Review: Nintendo mines old concepts for fresh ideas in 'Mario vs. Donkey Kong'


As a remake, Mario vs. Donkey Kong won't break any new ground in the genre, but it does show how this style of puzzle-oriented platforming still has legs and the potential to surprise players despite its simplicity. — Photos: Nintendo

Before Mario was Mario, Nintendo referred to him as "Jumpman," and he was the protagonist who battled Donkey Kong in the legendary arcade game of the same name. The great ape kidnapped Pauline, Mario's girlfriend, and held her atop a building with steel girders as he tossed barrels at Jumpman.

It's a simple premise and one that occurred on a static screen. Players could see all the action as Mario leaped over barrels, grabbed power-up hammers and climbed to the top. Although Mario and Donkey Kong have gone their separate ways and had success in side-scrolling platformers, the concept of leaping over obstacles, climbing ladders and grabbing hammer power-ups still had level design and gameplay potential.

Idea revisited

Nintendo revisited those ideas in Mario vs. Donkey Kong on the Game Boy Advance. For its time, the title punched above its weight with graphics and sound that pushed the system to its limits. Now, the Japanese company has brought it back on the Nintendo Switch with a revamped look, co-op play and new levels.

Unlike Super Mario Bros. games, Mario vs. Donkey Kong features a pared-down move set. Mario can't sprint, toss fireballs or anything like that. Unlike Super Mario Bros. games, Mario vs. Donkey Kong features a pared-down move set. Mario can't sprint, toss fireballs or anything like that.

The project follows the beef between the title characters. While flipping through channels, Donkey Kong sees an ad for the Mini-Mario toys and becomes enamored with the product. He goes to buy one and discovers that others had the same idea and the item is sold out. Upset, Donkey Kong visits Mario's factory and decides to steal his entire stock. That reignites a classic rivalry as Mario once again battles Donkey, trying to rescue his Mini-Mes.

Simple gameplay

The first levels are simple and show the basic moves. Unlike Super Mario Bros. games, Mario vs. Donkey Kong features a pared-down move set. Mario can't sprint, toss fireballs or anything like that. The title is more puzzle-focused as players negotiate obstacles as the hero tries to navigate a key to a door or Mini-Marios to a toy box.

Similar to the original Donkey Kong, the levels are essentially rooms that fit on a few screens. Mario will have to climb ladders, hit switches and deal with enemies. He has a few moves to do handle the situation. First off, he can jump, but not very high and his leaps aren't as floaty as other games. He can pick up enemies and toss them. Most of the time it's safe to rest atop their heads. Lastly, there's a hammer power-up that lets him knock adversaries out of his way just like in old-school Donkey Kong.

Similar to the original Donkey Kong, the levels are essentially rooms that fit on a few screens.Similar to the original Donkey Kong, the levels are essentially rooms that fit on a few screens.

Mario also has a handstand that lets him walk on his hands protecting him from falling objects. It also leads to a bigger jump with a second subsequent jump giving him more air. He can also do a backflip that helps him reach higher areas at a moment's notice. Along with that, the protagonist also has the ability to grab ropes and wires.

Complex levels

Although the move set is simple, players learn that the levels are complex. The worlds have themes that introduce a new enemy or hurdle such as conveyor belts, slippery floors or lasers. The goal for each stage is to get the key to the door, but that can be burdensome because the item disappears after 15 seconds if Mario puts it down. In order to complete the level, players will have to suss out the proper order of hitting switches or negotiate an intricate obstacle. That takes experimentation and a lot of dying and restarting.

Later in the Plus levels, Mario will have to ferry not only a key but also the Mini Mario that carries it. The scenario adds another layer of complexity and difficulty. Beyond that, players have Mini Mario levels where the protagonist has to herd six of his mechanical Mini-Mes to a toybox and boss stages where he must defeat the big ape himself. That adds up to more than 130 levels, which isn't the best value for the US$49.99 (RM236) price. It would be a perfect price at US$10 (RM47.32) less.

The goal for each stage is to get the key to the door, but that can be burdensome because the item disappears after 15 seconds if Mario puts it down.The goal for each stage is to get the key to the door, but that can be burdensome because the item disappears after 15 seconds if Mario puts it down.

It is enough content to keep players busy for a few days and most of the stages are a delight. The difficulty ramp-up is gradual, and nothing is too much of a problem until the fourth world, Merry Mini-Land. From there, the level design grows in complexity. If playing it on Classic mode, the game could be tossing-your-controller-at-the-wall challenging, but with the Casual mode, it becomes more manageable and forgiving. There's also less pressure to keep an eye on the tally of player lives.

If players want a friend to join in the fun, Mario vs. Donkey Kong also has a two-player mode. It's couch co-op and adds even more complexity to the puzzle solving with an addition key. It requires more coordination as the second player controls Toad.

As a remake, Mario vs. Donkey Kong won't break any new ground in the genre, but it does show how this style of puzzle-oriented platforming still has legs and the potential to surprise players despite its simplicity. – The Mercury News/Tribune News Service

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Mario vs. Donkey Kong

2 1/2 stars out of 4

Platform: Nintendo Switch

Rating: Everyone

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