Sunday, June 21, 2015

3DS eShop Review: Dr. Mario Miracle Cure

Ever since Nintendo began offering downloadable titles, Dr. Mario has become a fixture of their various digital services.  Dr. Mario Online RX, an infectiously charming update of the classic puzzle game with several unique modes and online play, helped launch WiiWare in 2008.  Just one year later, a stripped down version called Dr. Mario Express, which contained only the standard single player puzzle mode and the ability to play against a CPU opponent, helped get the DSi's DSiWare service up and running in 2009.  Though he was a little late to the party, Dr. Luigi wrapped up the Year of Luigi celebrations on New Year's Eve of 2013 by bringing an updated version of Online RX to the Wii U's eShop that featured a new mode which used chaotic and cumbersome L-shaped pills.

Now, at last, Dr. Mario has come to the 3DS eShop in Dr. Mario Miracle Cure, and he's brought his brother with him!  Of course, Dr. Mario Express and the original GameBoy version of Dr. Mario also remain available on the eShop, but Dr. Mario Miracle Cure does plenty to justify its existence and provide a significantly more full-featured experience than it's handheld predecessors.

The game features three distinct ways to play.  Dr. Mario mode is the classic puzzle game we've been playing since 1990.  Colored capsules are thrown into a pill bottle, where they slowly drop to the bottom similar to Tetris.  Matching four like-colored pieces will the clear them from play.  The board is littered with viruses, and the goal is to clear them all out by matching them up in the colored chains and clearing them away.  Getting rid of all the viruses completes the level.  Not much has changed here since the NES days, though leftover garbage pieces now drop to the bottom of the play field much faster than in past iterations and in this version you can also still reverse the colors of a pill that doesn't have enough room to rotate.  It's a nice little change, as it means you can still change how a pill will land even if you don't have room to spin it around, but if you've trained your muscle memory on iterations that didn't allow this, such as Dr. Mario Express, it'll probably cause you to make a few mistakes, as you scramble to tuck a pill away into a certain space only to flip the colors accidentally once it's in there.

Dr. Luigi mode makes it's handheld debut.  This mode follows the same rules as the classic game, but instead of tossing in single capsules, Luigi chucks L-shaped pill pairs into play.   This can make clearing viruses pretty easy in early stages, but it does result in a lot of extra clutter on the play field.  In later stages, when the colors of the capsules get more jumbled, this mode gets super difficult and perhaps a little too frustrating for its own good.  It's novel, but much less fun than the standard game.

Finally, Virus Buster comes back home to the handheld.  Originally introduced in the Brain Age series for the DS, this touch-screen based mode offers a more relaxed variant on the classic game, played by holding the system sideways.  It still follows the same basic rules as Dr. Mario mode, but the touch controls do introduce some neat new mechanics, such as being able to drag leftover pill pieces to other parts of the board after clearing a match, that give this mode its own distinct flavor.  Given its origins as part of the Brain Age series, it's perfectly suited for play on the 3DS, and is a fantastic addition to the package, as it feels much more at home on the handheld than it does on the Wii or Wii U.


Also new to this game are the titular Miracle Cures.  These power-ups can be used in both Dr. Mario and Dr. Luigi mode, and they serve as fun little ways to mix up the gameplay a bit.  A test tube next to the play field fills up as you play, and once it's full, the doctors Mario will toss a Miracle Cure into play. Effects range from clearing all capsules or viruses of a certain color, to destroying everything within a small radius around where the powerup lands, to clearing an entire horizontal or vertical line of all viruses and capsules.  When playing in multiplayer, Miracle Cures can also hinder the other player by reversing their controls, causing pills to drop faster, or preventing pills from being rotated.  Miracle Cures can also be disabled, if you would prefer to play by classic rules.

