Mario Vs Donkey Kong
Screenshot by Destructoid

Review: Mario vs. Donkey Kong

Quit toying with me!

I’ll admit, the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series is one that’s passed me by. While I enjoy 2D platformers a fair bit, and certainly love my Nintendo handhelds of yore, these puzzle-focused adventures were never really on my radar. A remake feels like a natural time to hop on and see what I’ve missed.

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And to say it up front, it’s a good remake. In watching comparison videos between the old, oddly 3D-ish version on the Game Boy Advance and this new version for the Nintendo Switch, the difference is impressive. I can tell that Mario vs. Donkey Kong might have felt ahead of the curve in some ways, back then. Its puzzle-box approach to platforming certainly feels novel, as does its surprising demand for precision, timing, and understanding of how to navigate various hazards while routing a path between interlocking switches and mechanics.

These same novelties can provide a fair bit of frustration, however. And while it wasn’t ever enough for me to walk away completely, it did leave me feeling like Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a good remake whose faithfulness could elicit frustrations for a newcomer like me.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong (Switch [reviewed])
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo

Released: February 16, 2024
MSRP: $49.99

The base set-up of Mario vs. Donkey Kong is simple. Mario is selling some hot new wind-up toys made in his likeness, and Donkey Kong wants some. He decides the most rational course of action is to break into the Mario Toy Company to relieve the factory of some product. Mario, now apparently a loss prevention officer, sets out after DK to recover the stolen merchandise.

In practice, this means venturing through world after world, solving the different kinds of puzzle-platforming problems laid out for him along the way. I was never clear on whether Donkey Kong was implementing all these hazards for Mario, or if this was just a hazardous tour through the Mushroom Kingdom.

Screenshot by Destructoid

Give Mario back his Minis

Either way, Mario needs to recover the Mini-Marios on each regular stage, optionally recovering a red, blue, and yellow gift along the way if you want a Perfect instead of a normal Clear. How those factor in will come up later, but the gifts do sometimes form as some nice sign-posting for on-the-fly puzzle solving.

What I found really compelling about this set-up is how Mario’s limited move set is used to maximum effect. On the surface, Mario just has a Jump button and a Grab button, which will feel right at home for anyone that’s played a 2D Mario. You also only have one life—no Mushrooms to save you from a hit here—and a finite number of lives you carry over, level-to-level, occasionally getting more when they pop up, or through bonus stages.

Screenshot by Destructoid

Mario’s moveset isn’t too limited, though. Doing a backwards hop nets you some extra air, and there’s a triple jump you can perform for even more airtime by having the plumber do a handstand. Heck, even the handstand itself is used for getting through areas with falling hazards. Apparently, Mario’s got some sturdy feet.

So in each level, you use these abilities to navigate hazards and either get a key to a door, or reach a Mini-Mario. While things start off relatively simple, Mario vs. Donkey Kong starts throwing interesting logic into the mix even by World 2. Switches can turn color-coded apparatuses on or off, ranging from blocks to ladders and more. Jump height and movement speed can become crucial, as it means the difference between picking up a lingering key or not.

It feels really rewarding to slowly master maneuvering as Mario in these moments, as much as it does in other 2D Mario games. The puzzle focus scratches a different itch for me, too. It’s not just having to operate different On/Off switches or things like that, but the feeling of seeing a fairly contained level full of options laid out in front of me, and then pausing to scroll around and plot out a run. It’s a different Mario variety than usual, and I dig that, even if it meant the levels weren’t quite as showy as, say, a Wonder level.

Screenshot by Destructoid

Pitfalls

There are still some places where the mechanics show some cracks, though. First off, Mario vs. Donkey Kong can be surprisingly unforgiving at times. I never had my life count dip low enough to see what happens if the player runs out, but a few maps certainly ate my lives up fast enough that I worried. A few solves exist, including just hitting “Retry” instead of giving up the life, or turning to the fairly forgiving Casual Mode.

Controlling Mario can also get a bit funky. Mario vs. Donkey Kong demands a level of precision, at times, that surprised me. Sometimes this meant timing up a sprint past a fireball just right, or paying attention to whether Mario was holding onto one rope or two (he climbs up two ropes faster, but slides faster down a single rope).

Screenshot by Destructoid

Other times, this meant jumping towards an enemy at too diagonal of an angle was a lost life, or hitting left too early while hanging on a rope caused the plumber to leap to his doom instead of just leaving his hand outstretched, waiting for a moving rope to reach his palm. A decent number of my deaths felt pretty frustrating, as Mario seemed to just barely touch a hitbox.

Additionally, this might be a Pro Controller issue, but I’d sometimes have trouble trying to input moves like the handstand jump as fast as I’d like. I won’t rule out that controller’s D-pad as a factor, or even my own inputs; really, I’m pointing out that this game is demanding, more than I remember most Mario games being. It leads to a sense of accomplishment, sure, but it can also feel pretty infuriating in the moment.

There’s more frustration too, and for that, we’re going to need to talk about the Mini-Marios.

Screenshot by Destructoid

Like Lemmings

In your first run of the worlds of Mario vs. Donkey Kong, you’ll end each world with two stages. The first is an escort mission where you need to get as many Mini-Marios into the toy box as possible, after having them pick up the letters T-O-Y like it’s THPS. The second is a bit more straightforward: a boss fight with Donkey Kong.

