Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The fartman cometh: Celebrating the many careers of Wario, Nintendo’s stinky, cheating genius

The fartman cometh: Celebrating the many careers of Wario, Nintendo’s stinky, cheating genius

Graphic: Karl Gustafson

Mario doesn’t fart.

He could, probably. If Nintendo has gone out of its way over the years to draw our collective eyes to its beloved mascot’s nipples and other physical assets, we have to assume that the appropriate, uh, pipes, are also all in place. But Mario doesn’t fart, because farting is transgressive—to say nothing of rude, obnoxious, and stinky—and you can’t be the mascot of the world’s most potent family-friendly video game brand if you’re in the habit of transgression. No, Mario doesn’t fart—he’s got a guy for that.

That guy? Well, it’s-a-him: Wario, the yellow-and-purple-hued, ill-tempered, money-loving, cheating-prone, and above all creative counterpart to Nintendo’s red-and-blue-and-beige plumber. Wario doesn’t fix pipes; he breaks shit. He doesn’t rescue princesses; he stuffs a billion dollars worth of treasure in a sack and legs it for the door. And whereas Mario typically represents Nintendo games at their polished apex—perfectly engineered machines clothed in glorious cartoonish clockwork, precision-designed to put the company’s best foot forward—Wario is the guy dashing out way ahead, trying stuff, smashing it, and cackling at the top of his voice when it somehow, miraculously, works.

Is it any wonder, then, that this avatar of innovative malice was originally crafted in a burst of spite? This is somewhat apocryphal, but the story goes that the members of Nintendo’s famed R&D1 team—the group formed under the aegis of legendary Game Boy co-creator Gunpei Yokoi—were not especially enthused about being asked to create handheld games for Shigeru Miyamoto’s turtle-stomping golden child Mario. And so, when tasked with working on 1992’s Super Mario Land 2, the team created their own character to serve as the game’s villain: A big, brash, and evil counterpart playing the Bluto to Mario’s Popeye, who proceeded to jack the heroic plumber’s stuff, kick him around, and even try to brainwash his legions of loyal fans.

And while this was still a very first-draft version of Wario—he didn’t even fart!—R&D1 suddenly had a mascot to play with of its very own. While Mario continued to reign supreme on Nintendo’s home consoles, the Game Boy and its handheld successors became Wario’s playground, a place where new ideas could be explored, mistakes raucously made, and where the “hero” didn’t always have to be so damn good. (And here’s as good a place to any to acknowledge that the name “Wario” itself is a mixture of letter flipping and a bad pun,“warui” being Japanese for “bad.”) They didn’t waste much time, either: 1993’s Super Mario Land 3 might still have carried the hated plumber’s name, but the subtitle made it clear who was in control now. Welcome to Wario Land.

Wario: Treasure Hunter

Illustration for article titled The fartman cometh: Celebrating the many careers of Wario, Nintendo’s stinky, cheating genius
Screenshot: YouTube

Having adopted a “If you can’t beat ’em, build a castle bigger than theirs and mock them for having such a shitty little castle” attitude in the wake of his previous defeat, Wario’s first solo outing transformed him into a bigger, fatter, meaner Indiana Jones, scooping up the world’s lost goodies in order to fund his spiteful endeavors. Smashing his way through pirates, collecting treasures, and—for the first time ever—chowing down on power-inducing garlic, his breath-demolishing answer to Mario’s beloved mushrooms, Wario became one of gaming’s premiere treasure hunters. He raided tombs recklessly; he butt-stomped with aplomb. He hurled coins at his enemies like the world’s most hateful strip club customer. Unlike just about every other protagonist in Nintendo’s roster, Wario was in it for himself, with a stated goal, not of rescuing kidnapped heads of state, but of walking away with the biggest bank account balance that he could lay his big ol’ grubby hands on.

