Review: The Doctor is in
It's very safe to say that Tetris changed everything. The little-game that-could from Russia that transformed the gaming landscape almost overnight. Pushing aside all of the shooting and turtle stomping of the day for a simple puzzle experience that hooked all but the most stubborn gamers, Tetris is one of the true universal games. What does this have to do with Dr. Mario? Not much, just that Tetris paved the way. It made the puzzle game cool. It made the handheld cool. And as we enter the PSP era, which is launching with three highly touted puzzle games, I figured it was worth a mention.
Dr. Mario is part of the second wave of the Classic NES Series. Games that shaped gaming on Nintendo's original home console, recreated exactly for the GBA's handheld screen. And that's what this version of Dr. Mario is all about, a chance to replay a classic and the chance to take a classic with you on the go.
The premise is very simple and any player of Tetris or Columns (which begs the question, where are the thousand Columns clones? It was a great puzzler too) or Lumines should feel right at home here. Viruses randomly fill the pill bottle at the start of each level, the higher the level the more the viruses. Each virus has a color: red, blue and yellow. Luckily, Dr. Mario has vitamins that match those colors. Each vitamin is two sided and each side could be any of the three colors. By stacking three dots of matching color vitamins on top of the viruses causes them to go pop. If you stack the wrong color on top of a virus, it will take four similarly colored dots to remove the wrong colored stack and try at the virus again. Once you clear the pill bottle its on to the next level. To further challenge players, the game comes with three vitamin speeds: Low, Medium or High.
It's here that Dr. Mario can hit the wall for some players. As you near the higher levels (16, 17, 18, 19 and 20), the pill bottle gets increasingly fuller. So full in fact that it's almost impossible to maneuver the vitamins anywhere but dropping them straight down. And if you get the wrong color then it's game over very fast. Especially at Level 20. At the higher levels, Dr. Mario takes fate out of your hands and places it firmly in his own. He controls the vitamins and he controls your game. Dr. Mario falls into one of medicine's darkest corners; a God Complex so fierce he will smite your game in five seconds on High speed. Controlling your own destiny is what makes Tetris the better game and what makes Dr. Mario always having to stand below it in the puzzle game hierarchy.
Of course, that's just me talking. Dr. Mario is so simple that it begs to be replayed over and over again. Start on a low level and you might make it all the way up to Level 18 in a half an hour. Start at a high level and there's a real chance you'll be starting over every few minutes. As the viruses continue laughing at you (because they do) and the vitamins pile up and wrong color jumps on top of wrong color, you'll be determined to pick it up and pop those viruses. It is the perfect pick up and play puzzler.
Dr. Mario looks very nice on the GBA screen. The viruses dance, Dr. Mario flips the vitamins into the pill bottle, viruses disappear as they take their medicine. Just like the NES, but smaller. The game was definitely designed for a bigger screen, but it is still very good on the GBA. If you've got a Game Boy Player hooked up to your GameCube, use it, everything just seems to be more focused playing on a TV. So to recap the diagnosis: On a GBA: very nice looking. On a Game Boy Player: great looking.
Fever and Chill will be familiar sweet sounds to anyone that has played the NES Dr. Mario. Midi music at it's absolute finest. OK, not exactly finest, but the two tunes are very memorable and will probably drive you batty if the game hooks you for any extended length of time (and it should). As far as sound effects, the satisfying "pop" you hear when a virus goes kerfluey is really all their is. Oh, but it is satisfying.
For a final touch, Dr. Mario includes a pretty nice two-player mode. Tetris hooked everybody on two-player puzzling and Dr. Mario is no different. A cherry on top of an already fantastic single-player mode.