Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dr. Mario Online Rx review

Developer: Arika
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: May 26th, 2008
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone

Mario has taken on many different jobs over the years. From his base occupation of plumber, Nintendo's mascot has also been a soccer player, tennis star, kart racer and even a toy factory tycoon. None of these jobs would have been possible, though, had it not been for the NES title Dr. Mario. This was the first Mario game ever to portray him as something other than a plumber (Excluding his "Jumpman" persona in Donkey Kong), and it paved the way for many genre-breaking games starring everyone's favourite Italian plumber. Dr. Mario is a very important title to the history of Nintendo, and it finally made the transition to WiiWare in Dr. Mario Online Rx.

Dr. Mario Online Rx is just like any other Dr. Mario game. Each level sees the good doctor (Or the player's Mii, if desired) tossing pills into a bottle-shaped playing field to destroy the primary-coloured viruses. The gameplay is quite simply, really, just like any puzzle game should be. Just match up four or more of the same colour in a row (Vertically or horizontally, but not diagonally), and it disappears. Those four can be any combination of viruses and pills, too, so it's possible to take out multiple viruses in one hit, as well as just destroy some junk pieces that are lying around.

To maneuver the pill into position, it can be rotated either clockwise or counter-clockwise, and move left or right as it slowly descends. There is no way to move a pill upwards, so thinking fast is key. If players don't move quickly, the pills will pile up. A full bottle means game over, so be attentive!

Those little buggers won't be smiling for long...

Every single-player round starts off on a level of the player's choosing, and the higher the level, the more viruses there are to be destroyed. The player can only select levels on a chart from 0 to 20, although beating level 20 does lead to 21, 22, 23, and so on. Eventually, the amount of viruses added to each level gets to a limit, and the only remaining factor of increasing difficulty is stamina (Although players can increase the falling speed at the options screen, but not during a game). I can hardly beat level 17, so I shudder at what playing fifty levels-straight of the exact same brutal difficulty! My eyes and hands would surely disintegrate (In that order, too)!

Each level has a preset high score, and one of the goals (Other than survival) is to surpass it. Getting a high score depends heavily on setting up combos. When destroying a virus or spare pills, any capsules left out of the match-up will fall to the bottom of the jar. If enough pills fall onto a like-coloured target further down in the bottle, the object will be destroyed immediately, thus creating a combo. In fact, if it weren't for space constraints, it would be perfectly possible to set up an infinite combo.

Basically, that's the entirety of Dr. Mario right there. Just keep tossing those pills in and fighting off the viruses, wash, rinse, repeat. Nothing ever really changes other than the virus count, so that's kind of a bummer. I though it'd be cool if your pills started to speed up in the higher levels, but that just isn't so. Although, after voicing my concerns on difficulty earlier, perhaps it's best for my sanity that this doesn't happen.

Also present in Dr. Mario Online Rx is another variant on the game called Virus Buster. Originally a bonus game in Brain Age 2: More Brain Training in Minutes a Day, Virus Buster is like a simplified version of the basic Dr. Mario formula. Instead of moving the pills with the D-pad, they instead have to be grabbed with the Wii remote's pointer and A button. The pills are rotated by holding the cursor over them, and tapping either A (Clockwise) or B (Counter-clockwise). This can be a bit of a problem, though, seeing as the A button serves two functions. While holding the button grabs the pill, tapping the button rotates it. Accidentally grabbing a pill when meaning to rotate it can mess you up pretty easily. As if it weren't hectic enough in Dr. Mario!

Virus Buster makes its console debut in Dr. Mario Online Rx

Virus Buster increases the difficulty each level in a manner similar to Dr. Mario, but with one minor addition. In Virus Buster, several pieces begin to fall at the same time when a certain amount of time passes. Up to three pills can fall at once, requiring quick reflexes in order to succeed.

Another minor change is the ability to grab and manipulate falling debris. This adds a new level of strategy to the game, allowing players to quickly scramble to salvage all they can of their combo leftovers. A pretty neat little evolution of the game, and I certainly welcome it.

Generally, the gameplay in Virus Buster is pretty solid. However, I have noticed one minor glitch. It is very possible to drag a piece through a solid line of pills and viruses, pulling it over to the other side of the obstruction. While not game-breakingly bad, it's an annoying little quirk that shouldn't have been present in the final version. It kind of removes some of the challenge when a pill can merely be swiped through a tower of objects. Still, I'm surprised to see it in the final release.

Ultimately, I still prefer the original Dr. Mario heavily over Virus Buster. It's still nice to see a new take on a classic, though, and I applaud the developer for giving a good try.

Dr. Mario and Virus Buster still use the same basic presentation of the previous titles, except with cleaner 3D models making up the doctors and viruses. The pills and viruses in the playing field itself are still nothing more than sprites, although they are incredibly crisp and lively, especially with Virus Buster's enlarged display. The 3D main screen and milestone animations are really clean, too. Overall, Dr. Mario Online Rx is a very good-looking puzzler.