The Wario Land games became the vehicle for this ongoing treasure hunter schtick, featuring four numbered titles (all developed by R&D1), as well as several spin-offs—including the game that carries the ignoble distinction of being quite possibly the best game on Nintendo’s least successful console, Virtual Boy Wario Land. But Wario wouldn’t be Wario if he was content resting on his well-stuffed laurels, and so the Wario Land games also continued to be the places where Nintendo was at its most bizarrely innovative with the supposedly solved tenets of platforming design. Expanding massively on the “alternate exits” level design ideas Nintendo had explored with the Super Nintendo’s Super Mario World, Wario Land turned standard platforming action into a wide-ranging, secret-filled treasure hunt. The drive to shake things up was clearest with Wario Lands II and III—the latter of which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week—which not only crafted levels designed to be entered and explored multiple times, but also abolished one of the mainstay mechanics of the platforming genre: Death.

Instead of handing out myriad murders, enemies in the Wario Land games became obstacles as well as potential power-ups, with Wario developing an almost Looney Tunes-esque capacity for slapstick transformation, turning into a giant spring, a lumbering zombie, or even just a fast-moving idiot with his ass on fire as circumstances (and his injuries) dictated. The lack of death didn’t reduce the difficulty—III, especially, delights in sticking players with transformations that can force Wario to redo major sections of a level—but it did radically redefine the scope of what a Nintendo platformer could be. Seeds that the Wario Land games planted have continued to emerge across the gaming landscape for decades to follow.

But despite the success, and legacy, of Wario Land, its titular “hero” wasn’t content to be a mere guinea pig for Nintendo’s most out-there design experiments. True to form, Wario was insistent on barging in and making some of his own damn games, too.

Wario: Game Designer

Illustration for article titled The fartman cometh: Celebrating the many careers of Wario, Nintendo’s stinky, cheating genius
Screenshot: YouTube

It’s telling that nobody ever actually asked for 2003’s WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgames! to exist. Cobbled together from the remains of an earlier project by designers thinking up the weirdest mini-games they could imagine on their free time, the game was basically presented to Nintendo management as an already-mostly-done thing, which the higher-ups then gave a shrug to, stuck Wario’s name on, and then released. Propelled by its fast-paced, three-second-long microgames—which ran the gamut from jumping over a single obstacle, to playing through teensy portions of The Legend Of Zelda, to jamming a giant finger in a nose—and its sense of sheer, rapid-fire absurdity, WarioWare turned out to be a huge hit on the GameBoy Advance. And suddenly, Wario’s second life as a game designer was on.

Weirdly, the nine games in the ensuing WarioWare franchise might present Wario at his nicest; sure, he still likes money, but he’s also positioned as merely a grouchy boss to whom his various witch, delivery girl, and DJ employees don’t pay much mind. He mostly spends his time riding around on his motorcycle, eating, and not apparently noticing how many of the games his subordinates submit revolve around photorealistic cats. (It’s hard to imagine, given the quality and subject matter of most of his “releases,” that he spends even a microsecond working on QA.) But if Wario himself was a little more laid-back, the games themselves were no less relentless, pushing the limits of every piece of hardware they were released on—and as the years progressed, a great WarioWare game frequently became a sales pitch for everything a new Nintendo console could do.

Nowhere was that clearer than in 2006’s WarioWare: Smooth Moves, quite possibly the most robust workout that Nintendo’s motion-sensitive Wii hardware ever got. Rather than tasking players with a simple, pedestrian game of bowling or tennis, Smooth Moves put the WiiMote through its paces, asking players to use it as a remote control, hammer, umbrella, and, most memorably—and as described in the game’s delightfully whacked-out narration, which encouraged players to put the controller directly up to their nose to do so—as an elephant’s reaching trunk. It was an incredible artifact for inducing human beings to do silly, stupid things, and it proceeded in the tradition of a number of other WarioWare games—Twisted, Touched, Snapped, etc.—that showed people that gaming could be more than just sitting quietly and pushing the buttons on the screen.

The most revolutionary WarioWare game, though, was also one of the series’ final installments: The 3DS’ WarioWare D.I.Y., which is also celebrating an anniversary (its 10th) as we go to press. Less a game than a game creation kit, D.I.Y. walked players through a surprisingly robust set of game-making and programming tools, allowing them to craft their own absurd little minigames at will. Laying groundwork that the Mario Maker games would build upon to far more successful effect a few years down the road, D.I.Y. was quite possibly a bit too far ahead of its time. (Sharing your creations was never as easy as it needed to be, for one.) And yet, it’s also a perfect example of the Wario Spirit: A game that defied easy classification, except in so far as it represented something bold, messy, and new.

