Game Description: When Mario decides to open a toy factory, his old enemy Donkey Kong shows up on the scene to sabotage the business. The old grudge has started up again—help Mario pursue Donkey Kong and retrieve the stolen toys, while avoiding the dangers of a factory!
He'll never win, of course. There's something cruelly ironic about that "versus" in the title. After all, if Mario ever really vanquished any of his enemies, he'd only have appeared in about three or four games. Which is why Nintendo, realizing that such an ill-fated prophecy would be better suited to the character than the company, have constantly reset the battle lines for every outing in the beleaguered plumber's 23-year career. Hence, as usual, this is no fair fight: Mario remains the underdog and Donkey Kong remains, well, king Kong.
And the history is important here. Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a puzzle-platform game based directly upon the original GameBoy's classic Donkey Kong '94, which was itself an ingenious take on the original Donkey Kong arcade game from way back in 1981. The gameplay? Chase Donkey Kong through a seemingly endless procession of spatial and switch-based puzzles, making use of Mario's inimitable acrobatic prowess. What's new? Well, Mario has managed to get his name in the title this time around. And it shows.
From the rounded, shiny character models to the saccharine color-coating of every generic environment, this is a typical 21st century Mario product. No longer the mute "Jumpman" of the original, our hero now has a proper name, a detailed appearance, and a fully-fledged cod-Italian voice that incessantly chirps out his favourite catchphrases. Even Donkey Kong, having taken centre stage in his own platform adventures 10 years ago, has his own repertoire of comedy pratfalls and sound effects. Why do I mention all of this? Because it's remarkable that such thick, impenetrably American gloss does not ruin the title. Mercifully, the game underpinning Mario vs. Donkey Kong's schmaltzy exterior is a distinctly old-school experience of touching simplicity and integrity.
Again, as in DK '94, a set of oh-so-simple moves and rules combine with such coherency and common sense that the emphasis is placed almost entirely on the quality, variety and ingenuity of the first-rate level design. Few developers dare to do this, and instead try to fob us off with gimmicky ideas under the guise of "innovations." Nintendo, on the other hand, rarely innovates until they've got the basics truly mastered. M vs. DK is a celebration of that mastery, and it's hugely satisfying.
The ability to freeze time while scanning the level layout is an excellent feature, allowing the player to plan ahead and appreciate the strategic side of these spatial conundrums. However, the correct path through each level is a little more obvious and straightforward than in the GameBoy original, so planning your progress now takes more of a back seat to time-pressed platform expertise. Not that this necessarily makes it a lesser game. In fact, Mario vs. Donkey Kong arguably boasts an even stronger all-around structure than before. Not only do the uniform stage-sizes and auto-save function make the game a wonderfully digestible pick-up-and-play experience, but the level design itself benefits from greater variety.
Standard levels consist (as before) of collecting a key and using it to unlock the door through which Donkey Kong has escaped. However, as a refreshing alternative to this already proven formula, every other level asks the player to simply rescue a stranded baby Mario toy. By comparison, these levels are pleasantly direct, and usually demand slightly more physical dexterity than they do puzzle-solving acumen. They also set up the ingenious, Lemmings-style levels that pre-figure the final boss encounter of each stage, in which Mario must safely guide the toys he has freed back to their toy box (each saved mini-Mario then affords our hero one life in the imminent boss encounter). It's a little derivative perhaps, but brilliantly implemented nonetheless. And that pretty much sums up the entire game.
It would be cruel to say that this wasn't every bit as good as its predecessor. It may be virtually the same game, and those who already chased the monkey ten years ago ought to know that they're not missing out on anything if they pass up this opportunity to do it all over again. But that's not really the point. Games like Mario vs. Donkey Kong will always be relevant as long as they remain fun, clever and rewarding, and as long as we have a perennial underdog like Mario to champion. He'll never win, of course. But he's damn good at trying.
It seems to be a truism that any game starring Mario is going to sell well. That classic name conjures warm fuzzies for most Nintendo fans, whether they started out on the 8-bit NES series or with Super Mario 64. Mario vs. Donkey Kong does its best to uphold that heritage. This game pits the mustachioed Italian plumber against his original nemesis, Donkey Kong. Unlike Andrew, I didn't play the original Donkey Kong '94 . But I knew about it, and I was anxious to play this updated title, knowing it to be a mix of puzzle-solving and classic platforming.
Right away the production values jumped out at me. That isn't to say that I liked the new aesthetic. Mario's squeaky voice of recent years is always ready to greet the player, and is my least favorite feature of the one-time Jumpman. The sprites are plasticized-looking three-dimensional (3D) renderings, and while they give the game an aura of 3D street cred, I'd rather have seen shiny two-dimensional (2D) sprites to complement the inherently 2D gameplay.
The gameplay, of course, is what counts. Nintendo does a good job of introducing the player to play mechanics via pre-level tutorials. I quickly learned the importance of jumping, one- and two-handed climbing, key tossing and the back-handspring. The game seemed easy at first but the difficulty ramped up appropriately. At times it seemed too difficult, because there were jumps (mostly involving vines) where the controls didn't feel spot-on. My favorite parts of the game were segments that reminded me of Lemmings, where Mario had to act as a pint-sized Pied piper to capture stray mini-Mario dolls. I wish there had been more levels that focused on this task, because these mini-Mario portions stood out to me as the best parts of the game.
Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a smartly executed title full of polish. The small levels made for nice, bite-sized challenges as Andrew points out. Yet this same thing made it hard for me to experience a sense of involvement, because I wasn't compelled to play for any length of time. Another issue is that Mario is more rewarding to players who want to maximize their score--complete each level with the shortest time, get all the bonus items and so on. My gaming attitude lately has been less about arcade-influenced high-scoring and more about completing levels, so perhaps I missed out on the designers' intent. As a newcomer to this Mario/Donkey Kong mix, I enjoyed the throwback to solid 2D gameplay. Yet despite the sheen of the implementation, Mario vs. Donkey Kong just didn't hold my interest for long.
It seems somewhat redundant to explain that Nintendo's latest Mario release contains nothing even remotely worthy of parental caution. Perhaps it is more worthwhile to point out that older gamers may well feel a little suffocated and excluded by the game's almost oppressive degree of cutesiness. Conversely, the young player might find themselves stuck on some of the trickier stages later on in the game. Ultimately, it's a question of patience and perseverance, for which the player will be duly rewarded.
Despite being very much a Mario title in both appearance and gameplay style, M vs. DK sees Nintendo in full puzzle mode. So while platform fans could feel a little short-changed by the limited scope of the levels, anyone who enjoyed (for example) Nintendo's recent Pikmin franchise will really appreciate these tight, fun-sized bursts of action-strategy.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers are suitably catered to with distinct and clear visual cues, which also save everyone else from having to listen to the tinny tunes and annoying yelps that characterise the game's audio.