If there was ever a crime of gaming that I've committed, it's that I missed out on Wario Land II when it first appeared on the original Game Boy back in 1998 (and then again for the Game Boy Color in 1999). It seems bizarre that I'd have not bought it immediately on release before zipping home to greedily enjoy my latest purchase. Wario is of the Super Mario Bros. lineage, a franchise that I was extremely devoted to in my youth (and even still now, although that passion has been diluted a little with all of the spin-off titles that fall outside of my realm of interest (Mario Party et al, I'm looking at you)). I can only justify that I missed it because I had drifted away from the Game Boy by that point, as I was moving to wrap up my high school years with SATs and ACTs and APEs and all kinds of other pre-college exams that involve acronyms and permanent records. This failure to fully explore Wario Land II is something that I have rectified in recent years, and if you too missed out on Captain Syrup's revenge plot, then I suggest you fix that immediately. If I can't convince you, maybe Jeremy Parish over at GameSpite can.
Wario Land II threw an even bigger wrinkle into the fabric of platforming clichés. Where its predecessor had been a bit of a screwball concept, letting you play as the prior game's villain and dropping you into a Mario-esque world with more aggressive skills, Wario Land II inverted one of the genre's most fundamental assumptions: that death was an inevitability to be avoided. Unlike his rival, Wario simply couldn't be killed. He could be burned, frozen, squashed, or mutilated in any number of other ways, but those were mere setbacks that would cause him to react comically in the classic Warner Bros. style. Bump into flames and Wario would begin running and waving his arms frantically as the fire sizzling on his rear end slowly burned itself out. A strike from a large mallet would cause him to become springlike, bouncing erratically. Crushing simply caused Wario to become paper-thin until he encountered water. Not even the undead could stop him for long: he might become a zombie, but eventually he'd encounter sunlight and crumble into dust—only to regenerate, phoenix-like.
The concept of an indestructible main character radically transformed the nature of Wario Land II's challenges. No longer was the goal of the game to avoid dying long enough to succeed. Rather, it became a challenge to avoid the minor inconvenience of being afflicted with semi-fatal status changes, and to deduce when to use them to advance. Unlike typical Mario games, where death was simply death, Wario's mutilation could be used to the player's advantage—a flattened Wario could slip through narrow openings, while a springlike Wario could bound to previously unreachable heights. In effect, R&D1 ended up creating a puzzle platformer almost by accident... but one that avoided the usual tropes and techniques of other entries in the genre.
Strangely enough, while I believe that Wario Land 3 is the better game, I like Wario Land II more. There's a simple purity to Wario's movements and obstacles in his second adventure that his third manages to complicate. There's much more gameplay in 3 (plus a more vibrant color palette), and while II is rough around the edges in comparison, it seems to enjoy itself more. I've been replaying II recently for my own amusement and have been impressed by it all over again. Wario Land 4 and beyond backtracked from the immortality concept that drove II and 3, making those two games all the more special. Perhaps you should play them both while you're at it (and just like that you have homework for the weekend, but please finish your SATs first).
(Images via MobyGames)