But even as R&D1 and its successors were rapidly re-defining the definition of what a Wario title might be, others were putting in the work to define, for the vast majority of people, who Wario actually is. Which brings us, with a hearty cry of “I’m-a Wario, I’m a gonna win,” to the last of the character’s three major vocations.

Wario: Total Asshole

Ah, yes: Wario, the unsporting sportsman. Plenty of people might never have played even a single handheld Wario game or a WarioWare title, but pretty much everybody who knew anybody who owned a Nintendo 64 in the 1990s and 2000s has played Mario Kart 64a game whose soundscape was frequently dominated by the braying cackles and boasts of Nintendo’s first certified asshole-American.

As the first of Nintendo’s sports titles to feature the Large, Smelly Man, MK64 made sure to give him his proper heft, throwing his weight around a whole host of colorful courses. But to understand the real appeal of being Wario, all you have to do is compare the performance that voice actor Charles Martinet gives him in Mario Kart 64 to the one he applies to his far more famous role as Mario himself. The latter sounds half-asleep, even in moments of ostensible triumph. But Wario sounds alive, exultant, exuberant at the prospect of fucking up someone else’s day. In 13 seconds of audio crammed onto a crowded N64 cart, you learn everything you need to know about him. He loves winning. He loves other people not winning. He loves “Waaaaaaaagggghhh.” Mario might be a hero, and Bowser might be a villain. But Wario is a jerk, and sometimes, we all just want to be the jerk.

Luckily, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to do so, as Wario long ago secured his place among Mario’s roster of friends, families, and war criminals who he’s willing to regularly play tennis and other lawn games with. In fact, he’s so built into Nintendo’s various sports and fighting franchises at this point that he was even able to drag along his own plus-one, the detestable Waluigi—who, we can only assume, was birthed, fully formed and glistening, on some dark and godless night from Wario’s wide and hideous maw.

But while there have been plenty of great Wario appearances in Nintendo’s more athletic gaming series, the most important of them all came in Wii soccer game Mario Strikers Charged. Why, you ask? Because that, dear readers, was the game in which Wario was first allowed to fart on command.

If it sounds like we’re fixated on Wario’s programmatic cheese cutting, there’s a perfectly good reason: We’re children. But also, and more importantly, there’s the fact that each burst of flatulence—so boldly defiant of the Nintendo image, often classy to the point of outright sterility—is a loudly blasting mission statement for the ethos of Wario himself, lurking deep within the company’s guts. The flipped letters on their hats might position Mario and Wario as mirror images of each other, but the real dichotomy between them isn’t “good” vs. “bad.” It’s man versus machine, with Mario—Metal Cap or not—as the glossy and perfect corporate symbol, and Wario as the flawed, funny, fart-y human being he’s in firm opposition against. Wario isn’t Mario’s opposite because he’s a villain; he’s his opposite because he has a personality.

When the team designing WarioWare needed a public face to slap on their insane little experiment, they picked Wario because “he’s always doing stupid things,” a perfect encapsulation of why he’s so much fun to be. Doing stupid things can be disastrous, as anyone who’s ever gleefully ridden the Wario Bike straight off a stage in Super Smash Bros. can attest. But it’s also how you find the next great thing, whether that’s boisterously stomping across the world in search of treasure, encouraging millions of players to dance around their living rooms with a controller sitting on top of their heads, or just enjoying the pleasures of a simple fart. In that way, Wario captures the split at the heart of Nintendo, a company full of very conservative people who occasionally make some of the industry’s wildest swings in pursuit of the next big thing. Was there a tiny, garlic-chomping goblin sitting on its executives’ shoulders when they considered the frankly insane plan to merge the company’s handheld and home console branches into a single system—a.k.a. the massively successful Switch? Maybe. All we know if that Wario would have loved the possibilities the smash hit console presents, and that the absence of a new WarioWare game on the handheld remains a real shame to the legacy of all the things—good, bad, flatulent, weird, and more—that he means to the company. Come back to us, you smelly Adonis. Return to us, oh Odysseus of stink. We miss you, jerk.

Just, uh, leave Waluigi at home next time, okay?