Here's a question: why in Super Smash Bros. Brawl does Captain Olimar get to commit Pikmin genocide in his fight against Solid Snake while Chibi-Robo (seen below) can't free himself from his coin-shaped prison?
Let the debate about the merits of a plug-based Amiibo butt-plug begin.
Both Chibi and Olimar come from quirky, colorful, Nintendo-published games from the GameCube, so by that definition neither were all that successful. But the key difference is perhaps the fact that Pikmin was developed in-house by Nintendo and Chibi-Robo was not. Routinely, Nintendo's least recognized IPs are those created by outside developers, things like Dillon's Rolling Western, Sin & Punishment, Golden Sun, etc. That seems to be Nintendo's M.O. With the exception of like... the WiiU... Nintendo is pretty loath to abandon their own children, sometimes to the detriment of their partners. "Oh, you think we should put in Isaac from Golden Sun into Brawl? A character from a much beloved RPG series made by our good friends at Camelot who hope to make more games and could benefit from the publicity? Nah, we're gonna revive Pit from [the then-dead-for-17-years-franchise] Kid Icarus and make him overpowered and give him an annoying voice. And then 6 years from now we'll also add Dark Pit and Palutena!"
So if Nintendo has shown it will go out of its way to not forget it's own... then why the fuck does no one talk about Muddy Mole?!
The above picture from 2018's Super Smash Bros. Ultimate represents the first reference to Muddy Mole and the game he originates from (the GameBoy's box-pushing, puzzle masterpiece Mole Mania) since that game's release in Japan in 1996 and the rest of the world in 1997. No trophy in Melee or Brawl... not even a sticker.
Ok, fine. That's technically not true.
There... the game was also recognized in the Chronicles mode from 2008's Brawl... but so was the VirtualBoy, so it's a low bar.
But why I think this is so interesting is that Mole Mania was not some second-party effort. It was developed by Nintendo EAD alongside Pax Softnica. Together those developers had previously pumped out the GameBoy gems Ballon Kid and the much-revered Donkey Kong '94. Elsewhere, Ron Duwell has higlighted the overlooked efforts of Masayuki Kameyama, the director of both Donkey Kong '94 AND Mole Mania, and Duwell attributes much of the greatness of both games to Kameyama's efforts. Still, a quick look at the literature surrounding Mole Mania reveals only one name to be of any real significance.
That's right! This is a Shigeru Miyamoto production! Now, it's not clear the extent to which Miyamoto had a real hand in this game, or even if he should be credited as its creator as some have done. In Japan, this game came out just a month after Super Mario 64, so it's safe to assume that Miyamoto's priorities were not firmly set on our rodent friend. Yet, read any article or review about Mole Mania, particularly after its re-release on the 3DS eShop in 2012, and you'd think this was a personal pet project of Miyamoto.
Regardless, the literature around Mole Mania is fairly uniform. These articles generally empasize the uniqueness of a forgotten Miyamoto game, then tell you that it's pretty good, and declare it a forgotten gem. Still, for such uniform literature, the game is still not uniformly recognized. Looking at "best of" lists for the Gameboy, some big publications (NintendoLife & Polygon) put it somewhere in the 20-11 range, while other sources like BusinessInsider, GameInformer, and GamesRadar don't rank it at all. It's hard to tell whether people just don't think the game is that great... or if people just haven't played it.
Put simply, this game didn't sell well... like at all. I can't find any hard sales data to back this, but I have some anecdotal evidence. In a recent review on GameTyrant, the reviewer notes that they remember seeing stacks of Mole Mania populate the bargain bins in the late 90s, a story corroborrated by IGN's 1999 review. Though still in its infancy in 1997, IGN was most certainly a working gaming website when Mole Mania released. But no one bothered to review it until 1999 when the reviewer saw the game lying in a discount bin.
It's not like Nintendo didn't try to advertise it. They unleashed this horrifying 3D model of Muddy unto the world in the August 1996 issue of Nintendo Power:
Notice that his name here is "Digger D. Mole"... which is filthy sounding.
And then six issues later in February 1997, they gave it a six-page spread complete with an in-depth strategy guide, with the name now officially Muddy Mole.
Even though their (not super positive) review later in the issue reverts back to Digger D...
Maybe no one bought the game because Nintendo Power's review stated that, "That little voice in the back of your mind telling you to eat and sleep will be drowned out by the imperative to dig around bombs and throw cabbages at enemies."
