Monday, 7 December 2015

Popping Pills Portably (Dr. Mario Miracle Cure Review)

Back in the days when I had a Nintendo 64, there was a handful of games that I used to play a lot. One of them was Dr. Mario 64, which I vividly remember for having a Paper Mario look to it. It was a very odd game as the main content focused on a story where you try to get megavitamins back from a scientist dude as Wario helps you out on your journey. You fight such unique and remarkable enemies like...a spider...a caterpillar...and a jellyfish. Needless to say, it wasn't all that exciting. But to be fair, it's not like anyone plays a puzzle game for a story. Especially if it's like Dr. Mario. I was more interested in eradicating those primary-colored viruses with their matching pills to move from stage to stage. The challenge was what really brought me to Dr. Mario 64, and it was a great bonding tool as I used to play with my mother in Versus mode to see who would eliminate all of the viruses first or who would trip up first. It was a fun experience for all, but sadly I had to give away my Nintendo 64 away along with all of those games. I don't necessarily regret doing so, but it certainly left me with no way to delight in the act of killing microscopic creatures that didn't involve a nice herbal tea.

Only years later did I find myself coming across the latest installment in the series, Dr. Mario Miracle Cure for the 3DS. At that moment, the memories came flooding back and the money loosened itself from my wallet into the system. I couldn't recreate the same scenario I did when I was younger since my mother doesn't have her own 3DS, but I could at least come back to a familiar setting. Turning on the game, I was greeted by the theme music, and upon seeing the Italian plumber in his medical get-up next to an unusually large virus, I was brimming with joy. There he was, Dr. Mario. Returning to me once again outside of a fighting arena. And right next to him, his brother donned a similar apparel. At first I found it to be quite odd, as there was nothing that was indicating that Luigi would want to pursue a medical degree. But in all fairness, it wasn't like we saw Mario studying human biology on the side of his rescuing of the princess. Besides, two's company and three's a crowd, and lord knows we gotta send that oversized puffball of pestilence to hell.

For those of you unaware with Dr. Mario, the objective of the game is to destroy all the viruses in the vial by matching them up with their respective pill half. Pills drop down from the screen and you can move them left or right, rotate them or swap their colors. It takes three consecutive pill halves to eliminate a virus. If you get the wrong pill half on a pill half chain (which you will do, trust me), you can eliminate it by adding three more pill halves of the same color to it. As complicated as I make it sound, it really is no harder than Bejeweled. There were four options to choose from, the Miracle Cure Laboratory, the Custom Clinic, Online Battle and Local Match. I first went with the Miracle Cure Laboratory, perhaps expecting another story mode of sorts that was perhaps more engaging and had new characters that could stimulate some sort of response besides boredom. That was not really the case. Like a regular laboratory, it mostly consisted of tedious, repetitive tasks that required the utmost of precision. You could choose from the basic laboratory, the advanced laboratory or the training laboratory. In each one, there was a series of levels that mostly consisted of the viruses being arranged in unique ways and then you were left with the task of getting rid of all of them. Sometimes you'd be Dr. Mario, other times you'd be Dr. Luigi, sometimes you were alone, other times you were playing against your brother. It was more drab than a hospital wall.

For Dr. Mario, it's your standard game. You throw one pill at a time and you go about your process normally. Generally speaking, the Dr. Mario levels were reasonably challenging. There weren't too many points where I felt the game was being cheap with me, and it maintained the same flow as it always had. Dr. Luigi, on the other hand, is a rat fucker of a gameplay mode. The gimmick of their levels is that you get two pills at the same time, in the form of a L. Sounds cute, right? Well, wait until you actually play the levels, because you'll either have to restart a few times or keep stacking up pills until you get the right one to finish the level. The Dr. Luigi levels would be constructed in such a manner that it would be incredibly inconvenient for you to get rid of a virus without shitting on another one. You spend more time removing unnecessary pill halves than you do clearing the viruses. Not to mention that it leaves you with less opportunity to make a wrong move since one wrong L-pill can result in a game over right from the very start. It made me want to shove the Poltergeist 5000 inside of that lean, mean, green pill-pushing machine's input slot and turn it on to full blast.

