Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review - Silly Gorilla, Mini-Marios Are For Kids

  • First Released May 24, 2004
  • NS

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong brings the puzzle-platformer spin-off back to its roots, with clever improvements and a beautifully toyetic facelift.

The original Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on Game Boy Advance was a victim of its own success. A successor to the stellar and underrated Game Boy version of Donkey Kong, it brought back many of the same puzzle-platforming mechanics with adorable mini-Mario toys serving as stage collectibles and story MacGuffins. But the minis ultimately became the stars of the sub-series and took over its identity. We've received a steady stream of Lemmings-like spin-offs since then, centered mostly around guiding minis through trap-filled stages. While those games were charming enough, they never quite recaptured the magic of Donkey Kong on Game Boy or Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on GBA. Thanks to a combination of quality-of-life improvements and visual flair that showcase what made those older games special, this Switch remake gives that original design ethos a new lease on life.

The minis are the impetus for the story, though, which begins when Donkey Kong spots the little clockwork toys and gets an insatiable appetite for them. He invades the Mario toy factory and steals all he can get his mitts on, and Mario--apparently concerned about his licensed merch--chases after the ape to recover them. Donkey Kong isn't the villain, per se, but more like a childlike, not-too-bright antagonist in an old cereal commercial.

The puzzle-platforming stages have Mario traversing through a series of traps and enemies to reach a mini-Mario in a vending capsule. You can collect a series of colored packages, carefully tucked away in hard-to-reach places, as a bonus in each stage. Once you've completed a series of six themed stages recovering the minis, there's a follow-the-leader stage where you guide them to the exit, attempting not to lose any along the way, and having them collect alphabet blocks (spelling "TOY," naturally). Then there's a boss stage against Donkey Kong, and the more minis you successfully guided in the previous stage, the more pips of health you have for the battle. Rinse, repeat. It's a nice little loop that allows each stage's goals to feed into the others.

Mario's nimble acrobatics feel natural and intuitive almost immediately. This isn't quite as smooth as a traditional Mario platformer, since it's built to facilitate complex puzzles that often involve picking up and moving platforming elements or enemies, but it's a very well-made middle-ground. Sometimes a puzzle solution will require some quick platforming precision, especially when you need to drop a key (starting a timer for when it will disappear) and then traverse the stage to get back to it. More often, though, simply knowing the solution is enough, and it doesn't ask for quick reflexes. That said, sometimes its visual similarity to a Mario platformer would play tricks on me--I had to learn the hard lesson that unlike in Mario 3, you can't actually stomp on a cannonball, for example.

One oddity is the antiquated presence of lives. I know this is a Mario staple, and I think there's still room in Mario platformer design for it, but it serves little purpose here. When you run out of lives, you hit the Restart button and continue where you left off, just like you would continue with an extra life. If you happen to have already passed through a gate, an extra life will save you a little bit of legwork getting to that checkpoint, but not much, and some stages don't have a checkpoint gate at all. There is barely any penalty, so in many cases there's no distinction between using a life and using a continue. So why have them at all? The anachronism seems to exist mostly to have a prize in the extra life bonus stages. But after realizing that there was no point, I stopped even bothering with those bonus stages.

This version of Mario Vs. Donkey Kong expands on the original with two entirely new worlds, making eight standard worlds altogether. Those two, called Merry Mini-Land and Slippery Summit, are peppered in between the older worlds and feel right at home alongside the others. Merry Mini-Land has a theme park motif with a heavy focus on riding wind currents, while Slippery Summit uses the classic Mario staple of sliding across ice to great effect in puzzle solutions.

Like many recent Nintendo games, the first half is just a primer, and the structure changes significantly in the second half. You'll see credits after the first set of eight worlds, but then you begin a Zelda-like "Second Quest," journeying through the same worlds with similar (but more difficult) gimmicks and traps, this time much more focused on the minis.

In this second half, instead of just traversing through a stage as Mario, you'll have a single mini following you around. Rather than simply knowing how to navigate the traps yourself, you have to become familiar with the automatic actions of your mini companion so you can guide them to safety. As in the original game, you can also unlock a series of Expert stages that are truly fiendish mixtures of platforming precision and difficult puzzle-solving that will put your skills to the test.

Those minis-focused stages lean harder on the puzzle half of the puzzle-platformer. In the regular stages, Mario's suite of moves and platforming precision will sometimes let you cheese a method that clearly wasn't the intended puzzle solution. Guiding your mini-Mario to the goal is fully reliant on learning about their limitations and how your own actions will prompt theirs, which can be very trial-and-error as you learn the ropes and then face new stage elements and obstacles. It's still the same game, but this portion feels much different due to that one change. I didn't mind escorting the minis, but I did occasionally feel frustrated when they didn't behave the way I'd expected. But then, without fail, I would discover the actual solution to a puzzle and how my own actions had led to previously failed attempts. You don't ever have direct control over the minis, but as little automatons, you are always indirectly in control of their behaviors.

The look of the minis is a real visual treat. While the toy Marios in the original game were a rough, pixelated mess, these look clean and shiny. Even better, all of the enemies have been given a major toyetic facelift. Shy Guys and Bob-ombs have wind-up gears and plasticine seams, while Thwomps and Boos have painted-on faces that rotate to show different expressions. It's a delight seeing how these largely familiar Mario enemies have been recontextualized as little clockwork toys.

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And beyond the modernizations like new stages and visual improvements, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong adds some other modern touches. A new "Casual style" smoothes over some of the difficulty by adding checkpoints with multiple lives. Rather than start a new stage from scratch when you die, you float back to the checkpoint in a little bubble. The puzzles are still difficult, but this change gives you a little more leniency for trial-and-error and grabbing collectibles, since you no longer have to perform one perfect run where you get them all together.

In the two-player mode, Mario is joined by Toad with a shared pool of lives, which at least gives some utility to the lives mechanic since one of you dying in a stage doesn't automatically start you over. Instead, you float in a bubble, similar to the Casual style setting, while the other player is free to continue navigating traps and puzzle elements. Toad is noticeably faster when it comes to some actions like climbing ropes, but he's otherwise identical and eschews the trend of making its secondary player function as an easy mode.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong feels very retro in certain respects. It's designed to be played in short bursts, which can feel anachronistic on a modern handheld hybrid that's perfectly suited for long play sessions. But it's also a throwback in the best ways, recapturing the clever aha moments of puzzle-platforming that made its predecessors so memorable, all while packing distinct visual improvements and quality-of-life tweaks that bring out its charm like never before.

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The Good

  • Puzzle-platforming challenges are as sharp and clever as ever
  • Refined visuals look great, especially for toyetic enemy designs
  • Two new worlds expand on the original while feeling right at home
  • Quality-of-life features like Casual mode and two-player mode help smooth out the difficulty

The Bad

  • Guiding minis through a stage comes with a learning curve that can feel frustrating
  • The presence of a lives mechanic feels especially anachronistic and pointless

About the Author

Steve completed Mario Vs. Donkey Kong in approximately 10 hours, finishing both sets of stages plus some of the Expert stages. A review code was provided by the publisher.