Nintendo’s back catalog is so absurdly rich that, when launching the new Game Boy and Game Boy Advance collections on Nintendo Switch Online, it can afford to offer a mix of cult curios, major and minor entries in popular series, and a hall-of-famer like Game Boy Tetris, while still saving plenty for later. Even for this company, though, there’s nothing to touch the prophetic influence and punk-rock abandon of one of Nintendo’s most daring designs ever: WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgames!
It’s not that Nintendo invented the idea of an anarchic minigame compilation with this 2003 GBA release, which went on to spawn a minor series and cult obsession. Konami’s similarly surreal and silly Bishi Bashi games, featuring competitive minigames like “Jump for the Meat,” first appeared in the arcades in the late 1990s. But WarioWare took the idea to a formal and aesthetic extreme that, depending on your perspective, either boiled the entire concept of video games down to its purest essence, or broke it completely.
The idea is simple: survive a gauntlet of “microgames” that speed up as you progress. What makes it extraordinary is that Nintendo’s developers — WarioWare, Inc. was made by a small team within Nintendo’s in-house R&D1 department — really weren’t kidding when they deployed the term “micro.” The games are no more than three or four seconds long, and their rules are boiled down to a single verb: Dodge! Shoot! Jump! Land! Pinch! Enter! Detonate! Sniff! You have fractions of a second to parse the instruction and the visuals, figure out the input required (either directions or a tap of the A button, or both), and execute it. You get familiar with them over time, of course, but each game comes in many variations of speed, length, and timing that keep you on your toes.
There’s a radical compression of the usual conversation between player and game here that’s quite thrilling to experience: a synaptic snap that happens in the space between the word, the visuals, and the insistent tick-tock soundtrack. WarioWare collapses the process of experiencing, learning, and mastering a new game down to literal seconds. The player acts on a mixture of instinct and patterns learned from a lifetime of gaming: when to tap, when to hammer, when to swerve.
You can imagine this concept being matched with an austere, minimalist visual style, but Nintendo goes hard in the other direction. WarioWare, Inc. is deliberately messy, ugly, and inconsistent to look at: a postmodern mishmash of wireframes, silhouettes, unfinished programmer art, stock photos, and wildly contrasting illustration styles. The game laughs in the face of Nintendo’s usual perfectionism, scrawling game ideas like graffiti over so much digital brick, and sampling some of the company’s own hits, from Duck Hunt to The Legend of Zelda, like loops on a hip-hop track. Some of the ideas — which the designers jotted down on individual Post-it Notes — are pretty juvenile, like the anime lady sniffing up a long, dangling string of snot. There’s even a faux-knockoff fighting game in which a giant, muscled Mario and a Bowser who looks like a depressed kaiju face off. Nothing is sacred.
Wario, as Mario’s selfish, lazy, and incompetent obverse, is a perfect mascot for all this tossed-off anarchy. The conceit of WarioWare is that he has decided to get into game development as a get-rich-quick scheme, and you’re playing the half-assed products that he and his oddball friends have come up with. Each suite of microgames is framed by a weird story starring Wario’s buddies, like Jimmy, the flip-phone-toting disco king, or Dribble and Spitz, the cat-and-dog cabbies, and these cutscenes often pay off with total non sequiturs. (Hey, it turns out Dribble’s fare was a mer-boy!) None of this makes any sense, but the beat, marked by swishing windshield wipers or the pumping decibel meters on a boombox, goes on.
The improbable thing about WarioWare — improbable, but completely necessary — is that it is as perfect as it is wild. The jokes land with the same metronomic precision as the player returns a tennis rally or extends Wario’s hand to catch a beer sliding along the bar. The game is relentless, intoxicating, and its timing is immaculate. As gaming’s 3D era hit its stride and games started to snowball in complexity, this brilliant, contrarian work decided to pull them apart instead. You can see Nintendo’s back-to-basics casual campaign with the Wii and DS foreshadowed here, as well as the bite-size, one-tap ethos of the coming smartphone revolution. WarioWare, Inc. predicts, parodies, and surpasses these trends without breaking its stride — and gives everything self-important and overdetermined about video games a gloriously life-affirming middle finger.