Editor's note: This was written before the announcement of Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure for Nintendo 3DS
Mario has had a considerable number of occupations over the years. He's been a tennis player, a kart racer, a plumber, and even a boxing referee, but one of his most prolific careers is that of Dr. Mario. This puzzle franchise from Intelligent Systems has been a staple in Nintendo's lineup since 1990, and has appeared on nearly every Nintendo console since. (Sorry, Virtual Boy) However, unlike most other Nintendo franchises, Dr. Mario has endured a strange metamorphosis over the years. Where most games obtain more features with each new iteration, Dr. Mario plays host to a different story.
Mario's first job after receiving his medical degree was Dr. Mario for the NES and Game Boy. Hot on the heels of the Tetris craze, Nintendo tasked Intelligent Systems with creating a new falling block puzzler, and the results were this brilliant color matching game. Both versions shared a spectacular Hip Tanaka soundtrack, with minor differences (The NES game had an additional song for the title screen, while the GB version has a longer version of Fever) as well as a competitive 2-player mode. Mario threw megavitamins, killed some viruses, and saved some lives. Things were looking up.
A few years later, Nintendo had released its more powerful Super NES, and the good doctor got to team up with the ultimate puzzle legend in Tetris & Dr. Mario. While Mario's game was largely unchanged from a feature list perspective, the audio and visual overhaul was quite considerable.
It would be a few years before Mario donned his stethoscope outside of Smash Bros. Melee, but when he did, it was a major event. Dr. Mario 64 took the foundation built in the first games and made it into a fully fleshed out package. First, while the basic gameplay remained the same, there were some tweaks that caught it up to modern times. There was a ghost pill that would show where the current pill would land if placed immediately, and a quick drop function as well. They also added a full fledged story mode, complete with a new cast of characters in addition to the classic "arcade" mode. The visuals were clean and bright, with characters receiving some nice animations, while the menus and cutscenes were given a Paper Mario style that worked well for the Nintendo 64. Music was all redone with modern sounds, and there were even two new songs added to the classic Tanaka tunes. Perhaps the most important upgrade though was in the multiplayer arena. Dr. Mario was a 4-player game, and it was magnificent.
At this point, we had a clearly definitive version of Dr. Mario. Unfortunately, the series wouldn't continue this uphill trend.
The next time we saw Dr. Mario was on the Game Boy Advance in another puzzle game mashup Dr. Mario & Puzzle League. Puzzle league is a phenomenal puzzler in its own right (with a complicated history here in the US) so pairing that with the classic Dr. Mario was a no-brainer. This version of Dr. Mario was acceptable, but a bit of a step down. Essentially a port of Dr. Mario 64, there were some sacrifices made due to the nature of the GBA, but those were understandable. No 4-player mode was a bummer, and there was no elaborate story mode anymore, but it was a full-color portable version of Dr. Mario, so we understood. You could also tell that there was some effort put into the port, which made up for any lacking features. The title screen was new, and all the music was newly arranged for the GBA. Not the best versions, but they were very different from prior releases. What we didn't realize at the time was that this was just a taste of things to come.
In Japan, Nintendo released a GameCube game called Nintendo Puzzle Collection. It featured Dr. Mario, Puzzle League, and Yoshi's Cookie. The Dr. Mario on this disc was a straight port of Dr. Mario 64. The graphics were up-rezed, and the sound fidelity was higher, but this was literally just a straight port. It was also never released in America. What makes this interesting is that even though this release is newer than the Dr. Mario & Puzzle League game, it didn't utilize any of the changes that came with it. Everything is taken directly from the Nintendo 64 version. And thus, the pattern of taking one step forward and 2 steps back begins.
The next time we saw the good doctor was on the Wii, and when I heard about this one, I was hyped. Here we have the ultimate party game machine. Local multiplayer was one of the Wii's key selling points. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the once glorious 4 player mode had been removed. Sure, it was replaced by an online mode, and that's all well and good, but why kill local 4 player multiplayer? Not only that, but the story mode was gone, all the new characters they introduced in 64 had vanished, and all the music was ripped straight out Dr. Mario 64 with minimal alterations. Seriously, it's almost identical. Where previous installments saw fresh arrangements of the classic tunes, Dr. Mario Online RX contains almost no new content at all. One step forward with online play. 2 steps back with a lack of 4 player mode and no new music.
Finally, we have the most recent iteration: Dr. Luigi. Again, the Wii U has been positioned in the market as the ultimate local multiplayer machine. Still, we have a new version of Dr. Mario, this time with a neat new gameplay twist, new viruses, and fancy HD graphics. What could be bad? As it turns out, quite a bit. With the exception of the GameCube port of Dr. Mario 64, this is possibly the laziest iteration the franchise has seen yet. What hurts the most is how much potential it squandered. The new gameplay hook with the L shaped pills is a fun distraction, but it's just that: a distraction. The real game is still the classic mode. Still, there's your step forward. Then there's the HD visuals. Yes, it's great to see Dr. Mario in HD, but since 90% of the assets were pulled straight out of Dr. Mario Online RX and simply up-rezed, it's a wash. Even the menu screens are nearly identical! Then there's the inclusion of a touchscreen mode that was introduced in Brain Age, but we're going to call it even for the inexcusable continued lack of a 4 player mode. Next, there's the new viruses. There's three new viruses, but there's no mode that has you squaring off against 6 types of virus instead of just 3? How do you miss that opportunity? Finally, you have the music. Not only is it again a simple tweak instead of fresh arrangements, but they removed songs! We're back to just Fever and Chill, the only 2 tracks available in the original game. Look at the screen shot below, too. It's almost as if they simply forgot to include them.
There's also a whole thing regarding some missing sound effects over the years, but I've delved into this too deeply already. The fact remains that at its core, it's still Dr. Mario, and it's still worth playing. It's just such a shame to see this outstanding game's potential squandered over and over. The Wii U should have had the definitive version of Dr. Mario. They could have righted the ship with minimal effort, but instead they chose to take the lazy way out. Here's hoping Mario is off somewhere taking some refresher courses, so when he returns, he can pull off a medical miracle.