Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review

Mario vs. Donkey Kong cutscene header

When they first burst onto arcade cabinet screens in 1981, Mario and Donkey Kong instantly became one of the greatest hero and villain pairings since Pong’s left and right paddles. Yet as iconic as they were at the start of the decade, by the end of it Mario had moved onto fighting oversized spiky turtles, and DK was lining up for his own reptile-bashing platforming series, but beneath it all there was still this simmering rivalry that would be rekindled with Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a GBA classic now remade for Nintendo Switch.

Compared to the original Game Boy Advance game’s pixels and sprites, Mario vs. Donkey Kong has been lovingly remade with 3D graphics, bringing it much of the look of a New Super Mario Bros. or Mario Bros. Wonder. It’s a solid remake, and there’s nice changes like all of the enemies now being made to look like mechanical toys, though with the shift to modern graphics might come expectations of modern Mario Bros. platforming gameplay, and this game is not that.

There’s no princess kidnapping in this game, but rather DK fell completely in love with mini wind-up toy Marios to the extent that he’s made off with a whole factory’s worth of the cute little gizmos. Naturally Mario gives chase, but as opposed to the usual side-scrolling fare, this is much more of a puzzle platformer to test you wits.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong puzzle platformer

There’s still plenty of the Mario platforming that you’ll expect to find here, with the plumber-turned-toy-magnate able to jump, pull handstands, somersaults, clamber up ropes at double speed and more, but it’s all in aid of finding a key, taking that to a door that opens to a second half of a level, and then finding the Mini-Mario toy to finish the stage. There’s also three present boxes to snag on the way through a level.

A lot of the puzzling boils down to using coloured switches to bring coloured blocks in and out of existence, but there’s also enemies that you can stand on, pick up and throw, using them as temporary platforms across spikes, Bob-ombs to blow up certain walls, and more ideas that appear on a world-by-world basis. If you play in the new co-op mode, a second player joins as Toad, making certain puzzles a little easier to deal with, but adding the wrinkle of needing a second key to pass through a mid-level door.

After six standard levels in each world, there’s a pair of palette cleansers, firstly with a level where you have to lead Mini-Marios to collect a few letter blocks in a level and then into a toy box, and then with a boss battle against DK where he’s hitting coloured blocks and you’re looking for an opportunity to bop him with a barrel or trash can. These fights are mostly variations on the same theme.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong boss battle

Unfortunately it’s all just… fine through the main story. The puzzles are all quite easily unpicked, the optional present boxes simple to grab with minor detours, and there’s very little risk of running out of lives (which only make you restart a level) or of running down the clock – two concepts that feel particularly antiquated here, and the impact of which is greatly reduced in the Casual mode, which removes the timer and lets Mario take five hits before losing a life. That’s true until the final world, where I ran through 30-odd lives on a single level, and all of the Mini-Mario levels which strangely feel like they have much shorter time windows for completion.

On the other hand this is a good thing, because while you have some of Mario’s iconic moves, he doesn’t feel as responsive or nimble here when you really need it. After catching and beating DK, you unlock the Plus story, which now gives you a Mini-Mario carrying a key to escort through each stage – a neat variation, albeit even more bitesized – and there’s also Expert levels for gathering collectibles through all the stages. These really push Mario’s abilities to the limit with much tighter timing needed for platforming feats, and precision to avoid hitting enemies from what the game judges to be the side (and therefore death) or the top (and therefore totally fine). As with so many Mario games, the real challenge is found after finishing the main story.

While it's been pleasing to see Nintendo revitalise certain parts of their back catalogue, Mario vs. Donkey Kong feels a bit dated, despite the modern graphics. I just wish there had been a slightly grander effort to modernise the feel of the game.
  • Faithful remake of a GBA classic
  • Some lovely touches to new 3D graphics
  • New co-op mode and additions
  • Puzzle platforming is rather simplistic until Plus and Expert levels
  • Controlling Mario isn't as slick as you'd expect
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