Mole Mania

Mole Mania
Mole Mania Cover
Platforms Game Boy, Nintendo 3DS
Genre With a rebel yell, she cried "mole mole mole"
Score 8  Clock score of 8

Last month, I realized that I haven’t taken my 3DS outside all year. Nearly every weekday of 2011, the little black system was in my pocket and transmitting StreetPass data any time I left the house.

Not this year. Kid Icarus Uprising is just about impossible to play on the go. I finished New Super Mario Bros. 2 in a weekend, enjoyable as it was. And the StreetPass novelty died after I went months without an exchange. It just wasn’t a worthwhile use of pocket space.

But then something unexpected happened: a little-known Game Boy game put the 3DS back in my pocket.

Originally released back in 1997, Mole Mania hit the 3DS eShop this July for three bucks. The game stars Muddy Mole, who returns home from a hard day of digging to find his wife and seven children kidnapped by the evil farmer Jinbe. Muddy journeys across Jinbe Land to rescue his family from the aggro agribusinessman and his entourage of enforcers, including a pair of bodybuilders, a kangaroo, and the sun. It’s a jocular Nintendo story that effortlessly mixes kid-friendly visuals, slapstick cutscenes, and weird fourth-wall winks when it’s not testing your IQ.

And Mole Mania is a puzzle game with some real melon-scratchers. The player maneuvers Muddy Mole through one-screen puzzles, attempting to crash a bomb into the exit barrier. Muddy can push, pull, and roll objects, as well as dig holes and underground tunnels. A steady parade of props are added throughout the game, like barrels for filling holes, elbow pipes for redirecting rolling objects, and plenty of mobile and immobile barriers. The top-down view and object layout is reminiscent of a classic Zelda dungeon, no surprise considering Shigeru Miyamoto produced Mole Mania while directing Ocarina of Time.

It’s a simple premise that finds complexity in the crowded real estate and Muddy’s underground mobility. The surface is often chock full of obstacles, requiring Muddy to dig and tunnel in order to nudge everything into its right place. But digging a hole also creates a new obstacle that might foil your own strategy. Some objects need to be moved in just the right path or sequence, or else the path to the goal becomes inaccessible. The player can quickly reset a room to start over again, an invaluable option once the puzzles escalate to the point where flawless planning and execution are required.

Mole Mania Underground

While the problem solving mindwork always satisfies, the frustrations caused by enemy characters feels unneeded. Evil rabbits, tiny dinosaurs, and other bizarre farmhands parade around each stage. Although they’re usually easy to avoid or eliminate, they also show up in greater numbers as the puzzles themselves grow more complicated. The second half of the game suffers as more and more critters roam each puzzle, providing unnecessary tension and chipping away at the player’s health (four hits means the puzzle must be restarted). It’s a shame that the intellectual difficulty curve is artificially inflated by brute annoyances.

But that’s the only inflation in Mole Mania’s solo adventure, which squeezes a lot more worthy content out of simple block-pushing mechanics than I had expected. The eight levels are each packed with dozens of brain-teasers and capped with a creative boss battle, with one frantic bonus stage hidden somewhere along the way. A level can take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours to comlpete, but the linear setup and self-contained puzzles make for excellent minute-by-minute gaming.

A multiplayer mode is also included on the ROM, but 3DS owners can’t access it: Nintendo either hasn’t figured out how to emulate the Game Boy’s link cable connections or doesn’t care to do so. It’s a shame, as the one-on-one competition sounds interesting: one player is tasked with pulling cabbages underground as Muddy Mole while the opponent plays as Jinbe, plugging holes and attacking Muddy with a hoe. It’s a shame Mole Mania flopped, as the dual-plane surface/underground layout and POV-focused multiplayer would be perfect in a followup for the DS/3DS or even Wii U.

Mole Mania sun

Even with multiplayer blocked, the black and white Game Boy game holds up remarkably well. I started Mole Mania on the couch, completing full levels from start to finish in hour-long sessions. But the bite-size stages inside each level enable brief challenges on the bus or at the doctor’s office. It’s the first game in months, on my 3DS or my Android, that scratched that out-and-about itch to kill a few minutes. It was even worth the pocket bulge.

Is it worth the money? Yes. It’s ten hours of Zelda-esque moving block puzzles for just $2.99.

Is it worth the time? Yes. You would think ten hours of grayscale tile sliding would get old, but Mole Mania is mostly filler-free and rewarding throughout.