Reviving a seventeen-year-old puzzle game seems like a strange way of kick-starting a download service that promises "genre-defying gameplay." That said, we find it easy to forgive Dr. Mario & Germ Buster for its lack of innovation. While not the perfect version we had hoped for, Arika's Dr. Mario benefits from the kind of classic, timeless design that defines the very best puzzle games. Innovative or not, it's still every bit as addictive in 2008 as it was in 1990.
For those unfamiliar with the Dr. Mario formula, the game tasks players with clearing a giant medicine bottle of red, yellow, and blue viruses. Helping to eliminate the germs is Mario, who lobs a steady stream of colorful pills into the jar. Create a horizontal or vertical row of matching colors, and the germs get zapped. Let your excess pills pile too high, however, and it's game over. The core gameplay of this latest edition is fundamentally the same as the NES version.
Speaking of which, it certainly hasn't become any easier over the years. For my money, Dr. Mario has always had a more punishing learning curve than the likes of Tetris, simply because mistakes can take far longer to rectify, meaning panicky situations are more common. Anybody with a semblance of hand-to-eye coordination should be able to survive on the lowest difficulty settings, but shifting up a setting or three can be testing.
This, I suppose, is the reasoning behind Germ Buster (below), a mode that enlarges everything on screen, and introduces a Wiimote pointer to control things with. Grabbing pills with your pointer (press A and B together) soon feels intuitive, and the animation that accompanies each game, featuring your Miis holding back a crowd of germs, is rather adorable, if ultimately pointless.
It's best to think of Germ Buster as Dr. Mario for the Wii generation, a mode of play designed for those who have only fleetingly tried Nintendo's console, and who may still be intimidated by the complexities of a d-pad. Germ Buster doesn't feel as precise as playing the game with a d-pad (we'd strongly recommend using the Classic controller or the Wiimote on its side for chasing high scores), but it's more approachable.
The second significant addition is the Wi-Fi Connection mode, in which connections are pleasingly smooth. I played with, and was subsequently thrashed by, several players based in Japan, with not a frame dropped. Both classic Dr. Mario and Flash mode (in which only the flashing viruses need to be eliminated) are available.
If I had one criticism of the online component, it's that players are often lumped together with opponents of wildly varying skills. Everybody has their own rating (as in Mario Kart Wii, this starts at 5,000) that fluctuates with victories and defeats, yet I was pitted against far stronger opponents on a frustratingly regular basis; being able to filter your opponents would have been a welcome inclusion. Incidentally, that's not all I would add to the final game: although I appreciate the soundtrack containing old favorites such as "Fever" and "Chill," the limited range of four tracks eventually tested my patience. The lack of a Marathon mode, as featured in Dr. Mario 64, is puzzling.
These niggling omissions aside, Dr. Mario & Germ Buster still represents absolutely superb value. For your ten dollars or seven quid, you're guaranteed a supremely addictive puzzle game (which has stood the test of time better than most) with a sturdy online mode and even something that less serious gamers can become accustomed to. Dr. Mario may not be the kind of creative, envelope-pushing title Nintendo had in mind when it first came up with WiiWare, but it's still one heck of a time sink.
Final score: 8/10