Now it may seem that I'm complaining about a game being challenging. I certainly respect that a game has to offer some difficulty. The thing is that this format makes it less the fault of the player than it does the quick reaction time to an inconvenient shape. With Dr. Mario's gameplay, the single pill was fitting because it took up enough room on the screen for you to register what it was along with surroundings. You had ample time to make the necessary movements and color swaps before you moved on to the next. Dr. Luigi gives you a pill that is more uncomfortable to visualize in the space and does not configure as smoothly to the playing field.  It's even worse when playing against the CPU because it's running through an established algorithm at a considerable speed as you find yourself surprised by how your seemingly normal move caused more problems than it fixed. It's not impossible, mind you. Much as I complain about how much of a bastard Dr. Luigi's gameplay format is, it can be mastered. But it doesn't feel satisfying to do so since all it reminds you of is a poor man's Tetris. 

Perhaps another important thing to note is that the game has a powerup meter. That is to say as you eliminate viruses and accumulate points, a bar goes up, then allowing you to use the powerup as the next pill. You have a C pill which gets rid of all the pill halves that are of the same color, a V pill that removes all of the viruses of the same color, a horizontal/vertical/cross arrow pill that gets rid of anything that crosses its respective path and a bomb pill that blows up the area around it. For the C and V pills, you have to treat them as pill halves and either match them to a virus and two other pill halves or three pill halves. These were godsends in the Dr. Luigi stages as they opened up the area for more flexibility. These powerups would also be necessary for tedious levels. Sometimes the level would be constructed in a way that you would get no pill that could work to get rid of one virus on the screen. So you had to keep making combos until you finally filled up the bar to the right powerup and placed it in the right spot. The act itself would take minutes, but it would feel like hours as you keep anticipating the slight increase in the bar. Another issue is that by having the powerups, it both makes it less challenging for the player and highlights the poor level design of the stages.

After playing some online matches to get in a sunnier mood about this game (because I don't know anyone who has a 3DS and this game in real life), I decide to try the Custom Clinic. At first I was sort of expecting that you could create your own stages, but that wouldn't really have that much worth in the game. Instead, it just allows you to play the Dr. Mario and Dr. Luigi modes in the difficulty of your choice as well as giving you the ability to choose whether you want to play with power-ups or not and if you want to go solo or against the CPU. Now this is the kind of gameplay I want from my Dr. Mario game! None of this gimmicky shit. Although, now that we're on the subject, there is a third mode I've neglected to mention. That being the Virus Buster mode.

Virus Buster is the only touch screen based mode. It basically is the same as Dr. Mario but instead you move the pills with your stylus, rotate them by touching them and you can move pill halves as well. And it is boring. So boring. The pills move at a sluggish pace, and once you manage to get a match, it just feels like you solved a very simple jigsaw puzzle. It tries to be difficult by adding more pills for you to handle as you proceed, and while it did trip me up a few times, it was easy to get a handle of. It doesn't help that the music is so relaxed and soft that it feels like it's lulling me to sleep. I'm surprised I could stay awake through even the shortest and easiest of stages.

In the end, I feel like Dr. Mario Miracle Cure was a placebo of a game. It tried to offer me the same sort of fun and challenge that I had felt before, and for a while I sort of felt it. The familiar music with all it's peppiness did great to distract me and I had a ball playing the online matches, but then it just managed to confound me with its gimmicks. Some of them are fun, others are frustrating but they overall muddle the difficulty of the game itself. There was no need to Tetrify Dr. Mario with the lesser Dr. Luigi and Virus Blaster could have been a lot more exciting if it was sped up, tweaked around and didn't have a Xanax of a theme. Plus, I had to deal with the violent shift from insultingly easy to insultingly hard so much, I think it caused internal bleeding in my brain from trying to handle the changes. It certainly was a well made placebo, and it did make me feel glad I could fill the Dr. Mario experience again, but it's simply superficial. I can see myself coming back to it ever so often because of how convenient it is and because it manages to conserve the original format of the franchise it's a part of, but aside from that, I'm going to have to get my real fix somewhere else.

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