A game that involves donning various disguises but ends up being unsure of its own identity – there's a certain irony to it. Then again, Wario's always been a figure of conflicted characteristics as well as game genres, having started life as a chunky platform anti-hero before progressing to become overlord of the mini-game in the superlative WarioWare series.
In this latest outing, Wario: Master of Disguise, he draws on elements from previous jaunts and throws in a fair bit of puzzling too. But it fails to make this new adventure anywhere near as entertaining as what's gone before.
Driven by Wario's usual avarice, the game starts off with him entering the TV world of the Silver Zephyr, a gentleman thief who uses a magic wand to change into different disguises.
Cue the theft of the wand and the start of Wario's many transformations. Draw a tail on him and Wario becomes a fire-breathing dragon. Pop a helmet on his head with the stylus and he morphs into Cosmic Wario, able to shoot lasers, exterminate enemies and, erm, lower chandeliers. Sketch in an artist's canvas, and Wario magically changes into a rotund Salvador Dali, who can draw squares on screen and see them solidify into blocks, useful for bridging gaps or accessing those hard to reach areas. Get the picture?
There are eight disguises to collect, and progress through the story requires alternating between them to combine the special powers each bestows. In all Wario gets to bound through ten fairly large levels, plundering treasure and attempting to reassemble a 'wishstone' that has inconveniently been broken into pieces and scattered across various locales.
Unfortunately, this innovative use of the stylus is one of the game's problems. At first it seems clever, but the more you use it, the more you come to realise how imprecise it can be, because the game frequently misinterprets your scrawls.
Changing into the Cosmic disguise when you really wanted to become Arty Wario, thanks to drawing some sloppy corners, is irritating during the exploration segments of the game. When similar confusion happens during frantic boss battles, it can prove fatal.
This is merely the first of many such annoyances. To discover the disguises you need to pry open numerous chests distributed across each stage. To successfully swipe their contents, you must complete a mini-game – colour in against the clock, solve a slide puzzle, smash the roaches, and so forth. Most are quite fun, but there are just eight of them. Now, no one would expect the several hundred found in the WarioWare games, but eight seems ridiculously ungenerous and the forced repetition that follows quickly drains these little challenges of any residual pleasure.
More gnashing of teeth ensues when you realise that each 'room' resets every time you enter it. This is helpful when you've accidentally severed a rope you shouldn't have, but frustrating when you're faced with the same batch of enemies to dispatch and the block you carefully placed to enable you to reach that upper platform has disappeared.
Even the simplest tasks can require three costume changes, slowing the pace of the game to a virtual crawl. By just the third level, playing feels less like a joy and more like a job.
There are some good ideas here – the visuals are suitably polished with some fine animations and detailed backgrounds, and the catchy tunes have you humming along as you ponder how exactly you can reach that elusive treasure chest. There's plenty to do, too, and with each stage packed with puzzle situations, they can easily take an hour to complete. That said, much of the playing time can merely involve wandering around as Genius Wario, whose goggles reveal invisible items and routes. For every satisfying Eureka moment, you've usually suffered an age of demoralising back-tracking.
Wario: Master of Disguise inevitably suffers when compared to the pitch perfect platform games of his old nemesis Mario, not least the DS's New Super Mario Bros. But worse, it lacks the innovation, charm and joie de vivre of the WarioWare series.
Granted, Wario: Master of Disguise is not trying to be like either, and when you do string together some nifty moves and finally unlock that troublesome door or lower that tantalising ladder, you'll feel a sense of achievement. Too often though, you'll be cursing the toil and trudge, and wishing Wario would go back to hosting a collection of mini-games whose five second shards of pleasure never, ever felt like a chore.