Mole Mania
Platform:  Game Boy
Players:  1-2 (when linked)
Super Game Boy Enhanced

    Regardless of how you feel about Nintendo today or in the past, you have to admit that Shigeru Miyamoto is one of the most influential people in the history of video games.  His ability to design quality games from the 8 bit era to the modern day is something few others have even remotely come close to doing.  While I'm one of the last people that will go on record saying every game he's ever worked on was an amazing title, his industry defining creations such as Donkey Kong, Mario and Zelda have really stood the test of time and helped shape the face of gaming as many of us know it.  At this point it is hard to find a title that he worked on that most people don't know and treasure but there's one gem of a Game Boy game that many seem to overlook.  This superb combination of action reflexes and intense puzzles should have been one of the most fondly remembered titles of the platform - but it wasn't.  Would you believe that it all had to do with poor timing?  In Japan the game was released shortly after the original incarnations of the Pokemon games and never stood a chance to even make a dent in sales.  Once the game had its North American release the Game Boy market had just about dried up.  Pokemon Red and Blue were still awhile away from being released so there wasn't much attention being paid to the aging Game Boy hardware.  It's a shame, as Mole Mania is an awesome title and quite possibly one of the most perfect puzzle games for a handheld.

Description:  Muddy Mole returns home one day to find that the farmer Jinbe has kidnapped his wife and seven children.  Each of his children have been taken to a different part of Jinbe Land.  Seven worlds make up Jinbe Land in addition to Jinbe's castle.  One of Muddy's children are being held captive by a boss under the control of Jinbe at the end of each level and Muddy's wife is being held at Jinbe's castle.  Access to the castle is only opened once all seven levels are complete, however after completing the first level the remaining ones can be completed in any order.  Each level gets progressively difficult, usually utilizing tricks and game play elements introduced in the previous levels.  Due to this progressive challenge and learning curve, it's suggested to play the levels in order.

The basic premise of each level is simple.  The levels are made up of a series of interconnected screens that act as a linear maze, the later the level, the more screens that it contains.  This means that the levels get longer the further you play.  The main objective of each screen is to open the exit by pushing or throwing a bomb into a stone square that blocks the exit.  Once this is complete, any steel blockers or enemies on the screen disappear and Muddy is allowed to continue on his journey.  The catch is that there is only one bomb per stone square (some screens have multiple exits that lead to bonus areas or the like) and the trick to the game is to find a way to get the bomb over to the block and blow the exit open.  Of course the screens aren't that straightforward.  Areas will be littered with obstacles that can help, hinder or do both to your progress.  Steel blockers can be pushed but not pulled and allow a thrown object to stop against them.  Barrels can fill open holes, allowing objects to be moved across them.  Pipes change the direction of barrels or bombs thrown through them and are used to bank objects around tight corners.  Cabbages could be considered the main bonus item of Mole Mania.  There are twenty cabbages per level and while they can be used as blockers, every five that are thrown in an open hole allow Muddy to recover one quarter of his life meter.  There are also arrows that redirect objects that come into contact with them, spiked areas that cannot be crossed (however objects can be moved over them) and moving enemies - lots of enemies.

Being a mole, Muddy has a unique ability that lends itself to what makes the game stand out from similar titles such as Adventures of Lolo.  Anywhere there is soft soil, Muddy can dig a hole and the underground world becomes visible.  Here, Muddy can navigate below the above ground hazards and surface anywhere else there is soft soil.  This dual level design is critical to planning strategies for clearing each screen.  If the bomb is dropped into a hole anywhere on the screen, it will reappear back at its starting point.  That's where the barrels come in.  A plugged up hole will allow the bomb to be thrown or dragged across without submerging.  However a barrel filled hole also acts as an irremovable blocker underground.  Additionally the below ground world can lend itself to just as many navigational challenges at the world above.  As long as soft ground permits, Muddy can take a peek above ground from below the surface without making a hole.  This is critical to "look before you leap" to avoid enemy encounters or an incorrectly placed hole.  While most enemies stay above ground, there is one type that submerges just like Muddy and follows the tunnels beneath.  All standard enemies can be dispatched by having a thrown cabbage, barrel or bomb come into contact with them.  Muddy has a life meter that consists of four quadrants.  Each hit from an enemy or contact with a moving object will take one away, once the meter is empty it's game over.  If Muddy ends up making a screen impossible to solve, exiting and entering the screen will reset it.  Every few screens Gramps mole will offer a life meter refill as well as some words of advice.  There are also signboards throughout the world of Jinbe Land with messages to help the player and advance the story.