So why didn't Mole Mania do better? Again I turn to Ron Duwell who notes that in Japan, Mole Mania released within four months of the uber-popular Pokémon games' debuts, which dwarfed any attempt by little Muddy Mole to make an impact. In America, the difficulty of launching a new IP combined with the increasingly aged look of the GameBoy''s aged puke-green visuals probably didn't help this game from ever leaving the launching pad. And just looking at the issues of Nintendo Power this game appears in, it's hard to care about a mole pushing around a bowling ball in August 1996 when the next article is a six-page spread on Mario 64. Similarly for the Februray 1997 issue, do you care more about moles and cabbages or being James Bond in Goldeneye or a dinosaur hunter in Turok? The release of the PlayStation in 1995 marked a definitive change in the gaming landscape that had been brewing since Sega allowed blood into Mortal Kombat. Audiences were drifting more and more towards mature and gritty titles like the massively-successful Resident Evil. Or, at the least within the realm of kid-friendly stuff, it's hard to be excited about pushing monochromatic bowling balls when the colorful world of Rayman existed elsewhere.
The game was painfully self-aware
But for all the reasons for this game to have failed... I have never known life without Mole Mania. I was only 2 years old when the game released in North America, and my older brother and fellow video game lover was 5. I can't imagine either of us were the reason Mole Mania entered our home. It was likely because of one of my three older sisters, each of whom loved the big brick GameBoy that is collecting dust somewhere in our parents' home, primarily as a vehicle to play Speedy Gonzalez or Super Mario Land 2. But someone among them, and I'll never know who, must have seen this game in a store, said, "Mom, I want this Mole game," and I will never know why.
But I'm happy they did. Like any child conscious in 1998, the game I spent the most time with was undoubtedly Pokémon, but the second was probably Mole Mania. The purpose of this article is not to tell you that this game is worth playing now. Obviously comparing Mole Mani(a a puzzler-platformer only slightly different from the NES-era Adventures of Lolo games) to anything coming out in 2021 is an unfair comparison. What I want to convey is that I think Mole Mania is a damn near perfect GameBoy game and perfectly captures the phiolosophy and fun that system could provide.
So what do you do in this game? Well much like Arkham Asylum makes you feel like Batman, Mole Mania fulfills your dreams of feeling like a mole! Let's just walk through a screen.
So the goal of pretty much any screen is to push (or throw) the bowling ball (blue) into the stone blocking your exit to the next screen (red). So here first I would push the ball one up.
But in order to get onto the left side of the ball, I need to think like a mole... and DIG!
Then I just gotta charge up my backwards throw and send it flying into the enemy and then into the exit-block.
Rinse and repeat for like... a hundred more levels. But much like this game's predecessor, Donkey Kong '94, the simple premise and simple mechanics hardly feel stretched thin. The game continually introduces new obstacles (elbow pipes that change the ball's direction, weights than can only be pushed and not pulled, barrels that plug up holes to make a bridge for the ball, etc.) as well as new enemies including those that travel underground. It's truly remarkable how much juice this team got out of the simple box-pushing, Adventures of Lolo formula, simply by adding the digging mechanic such that every level essentially is the combination of two different maps overlaid onto one another.
As a kid, I ate this shit up. The beginning levels, while easy, are perfectly suited for a young kid, and the sound effects make it so that the crunch of destroying the exit-block, or kicking the ball into an enemy is so incredibly satisfying. Oftentimes you can beat levels without needing to even bother with the on-screen enemies, but as a kid, I often found myself devoting time to lining up shots from far out just for the satisfaction of making the enemies explode.
But this game does not stay at a kid-friendly difficulty level. Though the game is divided into multiple worlds, with each world containing a linear series of puzzle rooms that ultimately lead to a boss, the game's difficulty does not necessarily progress in a linear fashion. That is to say, while yes the first two worlds are the easiest, there is no guarantee that the 5th room in a world will be any harder than the one before it, or that the 5th room in world 6 will be harder than the 5th room in world 3. Nearly every review for this game complains about the intense difficulty spikes. You could be breezing through room after room and then get absolutely stuck on a level.
Most rooms take, at most, 5 minutes to solve. This screen took me an hour.
