Inverse Recommends

Dr. Mario Remains As Addictive as Ever on Nintendo Switch Online

The repetition only fuels my Neolithic desire to perfect the game’s hardcore matching requirements

Dr Mario game art
Inverse Recommends

Since 1990, people who like video games have had their minds blown on a regular basis. We've cycled through several Unreal Engines and 100-hour epics, like Skyrim and Elden Ring, and game director Hideo Kojima figured out how to put Norman Reedus in my PlayStation. But a great game doesn't require feats of magic and extraterrestrial technology; a good game simply needs to provide its player with motivation.

It seems wrong that Dr. Mario, which Nintendo recently added to its Switch Online subscription service, is still capable of stealing my entire morning, afternoon, or the dense, dusky moments before bed where I know it's time to sleep, but I'm not ready.

Cover art for Dr. Mario.


Dr. Mario is a bare-bones puzzle game from 1990. Its Game Boy port, which is what Nintendo upscaled for Switch Online, comes in typical, muted 8-bit grayscale. It doesn't look as sugar-coated as Dr. Mario's vibrant NES or Famicom versions, but this doesn't harm the conceit. Dr. Mario is a moving and matching game, like Connect 4 or Tetris. It takes place, so to speak, inside of a pill bottle the size as a municipal pool. Three types of viruses — black, white, and striped — float within it, which is where the actual pills come in. Dr. Mario, who looks unqualified and bug-eyed under a head mirror, tosses them in at random. You need to keep up with his pace, line up chubby pills vertically or horizontally based on their appearance, and eliminate obstructive viruses.

It is extremely repetitive. But the repetition only fuels my Neolithic desire to perfect Dr. Mario's hardcore matching requirements. Each time I stumble, causing the pill bottle to overflow and Dr. Mario to declare a "Miss!" I instinctively press my Switch's plus-sign start button like the game commands me to. Like other Switch Online ports, Dr. Mario also allows you to press ZL and ZR simultaneously to perform a frame-by-frame rewind of your playthrough. But I feel like this messes with the game's maddeningly thrilling randomization process, so I avoid it.

“The object of the game is to help Dr. Mario destroy the most sickening bunch of viruses around.”


I prefer to experiment with Dr. Mario's sparse but powerful gameplay options. Before you decide on those, you can choose to turn the music off and hunker down in your work, or set the mood with one of two theme songs by chiptune pioneer Hirokazu Tanaka ("Fever" offers sweaty frenzy, and the more metallic "Chill" clangs like your heart under a stethoscope). From there, you can set your "virus level" between a manageable level zero or destructive level 20, and decide if you want Mario to drop medicine at low, medium, or high volumes.

It isn't a complex customization system, but every combination of virus and Mario speed offers its own interesting challenges. Few viruses but many medicine capsules, for example, allows you to more quickly quash writhing bugs. But you'll have to prioritize making as many immediate color matches as possible. Otherwise, your pills — which come in black, white, striped gray, or several half-and-half combinations — will soon flood the bottle. Alternatively, if Mario is dripping medicine in slowly, but your bottle is infested with the maximum number of squirmy vermin, you'll need to pay more attention to how efficiently you flip your pills (they can be rotated once in one direction, horizontally or vertically) and nestle them into matching cracks. The pills stick to the first surface they touch, so you only have a few chances to set your tiles up for success.

In this sense, while Dr. Mario is a true puzzle game, new players will notice it inspires the same bleary-eyed dedication as mobile tile-matching games like Candy Crush or Bejeweled. Its straightforward, fast-paced rounds trigger a familiar desperation — you pound on your iPhone screen like you already had one golden, oily potato chip but decided you actually need a handful. So it's also not lost on me that this is a game about pills. They're medicinal, technically, but I haven't looked at Dr. Mario's prescription sheet with enough scrutiny to say with authority. All I know is Dr. Mario is good at building a juvenile dependency, just like the App Store, Coca-Cola, and big pharma all want me to have, but I don't have a problem with it. I swear.

Related Tags