Wrecking Crew is one of Nintendo mascot Mario’s more underappreciated adventures — and a fairly underappreciated entry in the NES’ overall library, in fact.
First released for Famicom in June of 1985 and subsequently as one of the 17 launch titles for the Western Nintendo Entertainment System, Wrecking Crew is something of a departure from what you might typically expect from a Mario game — even outside of the main Super Mario Bros. series.
It’s a puzzle game with a strong emphasis on strategic thinking and forward planning rather than fast action or precise platforming, and it’s actually been one of my favourite games in the NES’ library since I first encountered it via the Wii’s Virtual Console service. Let’s take a closer look.
Wrecking Crew is one of several early Nintendo games that take the brothers Mario out of their usual “saving the Mushroom Kingdom” context and present them with an opportunity to do a “normal” job for once. In Donkey Kong, Mario was a carpenter; in Mario Bros., Mario was a plumber; and in Wrecking Crew, he’s a builder wielding a large hammer that, more recently, made a comeback in Super Mario Maker 2 as an unlockable powerup.
Wrecking Crew is noteworthy from a historical perspective primarily because of the names involved. The designer was Yoshio Sakamoto, who would go on to play a key role in defining the Metroid series throughout the 8- and 16-bit eras. The composer, meanwhile, was Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, who is now the president of Creatures Inc. — one of the several companies who make Pokémon what it is as a cultural phenomenon.
Each stage of Wrecking Crew is a vertically scrolling level a couple of screens high, and the task is simple: wreck everything that can be wrecked. Once all the destructible elements of a level have been demolished, play moves on to the next stage and the cycle repeats for a total of a hundred different levels.
Of course, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. There are different types of object to destroy, and as the game progresses you’ll quickly discover that it’s important to plan ahead lest you wreck the only ladder that would have allowed you to reach some out-of-the-way walls on an awkward platform.
That hammer’s really heavy, you see, so in this game Mario is unable to jump; he can, however, wrap around the screen from either side — and indeed some levels make this a necessity — or fall vertically down by dropping off the edge of a platform. But no; there’s no jumping here, and no momentum in the air, either, so no “diagonal falls” for you!
Mario’s task is also hampered by several different types of enemies, each of whom wander the stage in order to make life awkward. These cannot be defeated under normal circumstances, so rather than this being an “action” element of the game, they instead form part of the puzzle: each enemy type works on a predictable AI pattern, and understanding each of them is key to success in the busier levels.
The “Gotchawrench”, an enemy that looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a monkey wrench, homes in on Mario’s X and Y coordinates, falling off the edge of platforms when it reaches them and climbing ladders if necessary. Learning to manipulate the behaviour of these foes is essential to success.
The less frequently seen “Eggplant Man”, an aubergine wearing a welding mask, follows a strict set of rules rather than following Mario around. He will proceed in one direction, and will climb up or down any ladder he encounters in his path, only changing direction when he runs into an impassable oil drum. In this sense, they’re easier to predict than the Gotchawrenches, but they also move quite a bit faster so you’d better make sure you’re not in their way!
Finally, Foreman Spike runs around in the “background” of the stage, occasionally breaking objects or knocking Mario off the platform he’s on. He’s also the antagonist in the game’s bonus stages, aiming to find a hidden coin before Mario does. There are some theories that Foreman Spike is actually a predecessor to Wario — and indeed his appearance in the Japan-only Wrecking Crew sequel for Super Famicom indeed made him look rather like the garlic-loving antihero. But I digress.
There are few other ways you can interact with the enemies rather than just running away from them. Any foes that are climbing a ladder, for example, can be sent falling down to the bottom of the stage by demolishing the ladder that they are climbing. Spike can be knocked down by demolishing the object he is standing behind — but likewise if he destroys this first, it will be Mario who goes tumbling to the ground.
Most enemies can be knocked down more easily by finding a Golden Hammer power-up that appears by determining the correct order to use bombs in stages that have them, and the sole way to defeat an enemy permanently is to drop an oil drum on their head — the opportunities for this are fairly limited, and it’s also quite easy to trap yourself in the process, so you should take care! Some stages also have doors that Mario can open; when an enemy wanders into an open door, it will temporarily move into the same background plane that Spike is on, rendering them harmless for a short period.
Wrecking Crew is one of the more underappreciated NES games today for a few reasons, the first being that in terms of presentation it’s rather repetitive. There are no “worlds” to proceed through; each of the 100 levels feature the exact same tileset and catchy, jazzy musical theme by Tanaka, and some players find themselves craving a bit more variety after a while.
It’s worth remembering, though, that this is a puzzle game at heart rather than a platform adventure, and most puzzle games — particularly from this era — focus on creative application of simple mechanics rather than fancy aesthetics. The consistent look and feel of the game throughout also means that there’s no room for misunderstanding or misinterpreting what’s in front of you: you always know how things are going to react and interact when you see them.
The second and probably more significant reason that some people bounce off Wrecking Crew is because it’s challenging and unforgiving, with rather a sharp difficulty spike after the first few levels. Those accustomed to Mario games with more “freeform”, arcadey gameplay may find themselves needing a bit of time to adjust to how Wrecking Crew demands strategic thought, forward planning and, more often than not, very specific solutions. It’s rewarding once you get into the game’s rhythm, but on your journey towards that point you’ll doubtless encounter some frustrations.
Sometimes a single mistake can make a level unbeatable, and in some situations there is no option other than aborting the game completely and starting again; thankfully, should you have to do this (or indeed simply run out of lives) there is a “continue” feature that allows you to pick up from the stage you left off at rather than having to go from the very beginning again, though you lose your score in the process. You can also actually just select any of the 100 levels directly from the game’s title screen, even if you’ve never played them before, so if you’re really struggling you could just skip the troublesome stage.
More recent ports of the game feature a save state feature, allowing you to leave the game and come back to it later (or save scum your way to victory), and the recent Nintendo Switch version features a rewind facility allowing you to “undo” moves that got you into a mess. It’s up to your own sense of pride and honesty if you want to take advantage of these features!
Like its contemporary and fellow NES launch title Excitebike, Wrecking Crew also features a level editor, allowing you to build your own stages. The NES version lacked the ability to save these creations, since the original Famicom game’s edit mode relied on a cassette recorder peripheral that was never released overseas; later ports have corrected this issue by emulating the hardware behind the scenes — plus, of course, the save state feature can be used for this, too.
Wrecking Crew may not be to everyone’s taste thanks to its challenge factor and inherent repetitiveness, but compared to many of its contemporaries it’s hard to beat in terms of content. The 100 stages will take you a while to get to the end of — even taking advantage of features such as continuing, save states and rewind — and after that you could challenge yourself to clear as much as you can in a single run, score as many points as possible or build your own levels.
This remains one of my favourites from the NES’ library to this day, so if you’ve never given it a shot for yourself I recommend at least giving it a try — you might just find yourself having fun. Who’d have thought it?
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