Miracle Cures don't change up the original Dr. Mario mode a whole lot, other than making it a little more action-oriented.  However, they dramatically improve Dr. Luigi mode.  As that mode is inherently more difficult and cluttered, with lots of extra pill pieces crowding the play field, the powerups serve as a perfect antidote to keep the game fun.  It's supremely satisfying to feel like you're stuck in a game over situation only to get the perfect powerup to clear the board and give you a chance to make a comeback.  Miracles Cures were the missing ingredient needed to truly make Dr. Luigi mode shine, and you'll never want to play it without them again.

Dr. Mario and Dr. Luigi can both be played in versus mode, either against other players or CPU opponents.  Online play is even supported, and it's smooth and lag free.  Dr. Mario mode and Dr. Luigi mode can both be played online, with or without Miracle Cures activated.  Virus Buster mode features a rather nifty co-op mode as well, in which two players work together to clear the board of viruses.  The game also supports download play, so only one player needs to own it for local multiplayer sessions. It's a surprisingly robust suite of multiplayer options, considering that Dr. Mario Express didn't even support multiplayer.

Finally, there's the Miracle Cure Laboratory, which presents around fifty preset challenges to clear.  Acting something like a mission mode, these challenges serve up specific conditions in Dr. Mario or Dr. Luigi mode for you to clear, and even throw in a few versus matches to mix things up.  All in all, Dr. Mario Miracle Cure presents a large and diverse selection of ways to play, both alone and with others, and could easily be the definitive version of the classic puzzle game.

Unfortunately, that's not quite the case in practice.  While tons of content is included, there are almost as many puzzling exclusions.  The Miracle Cure Laboratory mode is fun, but there's no ranking system for the missions.  Once you clear them, you're done with them.  There's no incentive to play them again to improve your score, and no real reason to revisit the mode once you've finished every level, which won't take much more than an hour.  Online play is excellent, but it can only be played against random matches, and not against friends.  Flash mode is no longer a versus mode option.  When playing the classic game modes, the game uses level-based progression.  However, when Miracle Cures are turned on, the game switches to an endless mode, with more viruses progressively added to play until you get a game over.  Strangely, it's not possible to play endless mode without Miracle Cures activated, nor it is possible to use them for the more tradition level-based gameplay.  Some modes still let you play beyond Level 20, but others don't anymore for no apparent reason.

The presentation of the game also feels a little slapdash.  Most of the sounds and visuals are pulled directly from Dr. Luigi, which works well enough.  However, Dr. Mario's character model looks a little rough, with some strange animations and a disconcertingly dead facial expression.  The game's menus are cluttered and use a bizarre mixture of button and touch based navigation that makes them a little tricky to get through at times.  The game doesn't even have a title screen, launching directly to the main menu, which is also the only part of the game to support the 3DS's 3D effects.  The viruses no longer make any squirming noises as you clear them from play, making the game sound a little empty.  The congratulatory intermissions that used to play after clearing certain levels no longer appear, and you can no longer choose what music you want to hear while playing.  The game simply cycles between two different tracks for each mode, all pulled directly from previous games, with no option to turn off the music either.

As a result, Dr. Mario Miracle Cure feels a little haphazard and unpolished.  It boasts tons of gameplay, but it's rough presentation and inexplicable lack of certain modes and options gives off the impression that it was put together and released rather hastily, with some content being left out for no obvious reason.  That's a shame, too, as all the potential is here for Miracle Cure to be the most full-featured and fleshed out version of Dr. Mario ever released.

As is, it's still the definitive handheld version of Dr. Mario.  It absolutely trounces Dr. Mario Express and the original GameBoy game when it comes to the amount of content and modes included, especially with so many multiplayer modes to choose from.  Virus Buster is best when played on a handheld, and the mission mode is fun while it lasts.  However, the lackluster presentation and removal of many features means that it still doesn't shine quite as brightly as Dr. Mario Online RX or Dr. Luigi.  If you want the most polished and well made version of the game, stick with the home console titles.  However, if you want classic pill-based puzzle action on the go, Dr. Mario Miracle Cure is the game to get.

Dr. Mario Miracle Cure can be purchased for $8.99 on the Nintendo 3DS eShop.

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