Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review – Perilously Fun Puzzles

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review

Normally, Mario games are all about freedom of movement. Mario vs Donkey Kong mostly does away with this, which I wasn’t prepared for. This latest iteration of a long-running puzzle series trades that intense physicality for careful planning and clever solutions. Yes, I’ve somehow never played a single game in the MvDK series. As a total newcomer, I’m impressed by the game’s ability to make you think. On the other hand, the platforming is too intense for such limiting controls.

Fans of the series will recognize this release. Nintendo has taken the original GameBoy Advance title and rebuilt it from the ground up. The music, the visuals, and all the underlying systems are brand new. The result is a familiar game with a fully modern look and feel. For the most part. This is still a side-scrolling puzzle/platformer, after all. The character models have that distinct Nintendo polish, and the environments are equally slick. Buttons, blocks, and deadly traps all look tangible and tactile. The animations are smooth, though movement is decidedly less so. But this is by design.

Walk, Don’t Run

Since this is a puzzle game, Mario’s moves are more subdued. He’s almost like a regular dude, with a tiny jump and a gentle walking speed. There’s no running in this title either. He’s exactly as vulnerable as always, but your limited motion range somehow emphasizes this weakness. And I know, okay? I get why he has to walk slowly and jump badly and stop when he lands. All the puzzle designs are built around his more limited movements. It’s just a bad time, sometimes. I found myself holding Y to run time after time. I knew full well it was useless. Yet I did it all the same.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong review

Puzzle design in Mario vs Donkey Kong is clever enough, but there’s a platforming aspect as well. I got used to the controls, though one obstacle nearly defeated me for good. Any level with the falling bricks is immediately the hardest one in that particular world, full stop. It’s here that not being able to run feels downright cruel. I lost countless lives to that malevolent stack of stonework. And you will too!

The Bricks Are The Worst

Beyond the blasted bricks, the rest of the level designs are terrific. New ideas are always being added to the mix. Things like conveyor belts, color switches, spike pits, and ropes all keep things fresh and frantic. You’ve got a whole host of different enemies as well. But thankfully, their movements are just as restrained as your own. While the sheer number of level elements gets a little dense, you’re never overwhelmed. Instead, new ideas are introduced with a steady drip-feed, one stage at a time. Thanks to this system, I managed to get pretty far before getting well and truly stuck the first time.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong review

Mario vs Donkey Kong can get tough in a lot of interesting ways. There’s the Classic and Casual modes, for starters. Classic mode has a timer, one-hit KOs, and no checkpoints. But, you can also make things harder with the presents. Every stage has three to collect, and they can really complicate things if you let them. You can even add more challenge to boss fights by finishing them without being hit. On the other hand, you can add a second player to make certain puzzles a bit easier. The game is exactly as hard as you want it to be, which rules.

Stuck On The Landing

I quickly got used to the controls, with one exception. Mario has this habit of stopping after landing a jump. That doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but it’s a real momentum killer. Especially if you’re trying to run from something deadly, that extra few seconds can be immediately fatal. I lost a bunch of lives accidentally standing around while some monster or other hazard struck me down. It sounds awful, but I never felt discouraged by these failures. The game lets you restart any section quickly, which can circumvent any loss of life. If you’re quick enough, that is. Even a game over screen isn’t a giant obstacle to your progress. Things got tough, but I never felt like I couldn’t move forward. I just needed to try again.

The puzzles in this game are clever, well-constructed, and satisfying to solve. At the same time, the platforming can be frustrating. The jump mechanics take some getting used to, and the controls don’t have that Mario feel. But this too is a sort of puzzle to solve. You’ve got to learn the basics all over again, in a way. Once I accepted this, Mario vs Donkey Kong really opened up for me. I took my failures in stride. I pushed for perfection whenever possible. Soon enough I was having a great time. For longtime Mario fans new to this series, this new paradigm might take some adjustment. But I assure you, this investment of time and effort is worth it.

***A Nintendo Switch code has been provided by the publisher***

The Good

  • Slick new visuals and music
  • Multiple difficulty options
  • Clever level design

The Bad

  • Controls feel clumsy at times
  • Falling bricks are the worst
  • Frustrating jump mechanics