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[Review] Mario vs. Donkey Kong

Posted on February 24, 2024 by in Reviews, Switch

Mario vs. Donkey Kong review

System: Switch
Release date: February 16, 2024
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo

For as much as Mario’s continued success can be traced back all the way to his debut in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong, outside of the occasional professional sporting tournament, kart race or fistfight, he and the famous ape rarely share the screen these days as much as they used to. And it really isn’t Mario’s fault, now is it? How concerned can we expect him to be with a banana-obsessed gorilla while Bowser is off transforming into floating sentient castles in Super Mario Bros Wonder? That said, I’m pleased to report that the characters’ rivalry is still alive and well, brought to the forefront once again with this release of Mario vs. Donkey Kong. A remake of the titular 2004 Game Boy Advance puzzle-platformer that spawned its own series, this game sports both enhanced visuals and some new stages and modes. But is that enough to warrant a revisit and bring in new players, and how does this enhanced package hold up twenty years after the original?

The Mario vs. Donkey Kong series saw six handheld games released in the span of about a decade – seven titles in total if you count that off-kilter, amiibo-focused game, I suppose. Later titles in the series played almost like Lemmings, with the player being responsible for keeping an always-marching sqaud of Mini-Marios from endangering themselves, but that wasn’t always the formula. The original 2004 Mario vs. Donkey Kong was very different, playing more like a traditional puzzle-platformer with closer mechanical and thematic ties to the arcade Donkey Kong games. It’s very interesting to me that Nintendo decided the best way to bring this spin-off series to the Switch would be by remaking that original release, and while it could be as simple as wanting to celebrate that game’s 20th anniversary, to me it feels more like Nintendo attempting a soft-reboot. Fortunately, Mario vs. Donkey Kong makes a compelling case for this scenario.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong review

If you’re playing this game for the first time, don’t expect it to feel wholly like a traditional 2D Mario adventure. Rather than guiding the plumber through big, dynamic side-scrolling levels with power-ups and secrets galore, Mario vs. Donkey Kong’s myriad of stages are designed to play more like bite-sized puzzle boxes. The majority of levels are split into two phases. First, the player needs to find a key located somewhere in the level, then figure out how to help Mario carry it to a locked door. Second, after doing so, Mario will then need to find a way to traverse to the Mini-Mario toy located in some hard-to-reach spot a totally new room. There are still plenty of hazards strewn about though, and they pose a real threat for sloppy players like me – on the game’s Classic difficulty, Mario goes down in a single hit. In this way, Mario vs. Donkey Kong asks players to be intentional about how they navigate through the maze of foes and obstacles: to study the layout of a room, try and determine the best way to complete the objective, and then execute on the plan precisely.

So, why is Mario going through all this trouble? Well, because Donkey Kong is otherwise about to bankrupt Mario’s burgeoning business empire, that’s why. In Mario vs. Donkey Kong, Mario is apparently a majority stakeholder in a thriving toy company that seems to exclusively make toys that resemble… Mario. A bit self-centered, sure – but he’s doing something right, because these wind-up Mini Mario toys are apparently so popular and hard to find that they’re selling out everywhere (wait, did this game predict amiibo in 2004?!). This, of course, makes Donkey Kong very unhappy, because in his relentless pursuit of worldly pleasures, he simply has to have all of them. Naturally, the only logical thing for him to do is break into Mario’s toy factory, steal a bunch of them off the production line, and then hightail it through the Mushroom Kingdom. Yes, this is the actual premise of Mario vs. Donkey Kong. It’s very silly and I love it, because it’s an excellent reason for me to not care about the story at all and enjoy dozens of very good puzzle-platforming levels and occasionally battle a large, not-very-bright gorilla. Let’s be real – if DK really wanted those toys, he should have simply bought them at four times the MSRP on eBay from a scalper like a true fan.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong review

As goofy as the scenario is, it’s clear a lot of work has gone into reimagining the art direction of the Game Boy original to account for the Switch’s capabilities. Mario vs. Donkey Kong trades the pixel art of the original title for crisp, colorful 3D models, resulting in a moment-to-moment experience that feels significantly more lively. Mario’s detailed animations aren’t quite as exaggerated as they were in Super Mario Bros. Wonder, but he still has a delightful springiness to his movements, and the overall production value feels very high across the board. There’s a subtle look of shiny plastic material to much of the environments, almost making it look like Mario himself is wandering through a series of children’s playsets. I wish the environmental backgrounds were a bit more dynamic – they appear to be static images, and they aren’t very interesting to look at – but the action all takes place in the foreground, so it’s not a big deal. All things considered, this game’s presentation feels closer to that of a mainline 2D Mario entry than I expected, and that goes a long way to make the experience feel bigger. There’s also the simple matter of how much nicer it is solving these puzzles on a larger screen – it’s a huge shift from parsing the cramped GBA display.

