There’s a sort of… B-tier of Nintendo puzzlers, isn’t there? Stuff like Yoshi’s Cookie and Wario’s Woods. We’d argue, perhaps fruitlessly, that Dr. Mario slots into this little group rather better than the truly A-grade stuff. On Switch, in particular, there’s an embarrassment of puzzling riches that we’d pick over this one. But why?
We know it’s a slightly contentious position, because it is definitely a classic game by some measure, but Dr. Mario 64? It sort of sucks. Please, don’t get upset. You love Dr. Mario, I’m sure. Throwing those pills into that massive jar has an admitted appeal in its silliness. Different-coloured viruses appear. Mario throws different-coloured pills into the jar in order to line them up and destroy said viruses. The catch is that each pill is made up of two segments, each of which can be one of three colours. You’ve got to rotate and manoeuvre the pills in such a way that you match four colours, either pill or virus, at which point they’ll disappear. Same as it ever was. The problem is, we just don’t find it especially fun or interesting.
Outside of a generally not-that-enjoyable premise, Dr. Mario just doesn’t seem to lend itself to much in the way of skilled play and competitive fun. You can, in theory “chain” your pills and viruses by having loose segments fall down the jar as they are separated, but this is awkward and annoying to pull off. Unlike many other versus puzzlers (Puzzle League, Puyo Puyo) we found that a single wrong move could scupper you completely with next to no chance of meaningful recovery. Essentially, the prescribed nature of the virus placement means that things have to be laid down a certain way, and you’re unavoidably going to end up with quite a lot of garbage on the screen that doesn’t really assist you later in a round, unlike the aforementioned better games in which you have a chance of recovery even in quite dire situations.
There are plenty of modes here, but they’re all basically the exact same thing. The Poundland Paper Mario Story mode consists of the rogue’s gallery from then-contemporary Game Boy Color hit Wario Land 3, which was interesting to us as Mario superfans. Problem is, we had enormous trouble proceeding in said Story mode because even at the default difficulty, Dr. Mario 64 is shockingly difficult. Pills fall fast, the controls feel less responsive than they could be, there’s little in the way of visual feedback when rotating your pieces and computer players are smart and aggressive, making few mistakes. We wondered if we were just bad at it, but the NES version never seemed as rough as this despite being ostensibly the same thing. It’s difficult to qualify just what exactly has changed in the game’s balancing, but something fundamental broke en route from the 8-bit version.
It’s not fun on single-player, and multiplayer just made us pine for Puyo Puyo Tetris. So we played that instead, and a good time was had by all. We tried, but ultimately Dr. Mario 64 feels like a weak version of a weak game.