Shigeru Miyamoto is the most talented and well known game designer who ever lived, so it’s downright shocking, perhaps even unbelievable, that he has any work that could be considered to be forgotten. It almost doesn’t seem possible, yet it is. The game in question is known as Mole Mania, a puzzle/adventure game released in North America on the Game Boy in February of 1997. Looking at it’s release date we can see why it may have slipped under the radar as it did – this was only a few months after the launch of the Nintendo 64. With the gaming community being focused on Nintendo’s new machine – and it’s stunning masterpiece that is Super Mario 64 – it’s no wonder this portable game was overshadowed and forgotten.
But it shouldn’t be. Mole Mania ranks as one of the best games in Miyamoto’s legendary portfolio and I’m here to tell you why.
It’s a simple premise: You play as Muddy, a stylish mole on a quest to rescue his children from the the hands of farmer Jinbe. The wicked farmer has kidnapped all 7 of poor Muddy’s children and spread them out across Jinbe Land. 7 children means 7 worlds. Complete them all and win the game, but a simple premise doesn’t mean simple gameplay.
Each of the 7 worlds is designed like a maze made up of numerous screen-sized rooms. The goal is to simply take a black ball and throw it into the stone barrier that blocks the exit, thereby destroying it and allowing you to move into the next room. Muddy can push, pull, or throw the ball in 4 directions (and only 4 directions) and has to take care to avoid enemies on his way to the exit. Remember, however, that Muddy is a mole, and as such he has the ability to burrow into the ground – and this is where the real brilliance of the game is found. Each room has both an above ground and underground element, and at any time Muddy can burrow into the ground and create tunnels to get from one point to the other. These tunnels to can used to avoid enemies or reach hidden items, while the holes themselves can be used to help solve each room. This is an interesting dynamic as burrowing gives Muddy much more freedom, but wrongly placed holes can cause the black ball to fall into it’s depths and render the puzzle unsolvable (at least until you leave the room and it’s reset).
Underground is safe, at least for a little while. While burrowed, Muddy can peek above ground at any time to see what’s happening on the surface. He can can spy on enemies without them being hurt by them. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and eventually enemies are introduced that can follow Muddy underground and harm him there. You see, each of the 7 worlds slowly introduces more and more elements into the gameplay. By the game’s end you’ll find undiggable ground, barrels that can fill holes, elbow pipes that change a rolling objects direction, and enemies that become increasingly complex and deadly. Considering the innocent premise and cute exterior, Mole Mania becomes fiendishly difficult. The first world merely gets you into the game and teaches you the ropes, but by world 7 each and every room becomes an extremely difficult, complex puzzle that takes a lot of brain power to solve. Every world is capped off by a tricky boss battle that is a puzzle unto itself (and are extremely satisfying to figure out).
Mole Mania has something for completionists, too. In each world there are items to collect: a map, a compass, and cabbage. Finding each item is a puzzle all it’s own, often times even more difficult than simply getting to the exit. Maps and compasses simply have to be collected, while cabbage has to be rolled into holes. In total there are 175 rooms to solve and hundreds of heads of cabbage to collect.
Finally, Mole Mania is greatly improved by the Super Gameboy. Playing Mole Mania on the SNES through this adapter gives color and a border to the game, bringing everything to life.
It’s a shame that Mole Mania has been forgotten. It’s an exceedingly clever puzzle game and one of the best titles on Nintendo’s monochromatic wonder. While anyone even remotely interested in videogames can rattle off the work Miyamoto is known for – Mario, Zelda, Starfox – only those who are well versed in gaming history will know Mole Mania even exists, much less that it can be considered one of it’s creators greatest achievements.
Mole Mania is, without a doubt, Miyamoto’s forgotten masterpiece.
Despite it’s obscurity, Mole Mania is actually extremely easy to acquire today. It can be found on eBay for little money, but is much more accessible on the 3DS. The game was released on the 3DS Virtual Console last year to very little fanfare, and can be downloaded for $2.99. I urge you to play Mole Mania, it’s a fantastic game.