Towers Above

I am a certified Wario Aficionado. This isn’t just an excuse to talk about that time I played every Wario game again, this is the rare case where bona fides actually matter a bit. A lot of digital ink has been spilt about how Pizza Tower is the true second coming of our lord and savior Wario. That Peppino Spaghetti is the harbinger of good platforming, here to bring us to the promised land of body slams and HURRY UP level end sequences. Whenever you’re told on loop that something’s going to be The Greatest Noun To Ever Verb it’s not unreasonable to be skeptical, especially if you happen to have 100s of hours in the exact franchise it’s claiming to be reincarnating. So I avoided the demos, the Kickstarter, the growing fandom, everything leading up to Pizza Tower’s release. I knew I had to play this, and more importantly I knew I had to go in as blind as possible to reasonably evaluate it. The goal was never objectivity – there’s no such thing as an objective opinion – I just wanted to see the game for what it actually was without the specter of hype looming over it.

The titular tower must be toppled, and you’re just the Italians to do it.

What immediately became clear to me is that while Pizza Tower is certainly a “Wario-like”, it isn’t just that. It’s every platformer. Yes, all of them. This game was made by devs with an immense amount of knowledge of the genre in its totality. I saw shades of over a dozen other games or series I recognized. Some were by direct mechanical homage: Sonic, Donkey Kong Country, Kirby, Megaman Zero, Mort the goddamned Chicken, and tons more. Others were direct or debatable references: Bubsy, Plok, Skullmonkeys, and I’m going to mention Mort the Chicken again because I still can’t believe it. I don’t claim to fully know or even be correct on all the things I recognized or perceived as recognizable and it doesn’t really matter – my point is that if you’ve ever played a platformer something here will activate your neurons, but the game throws so much at you so quickly that you’ll barely be able to process it. 

The first point of sensory overload is the game’s presentation. In a word, it’s incredible. Buttery smooth animations on everything that never stutter or look any less than hand-drawn, absurd amounts of detail, sprites squashing and stretching all over the place. Peppino in particular is the most authentic depiction of anxiety ever created, constantly freaking out and visibly shaky even when smiling, which is not an especially common occurrence for the poor bastard. This is coupled with a soundtrack so packed full of earworms that you’ll need to take a prescription for it. Each level gets its own unique track and they’re as varied as the game itself. Many tracks are enhanced by some excellent use of samples, and as you’ll come to see this is just one of the many ways the game reinvents preexisting material to achieve its own, fresh ends.

The game’s bosses are intense, which makes landing phase-changing hits like this all the more satisfying.

Platformers live or die by the joy of movement. You spend most of your time running and jumping, so if it isn’t fun to scroll the screen the game is going to suffer. Pizza Tower addresses this with one of the most varied and satisfying movesets I’ve seen in any platformer. Peppino has so many moves that I’m not going to even attempt to list them all here, but the important element linking them all is momentum. Your dash button is essentially a gas pedal, allowing you to hold it to run forward and switch directions easily, losing minimal speed in the process. Hitting mach 3 and 4 even disables the enemies as they panic at the sight of the world’s fastest Italian, allowing you to run clean through them with no issue instead of avoiding them or stopping to grapple. Every collectable snagged and enemy destroyed will keep your combo going, but that’s not essential for anything other than keeping your score high. You can’t actually die in any level beyond the self-contained boss fights (think Wario Land 2), and as long as you don’t pancake yourself onto a wall or get hit by an enemy most moves will maintain your momentum, so you can zip through levels with the quickness once you know what you’re doing.

That speed gets tested at the end of each level as you smash through the level’s Pillar John, triggering the terrifying Pizza Time and starting a timer. It’s here where Pizza Tower plays like the end sequence of a particularly messy heist as you speed your way back through the level, this time taking alternate escape routes that weren’t accessible to you before, scrambling to make it back to the entrance before time runs out lest you have to start the whole thing over again. In some levels this can feel especially tight as enemies spawn in and obstacles shift. There isn’t a single one of these escapes that isn’t chock full of tension. It’s the most analogous and recognizable piece of Wario Land 4’s design to borrow as each of that game’s levels ends similarly, but as much as I love WL4 it rarely achieved the same degree of frantic fast and furious panic that Pizza Tower reliably produces. Different moveset, different vibe, different result, and I like what’s here just as much if not more.

This isn’t a screenshot, I just think Gustavo and Brick are perfect and I love them.

What the game throws at you is unpredictable to a fault. The game introduces Wario Land-style transformations early on and these are generally contained to individual levels, so you’re kept constantly guessing as to how the game will mess with your traversal next. Most of them reduce Peppino’s arsenal to a couple moves in order to test your skills in specific ways. Unlike Wario Land 2-4, however, none of these ruin Peppino’s ability to haul ass. You’ll slide, roll, fly, bounce, play as entirely different characters, the works, and every single one of these controls equal parts intuitively and satisfyingly. I cannot prepare you for some of the places this game takes you, though I can say my personal favorite levels were mostly in the game’s latter half as things get increasingly unhinged and my overall favorite was probably “The Pig City” for its bizarre pseudo-narrative as you progress through your rampage. It would be a shame that so few of the game’s concepts are revisited if the sheer breadth of content here was any less consistently good, but the bar never so much as dips even once.

That consistency is vital in a game with so much potential for improved execution, and while Pizza Tower never requires much from you to get through a level it absolutely demands it to achieve ranks above an A. The standard video-gamey D through S ranks are available on your initial run, but the illustrious P ranks only become available on a re-run (unless you blitz the tutorial, just a heads up) and require some ridiculously tight constraints. Most notably, your combo can never break for the entire level and you’ll need to run the Pizza Time escape for two laps in the same time limit. It’s entirely optional but incredibly satisfying to optimize your route and hit the pose at the end of the level, demonstrating your mastery of the game’s advanced techniques and enjoying the improved victory music. You’ll enjoy your first playthrough, that’s for certain, but it’s on replay where the game truly comes into its own and that’s a commendable feat. I’ve only gotten a couple P ranks on replay thus far but I want to earn more, and that’s more than I can say for almost any video game.

This felt good.

I’ve made a point of comparing Pizza Tower to a lot of other games throughout this review because they’re useful as reference points. The thing is, to focus solely on possible inspirations or direct comparisons does this game a disservice. Pizza Tower isn’t interested in just being a new Wario Land, it wants to be an ascendant and triumphant entry into the league of Weird Platformers ™ in its own right. It yearns to mach-4-slam its greasy fist directly into your heart, to be so good that it makes other platformers look limp by comparison. It’s an incredibly ambitious game with seemingly endless ideas. Any game that spins so many plates at once could reasonably be called a success even if some of them end up on the floor so long as the end result is entertaining, but Pizza Tower never drops the spaghetti. It spins all of them perfectly, then launches them all into the air and catches each in its gaping maw one by one, crunching through the ceramic all while emitting one long continuous scream.

Pizza Tower is a new high-water mark for platformers as a genre. I am in awe of this game, completely unable to find a single substantive criticism, and also a little bit afraid of it.