Twenty years after its release, the GBA classic Wario Land 4 remains a fascinating artifact. It’s not only an accomplished platformer that could rival any 2D Mario outing from the same era, but also a clear commitment to developing an aesthetic texture for Wario games that has informed many of Wario’s subsequent appearances. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this texture, such as Wario’s now-iconic sleazy charms or Charles Martinet’s vocal performance. However, the aspect that leaves the biggest impression in 2021 is the range of bizarre audio experiences in the game. Wario Land 4’s soundtrack, particularly the game’s haunting “sound room” unlockables, communicate a unique sound for Wario that is still relevant to the character decades later.
In order to understand Wario Land 4, you need only look at its introductory cutscene and title screen. Sound rumbles from the Game Boy Advance’s small speakers as Wario starts up his car and sets out on his journey, listening to a vibrant funk song with lyrics that are difficult to discern due the audio’s hefty compression. This same track rings out on the main menu as Wario drives across an endless desert landscape, until you eventually hit the start button, prompting him to advance. There’s a rhythmic quality to this intro sequence that never loses its energy no matter how many times you experience it.
In gameplay, the soundtrack spans an impressive variety of genres to accompany the frenetic nature of Wario hopping between different worlds. Most of these tracks are catchy, lyricless loops that try to complement the locations they’re used in, featuring everything from upbeat romantic pop to the visceral progressive rock that accompanies the timed escapes from each level.
The game’s sound room, however, is where the audio experience of Wario Land 4 takes a turn for the weird. There are 16 entirely new tracks in the sound room, which are unlocked by finding discs hidden within secret passages in each of the levels. Each of these tracks goads you with ominously abstract titles such as “About That Shepherd” or “Tomorrow’s Blood Pressure.” You would be forgiven for thinking that you’re suddenly accessing the soundtrack of another game, especially once you hit play and let the bizarre audio sequences play out.
On first listen, you might try to invent a connection between the names of the tracks and the sounds they label. The first track, “About That Shepherd,” is just some dogs barking in a windy field, with infrequent sheep sounds. Sure, you might think, a shepherd’s life might sound like that. “Tomorrow’s Blood Pressure” has a heavy, industrial feel to it, a moody sequence of whirring machinery and discordant notes that convey a sense of looming danger. This is fitting to the idea of tomorrow’s blood pressure, which inspires anxiety simply because it’s a future event, forcing you to contemplate all the dangerous possibilities of this upcoming blood pressure in the time spent waiting for it. Whilst these two tracks have the strongest link between their names and sounds, there’s still a touch of ambiguity that is key to the central weirdness of the Wario Land 4 sound room.
The two tracks above present a false sense of security, however, as the connections between Wario Land 4’s sound room tracks and their titles only get more nebulous. For most of the sound room audio, there isn’t an obvious link between the titles, sounds and the small amount of visuals that accompany them. “The Moon’s Lamppost” simply reverses the melody of the game’s most upbeat lyrical track, “Palm Tree Paradise,” in order to create something much more whimsical and eerie. “The Short Futon” can only be described as an exchange of terse whispers with an underlying musical accompaniment: it’s something incredibly normal that is made weirder by Wario Land 4 combining it with music. These unsettling sounds utilize the Game Boy’s limited audio capabilities, a vague title and an abrasive premise to create confusing and even slightly scary sound bytes.
Wario Land 4’s sound room is a virtual music box that is equal parts funny and unsettling. It intrigued me when I first played the game as a child, and it continues to intrigue me today. While many games today have unlockable bonus content, few are an experimental art piece that incentivizes finding collectables so that you can giggle at (and perhaps uneasily contemplate) whatever strange disc will be unearthed next. In hindsight, it feels at home as part of a Wario game. The sound room is a strangely satisfying set of musical distractions that orbit the understated strangeness that WarioWare titles have become all about.
Although we may never get another game in the Wario Land series, aspects of its charm live on in the experience of WarioWare. The WarioWare series relishes in the odd audio that Wario Land 4 mostly kept isolated to this sound room, embracing the fusion of the mundane and the musical to create some profoundly offbeat microgames. Through its audio, Wario Land 4 feels like a key evolutionary link in what Wario has gone on to become. The sound room was an essential part of that, even if it is still pretty unsettling.