The reality is that most of my focus during gameplay was on the layout of the stages themselves, rather than overall aesthetics. Stages in Mario vs. Donkey Kong may often be small, but they can have a lot going on mechanically. You’ve got laser beams, spike pits, heavy Thwomp-like crushers, Bob-Ombs, moving platforms and conveyor belts – just to name a few. Most of these elements are gradually introduced over the course of the game, but a major recurring element are colored switches that trigger red, yellow, and blue objects to appear or disappear onscreen – stuff like ladders and block platforms, for example. Triggering one switch will disable any switches of other colors, and this simple mechanic can create some fairly clever puzzles when combined with the other pieces at play. For example, Mario may need to get a key past some lasers to open a door, but getting it there might be made more difficult by the fact that you need to figure out how to get to the red-switch first to activate some otherwise invisible platform.

There’s also the matter of Mario’s moveset. It’s much more limited in Mario vs. Donkey Kong, acting as yet another layer in many of the puzzles. He has a few new tricks, like a handstand walk (that can be leveraged into a useful backwards triple jump), but in general he’s not as nimble as he typically is. For example, while Mario can crouch, he can’t crouch and walk at the same time in this game – so how can you get him through that small gap in the floor? Another big departure is that that this time around, Mario doesn’t stomp on enemies. Instead, he can stand on top of (most of) them and use them as a platform, or he can pick them up and throw them. Mario is also a bit heavier-feeling in general – there’s less control of his trajectory once he’s in the air than in his typical 2D games, meaning less forgiveness for poorly planned leaps.

These elements all work in tandem, and it’s very satisfying moment-to-moment. Even though most of Mario vs. Donkey Kong’s puzzles are ultimately based around traversal to a goal, they’re elevated by the need to analyze how each obstacle in a level might also be able to be utilized as a tool, if only the player can first find a way to get there safely. The game always presents the player with all the information they will need to find the solution, and for me, what made it all fun was the light trial-and-error that came alongside whether or not my strategy to actually get Mario to the objective was feasible. Even when I did figure out the optimal order of operations on my first go, it was ultimately still on me to be able to execute it – and Mario’s fair but firm physics made this very rewarding, time and time again.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong review

Beyond collecting keys and toys, each world in the main campaign also has a stage in which Mario must guide the six Mini-Marios safely to the exit, helping them avoid hazards. These levels are a great change of pace, and there’s incentive to do them well, because each Mini-Mario that survives will let Mario take an extra hit of damage in the next level: a boss battle against Donkey Kong. I had a blast with these too, as they combine some of the mechanics from each world with gameplay that’s a bit more reflex-based; with each hit DK takes, his attacks get faster. It also never gets old to pick up a barrel or bomb and try and nail a well-timed toss at DK, only to see him get all annoyed when you manage to do so. The music during these sequences is great too, mixing some familiar Donkey Kong sounds with the excellent jazzy bops that accentuate the action.

Some critics have stated they feel Mario vs. Donkey Kong is too easy, and perhaps for some it won’t pose much of a challenge. It’s true that only a handful of the levels overall ever stumped me for more than a few attempts – I was able to get through most of them in a single go. That said, overall I think Mario vs. Donkey Kong strikes a great balance – the combo of Mario’s fragility and a strict timer means some focus is required for efficient play, but never so much that it’s stressful, nor so little that it ever feels mindless. If you want, there’s also a Casual difficulty setting, which lets Mario take more hits and places some checkpoints around the levels. I used this mode here and there, and it’s great if you want to take a more relaxed approach.

It also doesn’t take very long to get to the credits – only a few hours for most players, I’d reckon. That’s even with two new extra worlds having been added to the game’s main campaign compared to the original version, which feature some new hazards and some tricky puzzles, but nothing crazy. The good news is that there’s much more to do in the game after reaching “the end.” To my delight, after beating all eight worlds, the player unlocks new “Plus” versions of each one, with entirely new levels to complete. These levels are shorter than those the first time around – there’s only one phase, rather than two, and it’s all about getting a Mini-Mario to the goal – but regardless, it essentially doubles the amount of levels in the main story. There’s also a whole suite of Expert stages that can be unlocked by accumulating Stars for thoroughly completing normal levels – this means picking up all the optional collectibles along the way, and not taking damage during boss fights. If you played the original Game Boy version, you’ll already know this, but it’s a very nice addition for new players in particular. If you want even more, there’s even a Score Attack mode that’s unlocked after beating the game, and full local co-op play to boot. I was impressed to find that co-op actually modifies how some of the stages play out, meaning your experience will be slightly different if you play with a friend. It’s a great boon for replayability, and for me, helps justify the $50 price a bit more.

The Verdict: Recommended

Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a great remake of the 2004 Game Boy Advance original, one that captures the spirit of Mario’s 2D adventures into a denser, more puzzle-focused experience. Clever interconnectedness of Mario’s movement mechanics with tight puzzle design makes each stage feel like a satisfying maze to navigate through, and there’s just enough variety between levels to help things feel fresh throughout the runtime. A wide swath of post-credits bonus levels and extra modes add a lot of optional content, there’s solid replayability for completionists, and co-op play is a great extra feature that feels fleshed out for a game of this scope. There may be not enough truly new additions to satiate returning fans, but the impressive reworked visuals are a huge leap forward for this spin-off series, even if they can’t compete with last year’s Wonder. Mario fans looking for a breezy but still-rewarding puzzle-platfomer will find a lot to love in Mario vs. Donkey Kong; now, let’s hope it won’t take Nintendo another decade to make another one of these!

Mario vs. Donkey Kong copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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