Twenty years ago, Nintendo released Dr. Mario, a puzzle game in which players had to use Megavitamins in order to eradicate viruses. It became a huge hit, and spanned several sequels over the next two decades. One of them had the honor of being one of the last Nintendo-published game to be released on the Nintendo 64. Released in 2001, Dr. Mario 64 was an updated version with new modes never before seen in any other Dr. Mario game. Incredibly, Nintendo announced its release in January 2001, a mere three months before it came out, and priced the game at $29.99, which was cheaper than the $49.99-59.99 price range of most of their other Nintendo 64 titles. With the somewhat limited variety of modes and graphics that look like they belong on a Super NES game, this does not surprise me one bit.
Dr. Mario 64 features several modes for the player to try out. First, there is Classic Mode, in which you clear levels by getting rid of viruses. Each virus can only be destroyed by stacking several Megavitamins of the same color onto it. More viruses pop up in subsequent levels, and if the screen fills up with too many Megavitamins, the game will be over. In this and other modes, the player can choose from several difficulty modes to make the game as simple or as hard as he or she wants it to be. While this mode can be addictive, it is a bit leisurely paced compared to other puzzle games, and only at faster speeds does it get to be a bit hectic.
New to the series is a story mode, where you must defeat a number of opponents as either Dr. Mario or Wario. The plot, such as it is, involves Wario wanting to swipe the Megavitamins that Mario uses to heal other people, but a villain called Mad Scienstein beats him to it. Mario and Wario chase after him and eventually come across Rudy, a wicked clown who wants the Megavitamins all to himself. Both Mario and Wario have their own paths to take and different opponents to defeat. As with story modes in other puzzle games, it is quite short and can be beaten in less than an hour, though there are multiple difficulty modes to try out. It should be noted that many of the characters in this mode originate from Wario Land 3, so unless you have played that game, you will have no clue as to who they are.
Other one player modes are more limited. In Vs. Computer Mode, you play against any opponent you have unlocked in the story mode. Flash Mode has you racing to get rid of three flashing viruses before your opponent can do the same thing. In Marathon Mode, the viruses rise to the top of the screen over time. Lastly, in Score Attack Mode, you must destroy every virus and obtain a high score within three minutes. These modes have their moments, but compared to the other single player modes, there is not a lot to them for the most part.
Dr. Mario 64 is also the first game in the series to offer a multiplayer mode for up to four players. When playing against other people, your objective is to either destroy all the viruses before any of your opponents do, be the last player left after the other players’ screens fill up with too many Megavitamins, eliminate three flashing viruses before anyone else, or try to get the high score within three minutes. In the multiplayer mode, as well as in Story and Vs. Computer modes, you can send garbage Megavitamins to try and fill up your opponents’ screens. Naturally, they can do the same thing to you. This makes the action a little bit more frantic, though not quite as much as in games like Tetris or Pokemon Puzzle League.
This game seems to have been made on a smaller budget than many other Nintendo games, and it shows. Despite having a fair amount of modes to choose from, there is a sense that the overall game is limited since some of the modes can be completed rather quickly. As mentioned, a more frantic pace is practically nowhere to be seen. Since this came out after more fast-paced puzzle games on the Nintendo 64, this makes the game seem like it should have been one of the first Nintendo 64 games instead of being released near the end of its life. The graphics look like they would have seemed more at home on the Super NES, as they are little more than 2D sprites, sometimes appearing as paper cut-outs a la Paper Mario. The music has somewhat decent remixes of tunes from the first Dr. Mario game along with some new songs. Rudy’s theme is a pretty good final boss song, while Que Que is nice and catchy, though Cube is so dreadfully boring that you will want to hit the mute button whenever it plays.
All of this tells me that Nintendo wanted to milk the Nintendo 64 for all it was worth, even with the release of the Gamecube on the horizon. I suppose they felt that Dr. Mario 64 would be an easy way to earn some fast money, especially since only a few changes would be needed to update the classic NES puzzle game. As such, the game was probably rushed through production and thus feels more limited than other Nintendo games. I feel that Nintendo should not have bothered to make the game for the Nintendo 64, as Paper Mario and even Mario Party 3 felt like better ways to give Mario a grand send off before he would move on to star in a variety of Gamecube games. Had Dr. Mario 64 seemed more like a fast-paced puzzle game or if Nintendo had waited to release it on another system (it became one of the games featured in the Japanese-exclusive Nintendo Puzzle Collection for the Gamecube in 2003), it may have been a much better game.
This is not to say that the game does not have any merit. It is a decent way to spend a few hours or a weekend, and surely some fun can be had when playing against other players. Some modes can be fun for a while, and the voice samples from Mario and Wario are a joy to hear, as usual. Still, Dr. Mario 64 is a game that one should approach with a bit of caution giving that it does not feel at all like a title released late in the Nintendo 64’s life. Obtain a copy if you are a true puzzle game fan, but be warned that this is not the last great Nintendo 64 puzzle game that it could have been.