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Dr. Mario (Game Boy) artwork

Dr. Mario (Game Boy) review

"Derivative but probably better than Tetris"

Mario had been in other games before but Dr. Mario seems to be the first to use Mario like a license, slapping Mario into a game that had already been in development. Previous games with Mario having a minor role, such as being a judge in Tennis, the pilot in Alleyway, or the guy in Pinball, didn’t use Mario explicitly in the title, but here it is right in the player’s face.

I remember seeing the cover as a child at a local rental shop. I honored it by making it the chosen rental of a seven year old, expecting something like Super Mario Bros 3 but I could throw pills instead of fireballs. Had I flipped the box over and seen the back, I would have seen a game that kid-me would not have wanted to play. I suppose the marketing worked.

Dr. Mario did not start out as a Mario game. The initial working title Virus can be found in prototypes dated with 1989. It is unique not just in its use of Mario but also as possibly the first game to release simultaneously on multiple platforms. Game releases were a process in the late 80s and early 90s, not an event. Retailers did not get games early and hold onto them until some big release event like they did in the 2000s. By most accounts, both the NES and Gameboy version of Dr Mario were released in July 1990 at the same time.

While I can’t find information about any prototypes for the Gameboy dating to 1988, there’s some evidence in the game that it was always intended to be multi-platform. All versions of the game use three colors for the viruses. Three colors for sprites is a hard limitation of the Gameboy, but all known prototypes on Famicom also restrain themselves to three colors. There’s also the game’s development team, R&D1, which was the same team that developed the Gameboy hardware and was focused almost exclusively on Gameboy software after 1988. Sequel’s to R&D1 creations like Metroid, Balloon Fight, Kid Icarus all appeared on Gameboy rather than NES.

A great amount of care went into making Dr. Mario work well on both platforms. Unlike Tetris, which had many differences between NES and Gameboy verions, Dr Mario is largely identical for both systems. The playing area where pieces are stacked, for example, is the same size regardless of which version is being played. The mechanics and physics feel identical as well. There are no differences in feature set either, unlike Tetris which famously lacks 2-player on NES. Even the layout of the screens is largely the same.

Dr. Mario (Game Boy) image
Dr Mario on Gameboy (left) and NES (right) are faithful to each other, even using the same size play area.

Dr. Mario (Game Boy) image
Both versions have identical playing options.

Comparing Dr. Mario to Tetris is fair. It was a comparison made in most contemporary reviews (ranking it somewhere on the scale between “inspiration” and blatant “rip-off”). There have been many more falling block puzzles since, so Dr. Mario probably looks more derivative and less rip-offy these days, but in 1990 that was not the case. Tetris was the Gameboy’s pack-in title in North America, so anyone playing Dr. Mario for Gameboy likely already owned Tetris, the game that essentially invented the don’t-let-the-falling-pieces-reach-the-top genre. Dr Mario has more in common with Tetris’s game B though, where the playing field is littered with garbage pieces when the game starts. In Dr Mario, viruses are populated on the screen and the player’s goal of each level is to clear all of them without hitting the kill line at the top of the screen.

Dr. Mario has several characteristics that make it stand out from its obvious inspiration. Unlike Tetris, where partially cleared pieces float inextricably and haunt you, pills in Dr. Mario are affected by gravity when they are split, allowing the possibility to chain together cleared viruses to increase your score. To play successfully, players need to think about where their pieces will fall after a neighboring piece is cleared so they do not block off viruses of a different color below.

Dr. Mario (Game Boy) image
The start of a chain clearing

Combined with the overall slower pace of Dr. Mario, it feels more like a true puzzle than a game of reflexes like Tetris. When playing at the slower speed, players have time to think about where they put pieces and how those pieces will affect the game area if they end up falling. Compared to Tetris, Dr. Mario is much more leisurely and cerebral, and this works in its favor on the original Gameboy hardware. The fall speed does go up as the virus level increases, but not exponentially like Tetris; once you reach level 24, Dr. Mario will repeat that level until you lose, meaning you won’t reach an unavoidable death state like Tetris.

Dr. Mario also provides the player with a bit more control over the game. The fall speed of pieces and the number of viruses that need to be cleared are independently set, letting the player have a slow, careful game with lots of virus or a fast experience where the player struggles to stay alive. Hip Tanaka’s music tracks, Fever and Chill, are wonder pairings for both styles of play. For a game that essentially has two songs, somehow neither of them get old. The sounds for clearing a virus or setting off a combo are just satisfying and feel just ever so happy.

While Tetris is the game most closely associated with the original generation Gameboy, Dr. Mario is probably more appropriate for actual hardware. On an original Gameboy--with its pea-green and ghosting--I find the original Tetris not very enjoyable. It gets fast, and I find myself dropping pieces in the wrong row because my brain and the screen are on different refresh rates. Regardless of the undeniable role Tetris placed in making the Gameboy such a success, Dr. Mario’s slower pace fits the system better. Dr. Mario might be derivative, but it also might be a better game.

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Community review by dagoss (May 26, 2021)

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