Bless these little guys’ hearts. The Mini-Marios are adorable. I even like the way they call for Mario when he strays too far away, though they maybe say it a bit too often after that. But good heavens, they will drive you up the wall with their decision-making. Whether it’s a Mini-Mario deciding to wait too long to follow the rest of the line up a jump, or just lagging too far behind Mario and getting clipped by a Thwomp, the Mini-Marios were the number-one reason for a fast, frustrated Start-Retry Level in my playthrough.

Screenshot by Destructoid

The disconnect gets highlighted even more in the Plus levels, which you unlock after beating the initial set of worlds. This re-tour of prior levels is shorter, and tasks you with leading a single Mini-Mario with a key to the door at the end of the level.

When these levels work, they can feel pretty novel in how they require the player to think vertically, and how to manipulate various parts in new ways. Conveyor belts and switches got new meaning with Mini-Marios in play, requiring me to think of them in different, interesting ways. But I still wanted to tear some hair out whenever a random Mini-Mario decided to turn around just a little too slow, or get caught by a random hazard, or even just inch forward, face-first into their own demise.

Screenshot by Destructoid

Donkey Kong battles are comparatively simpler, mostly involving navigating one of the prevalent hazards of the world you’re on to chuck a barrel at DK. Most were pretty straightforward, and mostly involved anticipating how DK would chuck new challenges at you while getting a barrel up to wherever he was. They’re enjoyable, though nothing to get too excited about. I did love sending a barrel or Bob-omb right back at him, right when he thought he had me.

Many, many Marios

Between the normal worlds and Plus worlds, there’s already a lot to traverse in Mario vs. Donkey Kong. Expert Levels add an additional challenge, for those who want to seek it out, and you can only unlock them by accruing Perfect clears on previous levels. I got a pretty decent amount, but by campaign’s end, I had started to opt out of getting all the gifts in each level.

Maybe that’s a sign of some growing exhaustion from what Mario vs. Donkey Kong demands at any given time. The scale and parameters call for a surprising amount of pinpoint accuracy, like I’ve said before, and the life limit feels like a lingering doom clock overhead. Apparently, the GBA version also had bonuses based on time-to-clear, which sounds like an intimidating but interesting bit of added challenge that’s not so present here. (There is still a clock, but it only metes out how much time you have to clear, and only factors in as an extra metric if you want to challenge the Time Attack later on.)

Screenshot by Destructoid

Essentially, I found it hard to ever feel relaxed while playing Mario vs. Donkey Kong. I was, more often than not, locked into my forward, gamer-pose stance, knowing one slightly miscalculated angle or timing could spell immediate doom and one fewer life. I suppose that’s the benefit of casual mode, but my stubbornness prevented me from ever shifting into that gear. I guess it’s possible to both appreciate the challenge and still feel it a bit overbearing at times.

And for all my talk of difficulty so far, there are some levels in Mario vs. Donkey Kong that skew the exact opposite direction, especially early on and in the first few stages of a world. Some stages felt like I could see the exact road laid out for me, presents and all, and I just had to go through the telegraphed motions.

Yet for both sides of that, there were a number of levels I really adored, that clicked in and felt like solving a puzzle under hefty constraints. Feeling like I’d broken some new understanding of how just simple switches and world conditions could work while racing against the clock felt great, like solving a logic puzzle while driving a go-kart. At its highest heights, Mario vs. Donkey Kong elicits a mild, well-deserved rush.

Mario and Donkey Kong are fighting again

As someone who missed this entry the first time around, I’m really glad that getting this review meant getting to see a piece of Mario history I would’ve otherwise skipped. This year’s got no shortage of big new games to play, and even a new Mario game feels like it’s a bit lost in the ocean of new releases.

It’s hard to feel like this is essential, but it is a good revival. All of the old content, and even some new, combines here to make for a solid take on Mario that feels a bit different from most of the plumber’s recent outings. In fact, it reminds me the most of puzzle levels users would make in Super Mario Maker; filled with both platforming precision and logical puzzle-solving. It looks pretty good too, with a soundtrack that could easily get stuck in my head. I found myself humming along to some of the world stages as I worked my way back through the Plus levels.

Screenshot by Destructoid

So if you’re looking for a distinctly different flavor of Mario, then Mario vs. Donkey Kong might be the thing for you. As a newcomer, it didn’t feel like a revelation, but it did feel like an intriguing time capsule that opened my eyes to the breadth of what the traditional Mario game can look like. Part of me wishes it had a bit more Donkey Kong in it; while he’s ostensibly the villain making a menacing reappearance each level, he took a back seat to my true antagonist: every Mini-Mario that ran to their doom.

I could see myself blasting through levels of Mario vs. Donkey Kong while waiting for a flight at the airport, or on the train to work, and that’s the best-case scenario for this package, brimming with bite-sized platforming challenges. It may not contain all the spectacle of others, but there’s enough precise jumping and quick calculations here to satisfy the more hardcore, goal-oriented, score-chasing Mario players around.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

7.5
Good
Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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Author
Eric Van Allen
Senior Editor - While Eric's been writing about games since 2014, he's been playing them for a lot longer. Usually found grinding RPG battles, digging into an indie gem, or hanging out around the Limsa Aethryte.