D platforming (Nintendo's bread and butter of yore) should not miss this game. Wario Land: Shake It is a compassionate and hugely entertaining throwback to a classic kind of game that isn't often released these days.