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Mole Mania (Game Boy) artwork

Mole Mania (Game Boy) review

"After getting frustrated with one level where I made a dumb mistake, I walked around to take my mind off the game. I started whistling a tune, and I realized it was one from the game itself. I sat back down and got it right."

Most fans of video game history probably know about how the pipes in Shigeru Miyaoto's backyard provided a huge inspiration for super Mario Brothers. They may've helped create a second game, too. Mole Mania is a puzzle game, but it makes a clever series of underground mazes between the puzzles as you go about rescuing your (Muddy Mole's) children and wife from Jinbe, an evil gardener. And while the random bonuses of SMB's pipes were fun, MM doesn't leave many surprises. So it's more than a bunch of clever puzzles where you need to flip a bowling ball until it crashes the far door. A more illustrated impression is here. The quick summary in words is that MM builds many small nice things into a fun game.

It's also very well planned. The first level is a tutorial but never feels like one as you discover Gramps and his helpful signs. You learn easily enough about exploring underground, powering up to push a ball forward, flipping it backwards, and avoiding enemies. So many levels end with Muddy doing a sort of reverse slam-dunk and dance to finish a puzzle, which beats "Next: level 38" any day. Another action you need to master is peeking above ground for monsters there, where Muddy's tail sticks out a bit. It's all wretchedly cute and it makes up for the frustration when you dig too many holes (back up a room to reset the puzzle) or plan a level, push through, and hit the wrong button once you come back.

And the puzzles are surprisingly intricate for just an 8x8 board. Very few of them drag on, and very few repeat as well. Most have one basic solution, but if you have extra health, you can take damage to get by an enemy. You can regain a health point for every five cabbages you dump in the holes. They're actually tough to find, with the Game Boy's lack of color, and I've gotten so absorbed in puzzles I've felt silly when I went back to pick them up for a perfect level score. You often need to detour underground to reach an area on the current puzzle screen--or there may be a passage to the next, where you can find your current world's map, a locator that shows you where the final boss and a bonus challenge are, and one free heal along with an item that lets you skip a room. You can even see where Gramps is waiting to heal you.

In later worlds, you find new monsters who can't be destroyed or walk in a wider loop. A bent pipe can redirect a bowling ball you've thrown--even into a wall and back at you. You can put barrels in holes so it is easier to put a bowling ball across. Barrels work both ways. They may block an underground passage you still need to use. Squares you can't walk on and enemies that themselves can patrol the underground make for the hardest levels, though there are also more regular nuisances like monsters that can't be destroyed and obstacles that can only be pushed. Weevils in the ice world (Jinbe has weird gardens) go from above ground to below and back, and it's a bit tricky to discover they can't harm you if you stand on a hole. But then, MM requires a small amount of experimentation beyond Gramps's help.

But all these ideas really only supplement the magic of discovering underground passages that lead somewhere neat. For instance, you might see a sign in the output of one room but you cannot walk or take there, or you may see a map you can't reach in the underground. One level even has Gramps, in one of many delightful fourth-wall grumblings, refusing to move his wagon so you can reach a potion behind him. It's slightly frustrating, but it's amusing and good incentive to push on. MM doesn't string you along too long for any special items, either.

Mole Mania isn't all puzzles, though. It's got the expected family reunions after each boss where Muddy gets too excited and winds up falling on his face playing with his kids. Each world lets you go one-on-one against Jinbe. You have a minute to push or flip eight cabbages into holes. You can create holes, but Jinbe may cover them up or, worse, stun you with his mattock. While the rules are a bit sloppy--the game pulls you back if you are hit with a cabbage pushed nine-tenths of the way in--it's a quick little strategic blitz where often getting hit a few times is the best way through at least until the later levels where you need to take advantage of speed-ups, and it's a welcome change from the strict calculation or waiting for enemies to get in crushing range of your bowling ball. It also establishes Jinbe as more than just the last of many interesting bosses--which cleverly use the new mechanics and pieces and enemy patterns you see each level.

MM seems to have a lot of aesthetic details right, too. In one level where I made a dumb mistake, I walked around to take my mind off the game. I started whistling a tune, and I realized it was one from the game itself. I sat back down and got it right. I've never really had that experience with any sort of game, and if I can't explain why it works, I'm very grateful it does. I guess there was enough logical stuff done right. I really recommend Mole Mania to people who loathe the genre, because it's very welcoming and done right, though people may find themselves hooked into frustration later. MM's pretty much what a puzzle game should be, both for thinking and just plain fun, and it's too bad it's not better known.

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (March 10, 2012)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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SamildanachEmrys posted March 11, 2012:

Mole Mania was one of my favourite Game Boy games. I'm glad to see it getting some love here.
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aschultz posted March 11, 2012:

Thank you! I had wanted to write about it for a while. Your nice words gave me courage to tweak some stuff--it was my first review I really used voice-to-text on, and I noticed a lot of bad stuff. Hope it's gone now.

I forget who told me I would really like playing it, but I'm grateful to them. I enjoyed it when I first played it and now.
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SamildanachEmrys posted March 11, 2012:

Wow, it turned out well considering it was voice-to-text. I'm impressed.

Now I want to go back and play Mole Mania again. It's been a few years. I remember loving the music too.
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aschultz posted March 12, 2012:

Well, I made a lot of obvious updates along the way. I finished the first draft Wednesday and planned to update it & put it off. Then I fell asleep Saturday evening and woke up and scrambled a bit to get things in before the RotW deadline--which didn't work, anyway.

It's nice to have because I use a lot less energy typing & I have a much stronger motivation to proofread--namely that voice-to-text will throw out total whoppers. Plus if I'm tired I can just close my eyes and dictate.

So I'll try this again with my contest entry, but obviously I'll want to give myself more time.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking is available for $50 on eBay, btw, for anyone who might be looking. It gets a lot right & you can train it too.

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