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Wario jumps with his fist in the air
WarioWare: Get It Together! artwork
Graphic: Polygon | Source image: Nintendo

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Three decades of Wario all started with a name

We look back at how Wario came about and evolved over the years

We all know of Wario. As the greedy, ill-mannered, sometimes downright gross foil to Mario, he spends time profiting off the microgame business, sporting and karting with people he proclaims to hate. In between all that, you can probably catch him picking his nose or digesting his garlic dinner. We’re all aware of Wario … but how many of us understand him? How’d he end up as the tycoon we know him as now? Who’s responsible for Wario being the way he is?

First appearing in the 1992 Game Boy classic Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, Wario came from Nintendo’s Research and Development 1 studio, a team working without much oversight from Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. And in an interview in the game’s official strategy guide in Japan, Hiroji Kiyotake, co-director and artist for the game, said that everything about Wario started with his name.

“The truth is, we kind of came up with the idea of the name [Wario] first, and everything else came after,” he said. Kiyotake elaborated that the name was a play on “Mario” and the Japanese word “warui,” meaning “bad,” and that he envisioned the character as an evil version of Mario, crediting Bluto from Popeye as an inspiration.

Yoichi Kotabe, another artist on the game, in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde, cited Stromboli from Disney’s Pinocchio as a design influence.

Kiyotake further said, in the strategy guide interview, that Mario and Wario were once childhood friends who drifted apart, however it’s up in the air whether this remains canon. He also mentioned that Wario’s favorite food is crepes ... which over time has changed to a less appetizing choice: garlic.

Wario jumps towards coins in a Game Boy screenshot
Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 screenshot
Image: Nintendo

Come 1994, Kiyotake co-directed another sequel to Mario Land, except this time, Wario was the protagonist. Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 ran at a slower pace than Nintendo’s typical platformers, and was where Wario’s association with greed began, as the player was tasked with collecting as much treasure as possible. Compared to your average platformer hero, Wario couldn’t do what’s expected of that role so effortlessly. Where Mario could easily rid an enemy by jumping on it, Wario dealt with his foes by throwing them or bashing into their sides. Where Mario could blaze through levels at top speeds, Wario didn’t get a run button. Even the plot of the game subverted what you’d expect out of a typical Mario story. Instead of saving the princess, Wario wanted to steal a statue of her likeness to extort money out of her kingdom, making himself filthy rich!

With Wario Land, Nintendo evolved Wario into an alternative to Mario, rather than just his inverse. Where you came to Mario for athletic platformers, you visited Wario for methodical, exploration-heavy games. But that didn’t last long.

In early 1995, Nintendo had to compete with the newly released Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn without a dedicated 3D console of its own. The Nintendo 64 wouldn’t be released to the public for another year, but a different piece of hardware was on the horizon: the Virtual Boy, a 3D handheld-console hybrid designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the mind behind many of Nintendo’s portable console efforts. Enter R&D1 again, but this time with a stipulation.

In a 1997 book compiling Yokoi’s personal writings and interviews titled “横井軍平ゲーム館” (or “Gunpei Yokoi’s Hall of Game”), Yokoi wrote about an interaction he had with Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s then president. Yokoi wrote about Yamauchi’s instructions to focus on original IP for the Virtual Boy as opposed to legacy IP like Mario, recalling being told to do this in order to ensure the impact of said IP’s eventual jump to full 3D on the N64.

Around the same time, we know that R&D1 was working on yet another sequel to Mario Land, titled Virtual Boy Mario Land. The game featured Mario jumping back and forth between foreground and background layers to progress through levels and seemed to involve an antagonistic Wario, based on tech-demo footage, but was never released. Over time, many fans have speculated that this project turned into the treasure hunting platformer Virtual Boy Wario Land, interpreting Yokoi’s comments to mean that Nintendo set aside the established Mario license not for new IP, but for the less established Wario brand.

Virtual Boy Wario Land was released in November 1995. Kiyotake and Hirofumi Matsuoka, a previous artist and director on the Super NES art program Mario Paint, co-directed the game together. Due to the landscape nature of the Virtual Boy’s screen, this entry focused on long horizontal hallways, with plenty of room to support a new run button and added momentum to Wario’s shoulder bash. Although being an overall faster and more action-oriented experience, Virtual Boy Wario Land maintained the series’ focus on exploration by requiring the player to find hidden keys to progress. The game also marked Wario’s first appearance in a mainline game without any existing Mario characters, forming his identity apart from his origins.

This individuality continued with multiple Wario Land titles developed for the Game Boy line by R&D1: Wario Land 2, 3, and 4.

Released for the Game Boy Color in 1998 and 1999 respectively, Wario Land 2 and 3 took big steps in new directions. Branching level structures and unlockable upgrades moved the series in a nonlinear direction, while Takehiko Hosokawa took over as director. While he’s mostly regarded nowadays for his work on Metroid, Hosokawa’s had a hand in every Wario entry since the beginning.

