Like a lot of gamers of my generation the Game Boy was my first Nintendo console and alongside Tetris (obviously) my first Nintendo game was Donkey Kong. The game, sometimes known as Donkey Kong ’94, is so much more then a remake of the company’s first ever hit. The familiar four construction site levels are just the beginning, giving way to a hundred-level puzzle platforming odyssey once beaten. Although many Nintendo fans missed it Donkey Kong on the Game Boy is a platforming masterpiece that for many years existed as a standalone on the old grey brick. But in 2004 Nintendo decided to resurrect its smartly conceived format with a follow-up of sorts; Mario vs Donkey Kong.
Whilst lazing around watching TV Donkey Kong catches an ad for a brand new Mini Mario toy. Captivated by the wind-up character he hurries out to the toy shop only to find they’ve sold out. Not one to give up easily the great ape decides to rob the factory instead and makes off with a whole sack full of the toys with the real Mario giving chase.
The find-a-key-then-take-it-to-the-door-to-progress level structure of the original game returns. This time round each level is followed by another challenge in which you must simply get to a Mini Mario toy. After six of these pairs of levels you will be challenged by a Mini Mario stage in which you must carefully guide your six clockwork doppelgangers to the safety of a toy box after first getting them to collect the three T-O-Y letters. Manage this and you must face up against DK. Each Mini Mario you successfully protected in the preceding challenge will represent a single life for Mario in the boss battle. There are six rounds to get through to beat the main story but that isn’t the end of the challenge by a long shot.
There’s a good bit of variety to the gameplay which apes that of the earlier game almost exactly. All the old moves including backflips and hand springs are back but nothing feels as fluid as it did in the earlier title. The levels themselves are often ingeniously designed making frequent inspired use of a three-way colour-coded alternating scenery system. Jumping on red blue and yellow buttons will make platforms, blocks and ladders of the corresponding colour appear while the other colours disappear. Simply finding your way to the goal is stimulating enough with this setup but it really comes into its own when working out how to move keys and Mini Marios around the levels. Having said that the game makes rather more frequent use of this concept than is strictly necessary and can play out rather like a skipping record.
One thing that is missing this time round is the strong sense of location found in the Game Boy game which sent Mario on a lengthy journey through jungles, deserts and canyons and while the 1994 game made the most of its hardware the same can’t be said this time. The graphics are fairly plain and the 3D sprites look rather muddy and unappealing. The sound fares better with a handful of spirited ditties but Charles Martinet’s voice work as Mario, of which there is possibly more here than any other game he has featured in is the best and most amusing part.
There’s a fair amount to get stuck into and many of the tougher levels ought to give players a good test but a gamer of skill can complete everything the game has to offer in less than five hours. The clever design remains very entertaining throughout but the title as a whole isn’t all that memorable compared to its older sibling. Puzzle fans are sure to get a lot out of it and the game does plenty to earn its place as a hidden gem in Mario’s back catalogue.
Design – 7
Gameplay – 7
Graphics – 6
Sound – 7
Longevity – 5
There are some rough areas and some of the magic of Donkey Kong ’94 is AWOL but Mario vs Donkey Kong is an intelligent and satisfying puzzle platformer with plenty to recommend it nonetheless.