Some people in this world may not know that the original character that you controlled in the Donkey Kong games (remember the Game&Watch game?) was, in fact, Mario. His name was Jumpman at the time, but he’s the character that came to be known as Mario, and soon starred in his own arcade game called Mario Bros. Since those days of jumping over barrels to save Pauline, the two characters went their separate ways, each having enough star power of their own to carry a game. Cut to many years later and Nintendo must have thought that it would be a good idea to try that old theme again, but this time to flesh it out with way more content for our jaded gaming selves. Thus, Mario vs Donkey Kong was conceived.
In the conception process the developers thought it would be wise to alter the game from arcade action to puzzle-based gameplay. And so they contrived a fanciful plot in which Donkey Kong is smitten with the new figurines of the famous Mario (suitably named mini-Mario) and goes in search of one. All the shops are sold out so he raids a toy factory and steals a whole bunch of them. Of course, Mario is not happy with this state of affairs and tries to rescue them from the big ape. So he chases Donkey Kong through six stages of finding keys and present boxes until he reaches the mini-Mario stage. Then he rounds up the mini-Marios and finally throws barrels at Donkey Kong to make him run off so that he can chase him through another six stages. What that goes to show is: plot is completely irrelevant other than to give levels a loose context. It’s a lot better than randomly throwing stages together with no overarching story to make sense of them, but it’s decidedly daft at the same time.
Obviously you play Mario, the good guy, who can run, crouch, jump and carry things like barrels and keys around. The mechanics of Mario are very different to the standard Mario platformers as there is no momentum in his movements and the jumps seem to have a more diagonal kind of arch instead of a parabolic one, like an upside-down V instead of an upside down U. I suppose it suits the puzzles well as you sometimes need pinpoint accuracy, but it doesn’t give off that slick feel that the Super Mario games have. For the first half of each stage you’ll need to get a key and carry it to the keyhole. In the second half all you need to do is make it to the door. This sounds simple, but there are always obstacles in your way such as different colour platforms which only appear when the corresponding button is pressed, or platforms that are moving around or in the wrong direction. But finding your way through the stage is only a small part of the puzzle. For every stage you clear you earn a black star – but in order to get a gold star you need to finish it with a score above a certain threshold. This means you’ll have to collect presents on the way, and most importantly you’ll have to finish the stages as quick as possible as your time is added on to your score at the end. Figuring out how to shave seconds off your time is great fun and the most puzzling (as in like a puzzle, not confusing) part. Of course, you can breeze through the levels without earning gold stars, but come on, what self-respecting person would be happy with a black star when a gold one is available? Besides, like in school, if you earn enough gold stars, you might earn a prize at the end!
So far I’ve described the bulk of the levels, but there are also the MiniMe levels in which Mario rounds up his “little guys” and puts them safely back in the toybox. The puzzles aspects of these are quite different, but they’re not all that difficult. One very well implemented feature is the little “videos” run before each stage which shows Mario doing some action that you may not have seen before – they’re sort of a tutorial to show you maybe how to finish the next level. I say maybe, as some of them actually mislead you! Anyway, once you’ve rounded up the figurines, it’s time to face Donkey Kong himself, and these are just like the classic games, with Donkey Kong at the top of the screen hurling barrels down at you while you try to get to the top and chuck the barrels back at him. Ok, they’re not exactly the same as the original Kong games, but they evoke those memories all the same, and they’re still a lot of fun, with each world getting it’s own unique Kong stage. Speaking of worlds, there are six of them, so there’s a total of 48 stages, and most of those stages have two sections. There’s a lot of gameplay there. I’m not going to spoil anything, but, that’s most certainly not all that’s in the game. Definitely not.
Before I go, I should mention the art style – they’ve gone with pre-rendered sprites similar to the Donkey Kong Country games, not pretty hand-drawn ones like in the Super Mario Bros games, and I must say that I would have much preferred it with the hand-drawn style. Nevertheless, the game has some good puzzle-solving elements, a lot of content and I thoroughly enjoyed the race-the-clock to get the gold star mechanic. Certainly this title is unique in today’s gaming landscape, and if you like puzzles this one will keep you entertained.
Pros: Lots of content and variation; good puzzles; well balanced gold star scores – some of the levels are very finely tuned.
Cons: Mechanics feel stiff; pre-rendered graphics.
You’ll like it if you like: Puzzle-solving, platformers in general.