Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review

Mario vs. Donkey Kong

by Matt Kamen |
Published on

Platforms: Nintendo Switch

When the original Game Boy Advance version of Mario vs. Donkey Kong launched back in 2001, it stoked the dormant rivalry between moustachioed plumber and sartorially equipped great ape for the first time in years. It also kickstarted an entire spin-off series of puzzle-platformer games, racking up a half-dozen entries by the mid-2010s. That first instalment is looking pretty dated nowadays though, so enter this high-def glow-up for the Switch, updating the original with new levels, fresh play modes, and impressive cutscenes to woo modern players.

Those enhanced cutscenes help to better establish a sense of character and emotion thanks to some beautifully animated moments. While they're not quite on par with the 2023 movie, they're a welcome inclusion when the set-up remains paper-thin: Donkey Kong decides he wants one of the hot new Mini Mario toys but, finding they're all sold out, raids the factory, and steals the entire supply. Mario, in what can only be described as a direct act of brand protection, leaps into action to recover the stolen toys and give DK a wallop.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong

Mario's revamped adventure is expanded from the six worlds of the GBA version to eight, taking in familiar locations such as Donkey Kong's jungle and Fire Mountain. Each is typically split up into six two-part stages – the first seeing you convey a key to a locked door, the second gathering one of the lost Mini Mario toys. Scattered across each half will be three gift boxes to collect, a new wrinkle for each puzzle compared to the GBA, and one that adds a touch more consideration in how you navigate each stage.

A sharp collection of brain teasers given more than a mere visual makeover.

Unlike Mario's more traditional platformers though, Mario vs. Donkey Kong feels like a nod to Super Mario Bros. 2, with Mario able to stand on enemies, either to ride them over obstacles such as spikes, or pick them up to throw at other foes. Beat each of the world's main stages and you'll open up a Lemmings-style level where you'll guide the rescued Mini Marios around to gather items, before a boss fight against Donkey Kong, evoking the earliest arcade appearances of both characters.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong

The gameplay is largely unchanged from the 2001 original, then – bar a few tweaks such as doing away with awarding scores for each stage in favour of awarding a 'Perfect' star for grabbing each item – but that's no bad thing. It's cosy without feeling too dated, in that way that only Nintendo seems to master. Meanwhile, those two new worlds – Merry Mini Land and Slippery Summit – add a few fresh mechanics to test returning player's skills even further. It makes for a game that's still brilliantly suited to brief bursts of on-the-go play with the Switch in handheld mode.

Yet there's also a gradually escalating difficulty to the game, one that its cutesy aesthetic hides well. Each stage ups the challenge slightly, and by the latter half of the game, you'll be needing to memorise layouts and enemy movements as if you're planning an elaborate heist, accounting for every variable in order to uncover each stage's secrets.

However, unlike traditional 2D Mario platformers, the emphasis here is squarely on the "puzzle" part of the "puzzle-platformer" equation. While Mario still has plenty of gymnastic moves at his disposal, including jumps, vaults, and handsprings, he never feels quite as responsive or precise as in his core series outings. This can be frustrating at times, making for even more exacting leaps between platforms, and an inability to react as swiftly to enemy movements. Thankfully, there's a new 'Casual' difficulty, which does away with both time limits to beat each level and Mario's one-hit instant deaths, making some of the toughest stages a bit more approachable.

Along with a few other well-implemented upgrades — notably the addition of local co-op multiplayer where a second player can join in as Toad, with two keys to chase in each level, plus a new Time Attack mode – 2024's Mario vs. Donkey Kong makes for a smart return to the series; a sharp collection of brain teasers given more than a mere visual makeover.

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