WARIO LAND: SUPER MARIO LAND 3 / Nintendo / Game Boy
The Super Mario Land games for the Game Boy were legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi's sideline from the beginning; with this third entry, the lineage formally transitioned to putting Yokoi's creation Wario at the helm.
These games always had at least a slightly different feel from mainline Mario since Shigeru Miyamoto wasn't involved with them, but this is the point at which it all really differentiates itself as a distinct platformer series with a unique style.
The setup is that Wario is out on the streets after Mario took back the castle in the previous game, so his plan is to hoard up some money and buy himself a new castle. Real enterprising, up-by-the-bootstraps type, that Wario. Anyway, his cunning scheme is to raid the cooking-themed island of the Black Sugar Gang. These notorious pirates have stashed up all sorts of coins and treasure, and Wario is gonna grab 'em all up for himself.
The game uses the fundamental shell of Mario Land 2, but with a lot of little tweaks and changes. Wario is a big boi and takes up more screen real estate, and the levels are designed to reflect that. They're more about careful exploration and proceeding with caution to find all the hidden coins, treasures and hearts (which contribute to extra lives).
This one also founded Wario's unique move set, and changed up how enemies are dealt with. Wario can walk into the (usually smaller) enemies with impunity, only taking damage if they have something pointy poking in his direction. He can then pick them up and throw them into each other or off of cliffs. Jumping on heads is still viable, but only as a stunner; Wario's go-to move is a shoulder charge that usually dispatches enemies right away as well as smashing blocks. Many enemies in this game have got wise to the Mario ways and can't be jumped on, but with one power-up Wario can do a "ground pound" that unbalances and stuns them instead. The game also introduced two entirely new powers - a bunny suit that serves as a jetpack that lets you air-dash for a long distance, and a dragon cap that spouts off a flamethrower that has a significant wind-up and cool-down time to negotiate.
The scrolling is actually a little choppier than it is in Mario Land 2, but it ends up working out just fine due to the game's pacing - it's never really about fast action or crazy jumps. When the game does have more action-oriented segments, they feel oddly more like the modern Mario Maker trend of precise timing and pre-planning chains of moves than they do the Mario games of the time.
What keeps the game spicy with this slower overall pace is the timer. You get about 300 seconds to explore each level, which is adequate but not overly generous. It's always more than enough to clear the level, but can start forcing you to really move with a purpose when you're backtracking to find a hidden treasure or a secret exit to another level.
The overall goal is also a little less linear. You do eventually work your way to a final boss showdown, but the ending you get is determined by how many coins and treasures you hoard up. To get the best ending, you need to complete all 40 levels, find all 15 treasures and max out the coin count.
The only really big knock against the game is that it feels like it got off to a strong start, but kinda petered out on either budget or ideas as things go on. For example, after you complete the first world some of its levels change substantially. One of these changes opens up a path to one of the hidden treasures. So you think the whole game will work this way ... but that never really happens again in any of the other worlds. The treasures and paths to optional levels are sometimes well-hidden, but never get to that level of involvement again and often don't even require a particular power to get to.
Still, everything is well-designed and the levels are a pleasure to explore for their own sake. The game also manages to balance the Wario charisma with also feeling a little more weird and dangerous than the standard Mario platformer.
* Gameplay Video