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Published January 31, 2012

At the risk of losing all credibility in a single blog post, let it be known that I had fun with my Virtual Boy years ago. The eye-searing red display and neck-cramping visor design ensured that the fun never lasted too long, but for all of Nintendo’s colossal missteps, it at least got one thing right: Virtual Boy Wario Land. As an un-numbered entry on a forgotten system, there’s a good chance that you never were able to play it, and that is a true tragedy. VB Wario Land featured the same clever level design and antihero charm as the GameBoy entries. More importantly though, the game was the most successful (and possibly the first) to ask the player to jump back and forth between the foreground and background. This innovation gave a sense of depth that many “2.5D” platformers only dream of, and until Mutant Mudds launched on the 3DS last week, VB Wario Land remained unmatched.

Sure, there have been some developers that toyed with the idea along the way. The Paper Mario series often features pipes that bring you to hidden items in the background, and Donkey Kong Country Returns features some dynamic set pieces that make frequent use of the temples and trees in the distance. Last year’s Shantae sequel for the DSi and iOS also springs to mind, though the layered levels are too confusing for their own good. I’m sure that you, the reader, can rattle off a few examples as well. However, to see Mutant Mudds in motion is a thing of beauty, and that’s largely because of the way it uses the 3D display and alternating planes.

Mutant Mudds confirms what I’ve often suspected, that 2D, sprite-based games often look better in 3D that their polygonal counterparts. Your own eyes might see otherwise, but you’d have to admit that the graphics really pop here. When swinging spiked balls or hammers are set to attack, the appear to fly out of the screen in a way that is very striking and immediate. While Mario Kart 7  or Pushmo go for subtlety, Mutant Mudd embraces its gimmick with all of the tricks that VB Wario Land and many of its crimson peers used years ago.

What really makes everything come together though are the three layers of of each level. From designated jump pads, the player can leap into the foreground or deep into the background, becoming “bigger” or “smaller” based on the virtual proximity to the screen. All of these layers move with parallel scrolling, giving an amazing sense of depth with 3D turned on or off. There’s a richness here that has yet to be matched, and it makes me excited for the future possibilities.

We already know that a new 2D Super Mario game is on the way, and I’m assuming that this game will use 3D in a similar fashion. In fact, with the Vita set to dominate the fancy graphics space, I’m hoping that we see a return to the sidescrolling wonderment that we had on the original DS, only souped up with better resolution and some of the effects we see on display here. Hopefully, Mutant Mudds is just the beginning. Whether this is the start of something more or just a single great game that fades into obscurity, I ultimately appreciate Renegade Kid’s nods to the past in the form of “VB Land,” a series of deep-red levels that aren’t nearly as blinding as the technology that inspired them. Still, it’s nice to know that I wasn’t the only one who remembers Wario’s lost chapter.

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