In addition to the core game there are four special objects hidden throughout each level.  A map will show a grid layout of the level on the status screen.  The little radar will show where the boss, bonus stage, and life meter recharge areas are.  A potion will refill your heart meter one time.  Finally a hand will allow you to skip a screen you were unable to complete, however it will not be counted as cleared.  The bonus stages consist of attempting to clear the screen of cabbages by throwing them down holes while Jinbe gives chase.  The bonus stages can be lost and retried as many times as the player would like, there's no penalty for losing them.  However the reward for completing the bonus stages doesn't happen until the end of each level.  At the end of each level the statistics are displayed for how the player did.  Everything the player did within the level counts toward a level ranking and ultimately the level completion score.  For 100 points every area on the map must have been cleared, all four bonus items must have been collected, all twenty cabbages must have been dropped into a hole, and the bonus stage must have been completed as well.  Quite the challenge, especially on the later levels.

Graphics:  As with the basic game play, Adventures of Lolo comes to mind when I think of the graphics.  Every movable object on the screen has on average the same size which plays in perfectly with the idea of the screens being broken down into grids.  The level of detail for the old Game Boy is very good, right around the level of detail that Link's Awakening has.  That's actually a pretty good comparison as both games feature fluid, detailed movement.  All objects and enemies are clearly illustrated and easy to identify.  Cabbages blend in just enough with some of the backgrounds on the later levels but that's part of the challenge of finding them all.  Muddy and Jinbe are both well drawn as are the cutscenes that play between levels and the signboards that help with information.  Each boss character is completely different from one another and most take up three to four times as much space as the standard enemies.  The bosses in this game really are super detailed and react to damage with different animations.  The Snowman boss in particular actually splits off into smaller versions of himself as the battle goes on.  There's very little slowdown or flicker and everything remains sharp throughout the entire game.

Sound:  I've read some complaints about the sound design, particularly the music.  Personally I have no idea what they're taking about.  Sound effects are virtually nonexistent.  There are the expected sounds when objects collide, when enemies are defeated, when damage is taken - all of these have the standard passable sound and are nothing to praise or shun.  The music consists of a handful of catchy background tunes and event specific jingles such as when a screen is cleared or a boss appears.  I really enjoy the music of this game and think it fits perfectly with the type of gameplay.  Never once did I turn the volume off and never once did the music or sound effects become even the least bit irritating.  It's no Super Mario Land but the audio is still quite good.

Play Control:  With a puzzle game that demands precise movement one would hope that control would be perfect and with Mole Mania it is.  The basics can be figured out within a couple minutes of play and advanced techniques are explained throughout the game by the use of signboards.  Any lapse in control will be caused by a break in concentration, usually resulting in fifteen minutes of planning being smashed apart in a couple seconds.  Solid game play all around and perfect controls are a big part of that.

Replay:  There's a lot of game to be had initially, especially if you're going for 100% completion.  Sadly there are no special bonuses or extra features for completing the game 100%.  In fact the game feels a tiny bit unfinished after the credits roll and you are brought to the final statistics area.  The two player mode is basically the bonus stage played with one player as Muddy and the other as Jinbe, so there's really not a lot there either.  Really working hard at it, it took me a little over seven hours to complete the game, going by the in game clock.  I played the game over the course of three days in long spurts.  Of course if you're just playing a few screens here and there on the go, the over all time you can get out of this game will be far longer.  Some of the screens take as long as fifteen to twenty minutes to figure out and then put into motion - not counting a last minute screwup.  I wish the over all replay was higher but really, after completing the game you probably won't want to come back for awhile.  That said, that first playthrough is a total blast and well worth your time.

Final Verdict:  An unsung classic, simply put.  If you like overhead puzzle games such as Boxxle and Adventures of Lolo then you'll probably love Mole Mania.  It's a combination of both titles with a bunch of stuff in motion the entire time.  The only huge drawback are those bonus stages which are awful.  They're simply much too difficult and end up feeling like a huge chore - quite the contradiction to what most think of concerning a bonus stage.  On top of that the reward for completing them is nothing but the final twenty points to get 100 for a perfect clear of the level, which in itself doesn't change anything other than knowing you got 100%.  The boss stages each require different strategy and are very interesting combinations of thinking and reacting.  Fighting Jinbe at the end of the game will pose quite a challenge to even the most experienced gamer - I know I wanted to flip my Game Boy across the room a couple times.  Mole Mania is Super Game Boy enhanced, sporting a nice palette and custom boarder.  Anyone looking for a great puzzle game to take on the go couldn't do much better than Mole Mania.  At the time of this writing you can get a copy for between $5 - $10 as it's still relatively unknown yet fairly common.

Written on 09-24-09 by David,

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