But what many of these reviews fail to mention is that, though the order of rooms within a world must be approached linearly, one can choose to take any of the worlds (after the first one) in any order they want. So as a kid, if I got stumped in the middle of world 4, I would just jump around to world 5. Or sometimes I wouldn't even get stumped, I just wanted to go see what was going on in World 7. In much the same way I think I flocked to Super Mario Land 2 as a child, I think the freedom to explore different paths within a video game, even in a genre as linear a side-scrolling platformer or a puzzle-platformer, creates an intensely better experience for children. Anyone who's spent time with a child knows of their short attention spans and low-frustration threshold, thus giving them an option to try something new keeps the cartrdige in the console and not thrown across the room. It's for this reason that I played far more of Mole Mania as a kid than I ever did of Donkey Kong '94 which was completely linear and allowed for no other pathways to completion.
This non-linear game design, I feel extends to the puzzle design. Though there are probably only ever a handful of ways of completing puzzles, particularly later in the game the puzzles are set up in a way that makes you feel like you've outsmarted the game. In DK94, by comparison, it's often not so much a puzzle as it is a platforming challenge. While there are a few stumpers in there, for the most part the "solutions" in DK94 are obvious, just hard to perform. Now look at this:
Is there anything obvious about this?! So many of the puzzle-rooms in this game (the one above included) contain way more elements than are necessary to solve the puzzle. While this may seem like a negative, I feel like it adds greatly to the satisfaction of solving the puzzle. In most comparable block-puzzles in a Zelda game, for example, rarely do the developers put more interactable objects in your path than are necessary. If something is there and you can push it, that's a clue that it's part of the puzzle's solution. But here, they'll just throw in weights and barrels that ultimately just serve to distract you from the solution. Or, worse, touching them at all can prevent you from reaching your solution. It may seem like a cheap way to increase the difficulty of a puzzle, but I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to stare at a puzzle room and just recognize that to move a certain barrel would spell doom.
But the other impressive part of this game, that seems a little bit ahead of its time, is the number of dynamic puzzles featured in the game. It's hard to show just through pictures, but one such puzzle can be seen below.
Again to compare to Zelda, usually in those block puzzles, you can sit still, visualize where blocks need to go, and make your changes accordingly. Here, in the above puzzle, you can only solve the puzzle AFTER setting the bowling ball in motion through the various pipes. You will have to react in real time to the path of the bowling ball in order to get it to stop where you want. It's something that seems less ambitious in a post-Portal world... but you have to remember that this is a GameBoy game from 1996.
While I could go on about the puzzle design, I hope I've impressed upon you the depth and complexity of the puzzles and that they are some of the finest designed for the GameBoy. Plus there are a number of factors that made this an absolute joy for kids to play on the handheld. While difficult, the game saved your progress automatically, and death was largely meaningless as it just sent you back to the previous room. Health rooms are also plentiful. But ultimately the non-linear game design, a feature I believe contributed to the success and joy I had with Super Mario Land 2, helped this from becoming a frustrating experience, and one that held the attention of this one-time child for hours and hours. That and the sheer satisfaction and fun of destroying enemies with a bowling ball.
But all this said, where most retrospectives on Mole Mania request longingly for a sequel or a follow-up, I don't see a world where this game would be a success. Though not a commerical success in the 90s, I do believe this game perfectly accomplished what it set out to do. It gave a satisfying puzzle experience that frankly would seem underwhleming were it a full-fledged console game, particularly in the mid-90s. But as a handheld game for kids in cars, this is one of the best games for the system it came out on. But for it to be released today, I think that even though its controls are simple, they and the puzzles would still be too complex to interest casual mobile gamers. Cut the Rope or Angry Birds this is not. It's a game that requires sometimes serious concentration. If there's any place for a spiritual successor, I'd say that I see elements of Mole Mania (as well as DK94) in the new(ish) Captain Toad game. The idea of going from little puzzle-room to little-puzzle room with only light platforming is right at home with Muddy's adventures. I'd love if a level or two had a mole power-up to allow Toad to explore both under and above ground.
In the end, I love Mole Mania. I'm happy that I finally decided to beat it and that after dozens of hours with it as a child I finally defeated the evil farmer Jinbe and restored Muddy with his family. Still, I recognize that the idea of releasing a full-blown box-pushing game in 2021 seems ridiculous. Still, I'm holding out hope for what comes from Death Stranding 2!