Mario vs Donkey Kong review: Charming puzzler shows its age

Mario vs Donkey Kong review: Charming puzzler shows its age
Images via Nintendo

Written by 

Daniel Megarry

Published 

28th Feb 2024 17:26

Two decades after it first appeared on the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo's cute puzzle-platformer Mario vs Donkey Kong has received the remake treatment for Nintendo Switch - but is it worth revisiting?

Instead of rescuing Peach or travelling across the galaxies, Mario vs Donkey Kong paints the question: What if Mario was a toy-maker? Of course, he's making wind-up Mini-Marios (big narcissist energy there) and they're the must-have gadget of the moment.

Unable to nab one from the local shops, Mario's long-time frenemy Donkey Kong decides to raid the toy factory and steal all of the Mini-Marios for himself - leading our moustachioed protagonist on a mission to get them all back.

GGRecon Verdict

Mario vs Donkey Kong is a charming puzzler that’s great in short bursts, but the repetitive formula, short length, and occasionally frustrating controls leave it paling in comparison to other top-tier Mario outings on Switch.

Puzzles, puzzles & more puzzles

While Mario vs Donkey Kong shares its visual style with the New Super Mario Bros titles, its gameplay is more puzzle-solving than Goomba-stomping. Each level features two small stages to work through, with both requiring a golden key to be found and carried to a door to unlock it.

That might sound easy, but there are several obstacles in your way to stop you from achieving this. Whether it's falling bricks, a blocked path that requires a switch press to open, or a spike-filled pit that leads to instant elimination - you'll need to navigate them while also keeping the key safe.

A key in Mario vs Donkey Kong
Click to enlarge

If you drop the key, you'll only have 12 seconds to pick it back up before it returns to its original location. This is where most of the challenge comes from. During one stage, I had to throw a key onto a series of conveyor belts, press switches to change their directions as it fell, and then dash to the other side of the stage to pick the key up before it disappeared.

Solving its later puzzles can be incredibly satisfying, and the short length of each level makes it the perfect game to play in handheld mode when you've got 10 minutes to spare. I played it mostly before going to bed and found it quite relaxing.

Every world has six of these traditional puzzle levels, followed by a Lemmings-like level where you need to safely guide several Mini-Marios to a toybox, collecting three letters along the way to spell out T-O-Y. Finally, you'll take on Donkey Kong in a retro boss battle before moving on to the next world.

One issue I had with the game was the difficulty level. I breezed through the first few worlds on autopilot, which made me question whether it was ever going to pick up. Eventually, it does pose a challenge, especially during the post-game Expert levels, but it's a shame it takes almost half of the game's main story to get there.

A level in Mario vs Donkey Kong
Click to enlarge

Despite its overhauled visuals, it's also pretty clear that this is a 20-year-old game. Most levels are an exact recreation of the GBA version, which doesn't leave much room for creativity or variety. Many of the stages blurred into one - which is something I don't ever want to experience in a Mario game.

Speaking of our dungaree-wearing hero, he feels heavier and less nimble than you'd expect, requiring a lot more precision when navigating the environment. I appreciate that this matches the nature of a slower, more thoughtful puzzle-oriented game, but in reality, it feels clunky and led me to quite a few frustrating deaths, particularly when moving between ropes or trying to land a precarious jump.

What's new, Mario?

The most obvious change here is the visuals. Mario vs Donkey Kong on Switch is a huge upgrade from the original GBA game, with vibrant New Super Mario Bros-style graphics and CGI cutscenes that really pop.

It's not a boundary-pushing game by any means, but it's a testament to Nintendo's quality that they're able to deliver such a great-looking, smooth-running game on what is now dated and (presumably) end-of-life hardware. That's not something you can say for many Switch games.

In terms of gameplay, there are two brand-new worlds to explore. Merry Mini-Land is a theme park-inspired land that has floating flowers to mix things up, while Slippery Summit is your classic icy Mario world that makes traversal tricky. These levels fit in nicely with the existing ones and provide some extra value.

Difficulty levels have also been added to the remake. Classic mode provides the same experience as the original game, while Casual mode removes the timer and gives Mario extra survivability. You can switch between the two at any time, which is ideal if you're struggling with a particularly challenging puzzle.

Toad in Mario vs Donkey Kong's co-op mode
Click to enlarge

Finally, there's the option to play in local co-op mode. Here, a second player controls Toad and has to collect a second, smaller key before you can open each door. I tried this out with my partner across a few levels and found it to be a fun - if inessential - addition to the game.

While it's not entirely fair to compare it to other Mario games on Switch, it's hard not to think of the likes of Super Mario Bros Wonder, Super Mario Odyssey, and even the recent Super Mario RPG remake in terms of the amount of content, imagination, and variety they offer. There's not enough of that to be found here, sadly.

If you've already played the original Mario vs Donkey Kong on GBA, there's not much of an incentive to return for this remake - especially as a full-price game. My advice? If you're new to the franchise, wait for a good deal and give it a go later down the line.

The Verdict

Mario vs Donkey Kong is a charming puzzler that’s great in short bursts, but the repetitive formula, short length, and occasionally frustrating controls leave it paling in comparison to other top-tier Mario outings on Switch.

3/5

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A code was provided by the publisher.

Daniel is GGRecon’s Deputy Guides Editor. He graduated from university with a degree in Journalism & English Language before covering video games and LGBTQ+ culture at publications including Gay Times and Dexerto. His favourite games include Pokemon, Kingdom Hearts, Resident Evil, and anything Nintendo. You can reach him on [email protected].