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.