Wario is truly one of the more interesting of the mostly goody-goody Nintendo characters. Driven almost entirely by his massive self-interest, Wario is at once a cautionary figure and a guilty pleasure derived from our own selfish desires. In WarioWare Inc.: Mega Microgame$, Wario gets a chance to have a game all to himself. The conceit is that Wario has decided to make money in the videogame industry. Being lazy, he co-opts his friends into creating games for him. It's never made certain whether the player is supposed to be a tester or a consumer of the end result, but the end result is one of the most unique experiences in videogames.
WarioWare is centered on the concept of the 'microgame.' Microgames are games that present the player with a fairly simple task, like blocking a penalty kick or successfully identifying which of four different objects is different in a crucial way. What makes such a simple premise challenging is that the microgames are presented to the player with only five seconds to be completed. Not completing the microgame results in failing it; this has differing consequences depending on what mode the user is currently in.
The 'main' area of the game is a series of stages, each consisting of a certain 'pool' of microgames which are randomly thrown at the user, eventually leading to a final 'boss' game. Completing the stages unlocks further stages, along with short story sequences. Various goals, when reached, also unlock stages that are unrelated to the main story mode, including several microgames that can be played by two players, as well as some very neat unlockables. Each stage has its own theme: Orbulon the space alien engages you in challenges of the intellect, whereas all of the stages controlled by 9-volt are based on classic videogames of the past. It's a nice system, as the player can either push onward or continue to play a stage over and over again, mastering their skills. The other major mode in WarioWare is the grid mode, where you can pick and choose between all the microgames that you've already played. This allows the player to get some practice at a microgame that is proving difficult, as well as set high scores in a microgame, which has the possibility of unlocking further stages and games.
Playing WarioWare forces the player to break out of their routines in terms of playing videogames. Instead of spending time figuring out a single system and then developing strategies for working within that system (or without it, depending), the player is launched through a series of short, tense, random, simplistic gaming interactions, without many breaks for rest (although the game does have a very welcome pause feature). Playing WarioWare reminded me of exercising, only for videogame players. Like exercising, the microgames give the player short, controlled bursts of challenges, both physical and mental. States of flow and fatigue drift together as the player struggles to keep up with the game.
Another analogy that springs to mind is that of haikus. A haiku is a short poem form that is based in Japan (and also closely related to the Chinese hokku), consisting of three short lines, intended to contain intense, almost iconic imagery that would inspire the contemplative reader. Like haiku, the microgames are short and iconic, transmitting one or more simple concepts to the player and inviting the player to attempt to solve them.
But unlike both exercise and haikus, where the pace of the experience is determined by the user, WarioWare is firmly in control. The reason that the games are both not boring and continually challenging is because the game forces you to a rigid time schedule, 5 seconds in terms of the regular games and varying lengths for the more complex boss battles. This constant frequency of change means that the player cannot concentrate on, and thus get bored with, the microgames, and this is essential to keeping WarioWare fresh.
WarioWare helps emphasize the low-level interaction between the player and the game. By 'low-level,' I mean physical interactions and the mental processes that usually occur without our noticing them. Because of the simple nature of the games, there isn't a whole lot of abstract thinking involved. Strategy and exploration, two major aspects of many videogames, are completely absent, as the game concentrates entirely on a much smaller set of immediate interactions.
These interactions are fairly discrete and are in fact fairly easily organized into a sequence. This sequence describes the player's interaction with a single WarioWare microgame, beginning when the game alerts the player of which game is being played and going until the player either passes or fails the game. The sequence alters only if the player is familiar with the game or not, and for the first sequence I'll lay out, I will assume that the player has no experience with the game.
The first meta-step is Assimilation. This is a one-way step with two parts, as first, information is conveyed to the player by the game and second, that information is translated into a virtual model inside the player's mind. I have named these two steps Recognition and Analysis. In Recognition, the player identifies the components of the microgame. This consists of separating important objects from objects that have no bearing on the game. For example, one microgame might consist of a sun, a horizon, a running figure and some hurdles set on the horizon. The player will recognize and separate these elements, most likely concentrating on the runner and the hurdles, as they are not only easily paired, but are also the most 'active' objects. (This game is one of the more mundane ones—other games include taking photos, searching for insects in the carpet, playing a spelling game and two separate games where the player must deal with nasal discharge.)
In Analysis, the player takes the parts of the microgame from Recognition and attempts to create a mental model of how these parts might interact. What the player hopes to do is accurately predict the model that already exists inside the logic of the game chip. Using our previous example, the player will create the model of the objects and attempt to create logical links between them. The runner and the hurdles form an obvious logical link, as most players will recognize a logical relation that exists in the real world, and may then translate that relation to the microgame. The question then becomes how the player controls that relationship. A good assumption to make about the relationship is that the player will want to give the runner a signal to jump over the hurdles. The question then becomes what will make the runner jump, and when is the ideal time to send the signal?
The second part of that question becomes the second meta-step and the final step in our initial sequence, Reaction. This is when the player takes the knowledge gathered in Assimilation and attempts to match up their mental model to the game model. Part of this matching-up is predicting at what point the game will require input, and what kind of input is required. Although many of the games will prompt the user to enter a certain command or series of commands, others will pose more of a challenge, requiring the user to intuitively deduce the proper mode of input. Even once this is known, there is another problem, which is when the input is needed or often it should be repeated, as most of the reaction-based microgames boil down to one or the other.
Once this sequence of Assimilation and Reaction has been run through for a single microgame, the sequence changes for every time the microgame is played thereafter. The crucial addition to the sequence is the step of Memorization, and it quickly becomes a major part of how the player approaches WarioWare. Since every game has a title that is flashed before the game loads, the player has enough time to try and make the connection to information previously stored about the game, increasing the player's chances to successfully complete the game. Eventually Memorization completely supplants Assimilation and Reaction, with the player instantly knowing exactly what steps will lead to passing the game as soon as the game's title flashes on the screen.
The major flaw with WarioWare is that it becomes entirely too dependent on the Memorization step. Although many of the microgames are logical and conceivably possible to pass on the first try, huge portions of the game are going to be initially obscure and will only be finished after the player has already made several attempts. Some microgames are so willfully obtuse that only several rounds of Assimilation will allow the player to discern not only what to do, but even what exactly is taking place on screen. Others are so rigorous in their physical requirements that it will take much practice at Reaction before the player can produce the desired results.
But even with the rote memorization and the sometimes-frustrating, sometimes-overly-simplistic requirements of the microgames, WarioWare is a standout title for the Game Boy Advance. Driven not only by its concept, WarioWare also has a tremendous sense of personality. Loosened from the constraints of its most popular franchises, Nintendo turns the weird meter up to 11 in telling the story of Wario's rise to riches in the videogame industry. The games themselves are appropriately strange, and the characters used to present them to you are surprisingly un-stereotypical, as well as fairly entertaining to boot.
The combination of a unique concept and a refreshing original and light-hearted setting make WarioWare one of the pleasant surprises in terms of engaging original software on the GBA, as well in terms of games developed by Nintendo. In fact, it's a real shame that Nintendo isn't pushing WarioWare harder than it is, as it would be a sterling counter-example to all the talk that Nintendo's too tired and played-out as a creative force in this industry. We can only hope that this is an indicator of things to come, and that the gaming public will be as receptive as this game deserves.