Mario vs. Donkey Kong Hands-On Impressions – Nintendo’s Original Rivalry Renewed

Back before Mario was Super or DK had his Country, the two debuted together in 1981’s Donkey Kong, and while the pair have had a lot of adventures since then, some folks remain nostalgic for that classic arcade action. It seems Nintendo holds a torch for it as well, as they’ve delivered a number of spiritual successors over the years, including the critically-acclaimed 1994 Game Boy version of Donkey Kong and the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series. Now, after nearly a decade away, Mario vs. Donkey Kong is returning with an expanded Switch remake of the original Game Boy Advance entry in the series.

Does Mario vs. Donkey Kong still hold up or is it time to put this rivalry to bed? I’ve had the opportunity to go hands-on with the newly-refreshed Mario vs. Donkey Kong, playing through the game’s first four worlds, so hop on down the page for my initial impressions.

As Mario vs. Donkey Kong opens, we find that our mustachioed hero has become an industrialist, opening a factory that produces miniature toys modeled after himself. Perhaps fed up with Mario’s ego, Donkey Kong decides to steal all the toys and Mario gives chase through dozens levels to recoup his investment. Don’t expect much more than that from the story, but it is fun to see Mario and DK in slightly different roles than they play in their mainline franchises.

True to the original arcade Donkey Kong games, Mario vs. Donkey Kong presents a series of short platforming stages, most of which aren’t much more than a couple screens wide/high. The goal of most levels is to reach and free a Mini-Mario toy while optionally collecting three presents along the way. After playing through six standard stages, you’ll then lead your little toy troupe through a Lemmings-style Mini-Mario level. The Minis will attempt to follow Mario wherever he goes, but only have very limited jumping abilities, which means you’ll have to be crafty to lead them to the letters T-O-Y and then into their toybox. However many Minis you get into the toybox will then represent the amount of hits you can take against Donkey Kong in an ensuing boss fight. Best DK and it’s on to the next world to do it all again.

This is all brought to life via handsome, if unflashy, new visuals. The original GBA Mario vs. Donkey Kong featured 2D pre-rendered DK-Country-style visuals that haven’t held up that well aesthetically, while this version of course goes for modern polygonal models. While the stages themselves are a bit bland, Mario and his enemies animate very smoothly and the whole game has a nice crisp look to it. I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed the game’s jazzy soundtrack, which I recall being a lot more grating coming out of the original GBA hardware.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong is generally labeled a puzzle-platformer, but make no mistake – unlike a lot of entries in the subgenre, a lot of emphasis is still put on the platforming here. The way Mario maneuvers here feels a bit different than most of his platformers as, staying true to the original DK games, the plumber’s jumping ability is somewhat limited with less of a focus on physics and momentum. That said, Mario does have a few moves unique to this series, like the handstand jump.

The puzzle aspect of Mario vs. Donkey Kong isn’t overly complex, with each world usually introducing one or two new mechanics, from climbable vines to flowers that blow Mario and other objects around in the newly-added Merry Mini-Land world. Typically, we get a few variations on each new mechanic, but they aren’t harped on until they become a bore. Admittedly, the puzzle-ish elements become a bit more devilish-ish later in the game, but early on, the goal isn’t to break your brain, with most of the mental stimulation coming from trying to grab the three presents in each stage and the Mini-Mario challenges.

That isn’t to say Mario vs. Donkey Kong is necessarily easy. Again, this is primarily a platformer, and the game’s approach to platforming is actually rather unforgiving, with a single misstep meaning death unless you’re carrying a key or other object. Even with a fair amount of Mario vs. DK experience under my belt, I still died a handful of times while making my way through this game’s first few worlds. Thankfully, that never really felt frustrating as stages are brief, 1-Ups feel more plentiful than before, and there’s even a new Casual mode for beginners, so there’s nothing pushing you away from giving that challenge one more try.

Current Thoughts on Mario vs. Donkey Kong

Mario vs. Donkey Kong won’t blow your mind with its wealth of fresh ideas — it definitely isn’t Super Mario Bros. Wonder — but based on my few hours with the remake, it does provide some solid bite-sized bits of old-school platforming well suited for those playing in short spurts on the go. It remains to be seen if the full package provides any surprises, but it feels like this collection of mini challenges ought to be worth stuffing in your sack.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong arrives on Switch on February 16. You can expect a full review from Wccftech prior to launch.

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