Many video game enthusiasts are familiar with Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary designer behind video game franchises like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Star Fox, etc. But less people know of Miyamoto’s mentor, one of Nintendo’s original game designers, Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi was a factory maintenance man turned toy inventor turned video game pioneer. Nintendo owes much of their success to him and we have his genius to thank for many of the gaming innovations we enjoy today.
Gunpei Yokoi is best known for designing the Game Boy. He also designed R.O.B., the Robot Operating Buddy, and the infamous Virtual Boy, his greatest professional failure. But his longest lasting innovation has to be the Directional Pad, or D-Pad, which he invented for Nintendo’s Game & Watch portables. Pretty much every video game system since the Famicom has copied Yokoi’s D-Pad design; it’s become the control staple of the video game industry. He also produced several hit games, including Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Super Mario Land 1 and 2. Basically, the man was a video game god.
Tragically, Gunpei Yokoi was killed on October 4, 1997. After getting into a minor fender-bender on the expressway, Yokoi and another man exited their vehicle to inspect the damage. While outside of his car, Yokoi was fatally struck by another vehicle. He was 56 years old.
On top of all of his other accomplishments, Yokoi also designed one of the most addictive puzzle games of all time, Dr. Mario.
Dr. Mario is a falling block puzzle game, where the player tries to clear viruses off the grid—in this case, a bottle—with pill pieces that arrive as bicolored capsules. By matching a set of four items of the same color in a row, either vertically or horizontally, those pieces are cleared. The pill pieces (which are called “Megavitamins”) are randomly produced in some combination of the three primary colors—Blue, Red, and Yellow—and the viruses, of course, come in the same matching hues. So for example, lining up three red capsule halves with a red virus will eliminate the ruby target. Just match the color to destroy, simple as that. Get buried under a pile of unmatched pills, you lose.
In 1990 Dr. Mario was released simultaneously for the NES and Game Boy. Since then, some iteration of Dr. Mario has been released on pretty much every Nintendo console. Tetris & Dr. Mario on SNES packaged everyone’s two favorite puzzle games together in one cartridge. Dr. Mario 64 introduced four-player competitive play. The Game Boy Advance actually saw three versions of the game:
- Classic NES Series: Dr. Mario
- Dr. Mario & Puzzle League, another 2-in-1 cart
- "Dr. Wario", a mini-game included within the brilliantly hyperactive WarioWare, Inc.
In 2014, Nintendo even released Dr. Luigi, a new spin on the game with multiple game modes, including one using L-shaped capsules. So there’s been a lot of Dr. Marios out there. We will primarily focus on the original Game Boy version.
The puzzle gameplay of Dr. Mario is solidly addictive fun, and the Game Boy version is extremely satisfying. Just like its NES counterpart, the virus level and game speed are variable, so you can start playing the game at whatever difficulty you choose. As you clear more viruses off the board, the pills begin falling at a faster rate, forcing you act quickly to set up your strategy. As you get to higher virus levels, the lack of space on screen begins to punish you for any mistakes. Eventually the game’s challenge will push your brain’s processing speed to breaking point. Much like other puzzlers of this type, you just play until you’re crushed. And somehow that feels rather good.
While the NES could easily render the game’s primary color palette, the Game Boy’s black and white screen had to take the monochromatic approach. Instead of Blue, Red, and Yellow viruses and pills, the Game Boy Dr. Mario uses Black, Grey, and White. While this sounds like a massive hindrance to a color matching puzzle game, the gameplay of the Game Boy version was not hampered one bit. In fact, this game might be a little more accessible to the visually impaired, in much the same way PopCap includes a colorblind option in their Peggle and Zuma titles.
Besides color limitations, Game Boy Dr. Mario is missing something else. The NES version includes a little victory screen after clearing every 5th Level on Medium speed, but the Game Boy version only shows victory screens to the player on the Hi Speed setting. (And while the NES has a peaceful tree scene, the Game Boy victory screen shows an underwater scene, like the bottom of a pond.) It would seem that the Game Boy is more reluctant to divvy out rewards for some reason. But while it may not have color or extra reward screens, the Game Boy version is portable. Being able to take Dr. Mario wherever you go—especially doctor’s office waiting rooms—is a big plus.
One of Dr. Mario’s strongest qualities is its music. Composed by Hirokazu Tanaka, the game features two equally excellent musical themes, titled “Fever” and “Chill”. Fever is upbeat and energetic while Chill is more laid back, but both provide an appropriately funky atmosphere for virus busting. Each theme is so stellar that I find myself alternating between the two at random and walking away humming the tunes long after my play session has concluded.
Over the course of Nintendo’s many versions of Dr. Mario, the music has seen many different renditions. Perhaps it’s just me, but I strongly prefer the original music to the newer remixes, like the Nintendo 64 version for example. In terms of its soundtrack, I feel like the original Game Boy is actually best version of all.
Being a falling block puzzle game and appearing on the same handheld platform as the phenomenally successful Tetris, comparisons are obviously going to be made between the two games. And while nothing could topple Tetris’ reputation as the best puzzle game—and probably the best Game Boy title—of all time, I think Dr. Mario impressively holds its own. When examined side by side, the two games aren’t even really that similar. Honestly, a better comparison to Dr. Mario would be Puyo Puyo, or Capcom’s Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, both color matching puzzle titles. Of course, Dr. Mario predates these games and almost certainly influenced their creation.
So Dr. Mario on Game Boy is great, but is it the definitive Dr. Mario? Well...not quite. But it's close.
The home console versions are great for head-to-head bouts with a friend, but they aren’t quite as accessible for short-burst play sessions like the portables are. And that’s the best way to enjoy solo Dr. Mario, on a handheld. So I would have to declare this the definitive version, if not for Nintendo’s Classic NES series, released in 2004.
By releasing the NES Dr. Mario on Game Boy Advance and making the first home version now portable—in color and everything—Nintendo has essentially made the original Game Boy game obsolete. If you only have an old Game Boy or Game Boy Color, then the original Game Boy Dr. Mario is a must-have cartridge. But if you own a GBA, then you should go for the Classic NES Series: Dr. Mario. It is now the definitive version
Editor's Note: Mike says that the arcade game is the definitive Dr. Mario, so even the Kelleher Bros. can't come to a consensus on this one. And now I must admit, the version of this game I find myself playing daily is actually "Dr. Wario", the mini-game included in WarioWare, Inc. After clearing pieces in that one, you can hold down to make the remaining MegaVitamin halves drop faster, which is a great feature for an impatience player like myself. Plus, the rest of that game is fantastic too.