If there's one video game song that has really stuck with me over the years, it's the Dr. Mario main theme. That catchy little tune constantly surfaces as I hum during my daily chores. Thankfully, the original soundtrack and more from the NES game have returned in Dr. Mario Online Rx, completely remixed and just downright amazing. The game includes four catchy tunes to choose from, each one with its own medical-themed name: Chill, Fever, Sneeze and Cough. Personally, I'm a "Chill" kinda guy. Can't go wrong with a classic!

A little less fantastic, though, are the sound effects, which never amount to more than standard puzzle game fare. Blips, bloops, and a few garbled yells from the viruses are all you really get. Despite the simplicity, though, I can't really think of anything I'd change.

Some of my fondest gaming memories are of playing Dr. Mario on the NES with my family, and I got to relive those glory days again through Online Rx. The multiplayer is basically the same as the normal game, but with one minor twist. When players pull off a combo, blocks corresponding to those destroyed descend upon the other player's screen. For a two-piece combo, two blocks will fal, and then three for a three-piece combo, and finally, four for a four-piece combo. However, any combo larger than that doesn't attack the opponent any more than a four-piece combo would. You can still show off your insane Dr. Mario skills, but your opponent will feel no additional blow (Other than a psychological one).

Multiplayer: Good, clean, frantic fun.

There are two ways to win a round of multiplayer Dr. Mario: Clearing all the viruses on your half of the screen, or by causing the opponent to block the top of the bottle with pills (Just like losing in the single-player game).

Sadly, the four-player mode from Dr. Mario 64 is absent in Online Rx. Only two players may battle it out at once, which is a bit of a drag. Two player is still fun, but having four would be a blast.

Virus Buster also has its own multiplayer mode, but unlike the standard game, it is cooperative. Players instead work together on one bottle to destroy all the viruses, and teamwork is definitely key here. Also, unlike Dr. Mario, Virus Buster supports up to four players. Call the parents, it's a virus-busting party!

Virus Buster opens the door for four players to get in on the fun.

Finally, players can also take the battle online with Dr. Mario (Pretty much a given due to the "Online Rx" in its name), fighting against both friends and strangers from all around the world. The ranking system in Dr. Mario Online Rx is much like that of Mario Kart Wii. Each player starts off with 5000 points when they first go online. Each win adds points, and each loss takes away points. This helps determine match-ups in game, making it so you always face people of a similar skill level.

I've experienced nothing but perfectly smooth, lag-free gaming in all the time I've played Dr. Mario online. Connecting is quick, finding opponents is a matter of seconds, and the battles start almost immediately after you find someone to play against. Impressive, especially for a WiiWare release. Dr. Mario Online Rx definitely scores some big points in this department.

I think it's somewhat silly to even ask how long this game will last, but, it's a necessary part of the review. The simple answer is, I've been playing practically this exact same game for almost my whole life, and I never get tired of it. Having it on the Wii is just so much more convenient than resurrecting my NES. And now, if nobody else is home, I can still find an opponent online. Dr. Mario Online Rx is sure to be one of my most-played WiiWare games, if not my most-played Wii game altogether. You just can't beat the classics.


Gameplay: 9.0/10
Dr. Mario has always been a favourite franchise of mine, and now I get to enjoy it all over again. I just love this puzzle design, and it never seems to get old. And Virus Buster, while it has its flaws, still manages to bring something fresh and fun to the Dr. Mario formula. Online Rx is a winning package in my books.

Graphics: 8.0/10
Everything is just so bright and crisp in Online Rx, although the majority of the graphics are still two-dimensional and sprite based. The 3D doctors and viruses flanking the play field are very nice touches, though. The pills and viruses in-play look even better when magnified in Virus Buster, making Online Rx pretty good-looking for a puzzle game.

Audio: 8.25/10
All original songs from past Dr. Mario games make a return in Online Rx, newly remixed and just as catchy as before. While the music is fantastic, the sound effects never go beyond anything you'd expect from a standard puzzle game.

Multiplayer: 9.3/10
Everything to do with multiplayer in Online Rx is an absolute blast. Playing against a friend, working with your family or pummeling some sap across the globe, it's all just so much fun. The only real problem I have is the lack of four-player Dr. Mario, which would have been a great addition. Otherwise, Dr. Mario's multiplayer is flawless.

Longevity: 9.7/10
I've been playing Dr. Mario nearly my whole life, and there's nothing stopping me from carrying on this legacy with Online Rx. It's an amazing upgrade of one of my favourite puzzlers ever, and I could definitely spend a whole day playing nothing but this.

OVERALL: 9.3/10
Dr. Mario Online Rx is a fantastic puzzle game in almost every way. From playing alone to fighting a friend to destroying some dude in Europe, Dr. Mario is a blast no matter how I look at it. Virus Buster adds a bit of variety to the mix, and while it could use a bit of polishing, it's still a welcome addition. Online Rx is sure to be a staple of my gaming habits for a long time.

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