Whenever we talk about Nintendo, we treat the company like it’s some kind of anomaly. However, that’s only because they are. In a world where the biggest releases look to Hollywood for inspiration, Nintendo’s games feel much more like toys. The company started life as a toy company, so it only makes sense that this would inform their game design. It’s as though with each new project, Nintendo’s designers tell themselves that their game must be fun to play for its own sake. That’s why you can float around small planets in Super Mario Galaxy, or why Doshin the Giant presents itself as a tropical sandbox.
This is where I bring up Mole Mania, the Nintendo game with less name recognition than Mysterious Murasame Castle. Like so many of the company’s projects, this thing lies somewhere between toy and video game. That isn’t an accident, nor does it hold the game back. In fact, Mole Mania achieves a lot of clever things with that combination. It combines the firm structure of a puzzle game with the physical fun of playing with a toy to create this charming experience.
I can’t understate how firm the game’s structures are. As far as video game genres go, puzzle games are perhaps the most rigidly structured genre there is. There’s no negotiating the rules in these games. The pieces you see before you can only behave one way, and you can only clear the puzzle if you get them to behave in the one way the game will allow. So it follows that the flow of events through these puzzles is just as heavily codified: you play around with your surroundings, test out various solutions, and when you’ve finally figured out what the game wants you to do, you worm your way through that solution and to the end.
At first glance, Mole Mania appears to fit this model extremely well. Your job is to help Muddy Mole rescue his family from the angry farmer Jinbei, which you do by guiding balls through mazes. Not only do you have a variety of tools to help you move the ball (each with just one specific use), but there are also strict rules about how you can move the ball in the first place. Here are just a few examples:
- You can’t roll the ball over a hole.
- You can plug holes up with a barrel, but doing so means you can’t move past that barrel when you’re underground.
- You can push a ball onto spikes, but not past them. You have to roll the ball over the spikes.
What’s more, the game seems to be using all this to invoke the same sense of flow that other puzzle games base themselves around*. Yet what separates Mole Mania from its peer is that flow isn’t an end in itself. That honor goes to the movement. I realize how strange that sounds, but watch this video (preferably somewhere in the middle) and look at all the ways Muddy moves through the world. On one level, they’re all unique and easily identifiable. Both these traits make for good puzzles, but I see a little bit more going on beneath the surface. In addition to being unique, the movements are also very tangible. Their telegraphed animations lend them a strong presence—certainly enough that you can imagine yourself taking those actions. Thus, moving around in this game becomes enjoyable for its own sake.
And the puzzles only amplify that enjoyment. Not by challenging you with difficult puzzles, even if that is part of the game. Instead, it has more to do with how they capitalize on your movements. The best puzzles in the game are built with those movements in mind. They consistently force you to maneuver their spaces in novel and engaging ways. Playing through them feels like an intricate dance, or like threading a string through a twisting road of needles. OK, metaphors aren’t my strong suit. Just know that there’s a soothing quality to navigating the game’s puzzles. I touched on something like this back in my Billy Hatcher review, and while Mole Mania isn’t quite the same (its engagement relies on your control rather than your lack of it), I think we can draw some important parallels. In any case, both its traditional puzzle game sensibilities and its emphasis on movement make Mole Mania a well rounded game.
My only real gripe with the game would be the boss fights. In theory, they’re supposed to be the exciting climax that follow all the grueling trials you’d just gone through. In practice, though, they’re anything but. They all operate on very basic patterns: move here, execute this attack, move over there, execute another attack, etc. Given how the preceding puzzles rely on your ability to work out far more complex patterns, this charade doesn’t last long. The fights become stale and predictable slogs; a far cry from the climactic moments they were supposed to be. The best defense I can muster for these fights is that maybe their stronger focus on action is supposed to mask these issues. Yet action requires ludic pressure to work, and Mole Mania is too forgiving a game to squeeze down on you like that. So what would normally be a virtue in many other contexts ends up condemning these moments to mediocrity.
However, one failed idea isn’t enough to sour everything else that Mole Mania accomplishes. By thinking ahead of its peers and asking why puzzle mechanics are so strict and precise, it breathes new life into the genre. Now I don’t want to step all over puzzle games as a genre. That’s a lazy narrative, and at least for me, a hypocritical one. Still, I feel I have to recognize the things that Mole Mania does differently. The game doesn’t treat you as a mere engine for solving its puzzles. It also gives them you fun ways to move about the world so you can enjoy yourself outside those puzzles. Does this addition negate the mechanistic quality of plugging solutions into puzzles? Of course not. But it does make the game a fuller and more well rounded experience.
*I’m aware that flow has been criticized in the past, but addressing those points (and questioning the entire puzzle genre in the process) is beyond the scope of a simple video game review.