In short: Dr Mario World.
First, the original. Fortunately, Dr Mario is one of the NES games available with Nintendo Switch Online, and it’s on the NES Classic Mini, so it’s not hard to track down. But, along with what seems like all NES games apart from Kirby, it is hard.
It’s a classic tile-matcher, but it’s worth reiterating the specifics: you start with viruses in place, and eliminate them by including them in a row or column of four tiles of the same colour, achieved by moving and rotating capsules as they fall down the screen.
What makes it more unforgiving than something like Tetris is how hard it is to recover from mistakes. Most capsules are two-coloured, so it’s not hard to get into situations where the capsules you’re given are no use. If, for example, you end up with a virus trapped at the bottom of a deep one-tile-wide hole, then you’re probably screwed. To compound matters, it gets fast quickly, so mistakes are easier to make.
It’s far from a bad game, of course, but it’s an excellent reminder of how uncaringly brutal games used to be in comparison to today.
Which brings us to Dr Mario World, which is altogether a more modern game – in good ways and bad.
The core mechanics are, to my taste, much improved. Capsules now rise up the screen, though a purple goo. Medicine? An unfortunate bodily fluid? Thick Vimto? Whatever it is, because you release the capsules onto the screen, it’s a much calmer, more considered game. In keeping with that, the levels are more tightly designed than Dr Mario, and the capsules you’re given are more deliberate, so it feels like there is an intended optimum solution. And instead of the unrelenting cascade of capsules, the challenge in World is a limit on the number capsules. It’s really quite a different game.
There are some other nice mechanics in there too. The nicest is utilising loose capsule halves: if a tile is unattached when you match three – not four as in Dr Mario, another concession to modernity – then it will float upwards, but you’re free to move it left and right to your advantage and keep the matches coming. It’s a neat tactic to bear in mind. The others – bombs, frozen tiles, shells – are more straightforward, and there are timed stages for a bit of variety.
As a free to play mobile game, there are compromises. Playing a stage uses a heart, and once you’re out of hearts you have to wait or pay up. A heart is replenished on successful completion of a stage though, so unless you’re on an absolute session it’s not unreasonable.
Also, there are power-ups you can buy using real-money diamonds to make a stage easier, or you can get a random one with coins which you earn in-game. Again, not too bad.
Then there are the doctors and assistants, all characters from the Mario universe. Assistants (you can have two) give bonuses, and doctors (you use one at a time) have special moves which are powered up through play and can be very handy indeed. Characters are far from cheap using coins, pushing the player towards diamonds. But what irks is that you don’t get to choose the character: you’re given one at random in exchange for your precious currency.
The other frustration is that it requires a network connection, which is a nuisance on the train, for example.
So Dr Mario World is the better game at heart, just tarnished by its disappointingly standard business model. It’s not a business model that seems to have worked, so fingers crossed Nintendo come up with something a bit more innovative for Mario Kart Tour.