Wario’s characterization in these games cemented how he would be depicted in future entries. He was greedy, but not malicious. Goofy, but not dopey. He had none of the qualifications of a hero, but couldn’t be described as a villain. These entries solidified the character’s nature through both story and gameplay elements, such as his money-driven motives and expressive transformations like Zombie and Flat Wario.

Matsuoka then returned to lead Wario Land 4. This 2001 Game Boy Advance title blended its precursors’ priorities in action and exploration while introducing memorable settings and characters to the franchise, such as Wario’s own princess, Shokora. Due to its intricate art and streamlined gameplay, Wario Land 4 is often cited by fans as the best in the series.

During development of the game, Nintendo also happened to hire Ko Takeuchi and Goro Abe. These two started out programming on Wario Land 4, and would soon spearhead the franchise’s future.

Released for the GBA in 2003, WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$! saw Wario realizing the potential for revenue in the microgame business, ending his treasure-hunting days. In the game, players had to get acquainted with each microgame under a strict time limit. With a gameplay premise originally thought up by Kouichi Kawamoto for Mario Artist: Polygon Studio, a Japanese-exclusive N64DD sequel to Mario Paint, WarioWare’s art direction and lead game design were helmed by Takeuchi and Abe respectively. The gameplay shift called for a change in depiction for Wario, who sported a new biker outfit and even greedier attitude.

In an interview with Kikizo, Yoshio Sakamoto, a member of R&D1 since its early days, stated that the project only centered around Wario because the team “couldn’t think of anyone else best for the role.”

“Wario was always doing stupid things and is always idiotic, so we thought [he] ... would work best for the game,” he said.

In a way, Wario’s aura opened a gateway for the game’s laissez-faire art style. Abe explained to Kikizo that each microgame’s unique presentation was a result of them all being thought up by different people on the team. In fact, he revealed WarioWare was initially developed in secret at R&D1. Team members would submit ideas for microgames on the director’s desk via sticky notes, and once the project caught wind of the team’s supervisor, he let it continue development. At that point, the game concept took off around the office, leading to people from different teams submitting ideas.

WarioWare soon became a franchise of its own, with multiple games serving as packages of microgames. While it continued to shotgun blast different art styles at players, WarioWare also soon began to prioritize usage of its respective consoles’ capabilities. Whether it was through the touchscreen on the DS, the DSi’s camera, or the motion controls of the Wii, the series regularly found a way to integrate these attributes into its core gameplay. Even on Wii U, where few developers made good use of the gamepad, the WarioWare offshoot Game & Wario spread its creative potential through 16 different modes.

Wario stands with his hands in the air and says “I gotta make some games”
Game & Wario screenshot
Image: Nintendo

This ingenuity came up in an Iwata Asks interview for WarioWare: Smooth Moves on Wii. In the interview, Abe recalled his thoughts during meetings regarding the Wiimote and how it could be used for WarioWare. He stated his team was quite optimistic about the controller’s potential, saying, “If you’ve got one of these remotes, you can pretty much do anything.”

While the series’ newest release, WarioWare: Get it Together! doesn’t focus its mechanics on Switch-exclusive attributes like HD rumble, it does push the boundaries of the series by including playable characters for the first time.

Yet while WarioWare has dominated much of the Wario-related conversation over the past couple decades, it hasn’t been the only place Wario has appeared. Far from it.

In 2003, Nintendo entrusted Wario with action game studio Treasure, resulting in 2003’s Wario World, a 3D continuation of the Wario Land series. While it played more like a beat-’em-up than a 3D platformer, the game maintained Wario Land’s mixture of player-enemy dynamics and platforming. It also carried Treasure’s unmistakable charm in its grab-heavy combat and distinct visuals.

A full console generation later, Nintendo also released both 2007’s Wario: Master of Disguise and 2008’s Wario Land: Shake It! Master of Disguise ended up being the last Wario-related work for his creator, Kiyotake, who acted as a character designer for the game. Shake It was more of a return to form for the series, bringing Wario back to his treasure-hunting roots. The game’s design director, Tadanori Tsukawaki, noted he wanted to revisit Wario’s “macho” representation (in contrast to his “crude” iterations in spinoffs) in an interview with Nintendo Online Magazine in Japan. Despite Shake It’s label as a sequel, the game carried a lot of unique characteristics, such as its character assets and cutscenes done by anime studio Production IG.

As you can see, Wario’s been through the hands and minds of many. (We’re also passing over a handful of WarioWare and non-WarioWare titles, in the interest of time.) His history solidifies his presence as more than just the anti-Mario. Whether it be through Wario Land or WarioWare — or his appearances in other games — he’s extended himself through all kinds of genres and artistic endeavors with his own brand of endearing weirdness. Next time you see him shoot a bogey on the golf course or let one rip in Smash Bros. … give the guy a break. He’s been through a lot.

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