It is easy to notice Mario vs. Donkey Kong was never meant as a grand statement or as a fierce competitor for the crown of best Game Boy Advance title, but as an ideal and content-packed handheld experience; and, in that regard, it is a very big success
In 1981, Mario and Donkey Kong had a bit of a historic meeting in arcade cabinets around the world, as they took on the roles, respectively, of hero and villain in the aptly named Donkey Kong. In what would turn out to be the debut of two characters that would, to different degrees, be key in the development of the gaming industry, the plumber – then a nameless carpenter – was tasked with progressively climbing the bare bones of a building in construction in order to rescue his girlfriend, Pauline, from the hands of the ape.
Given both man and beast would eventually go on to star in major platforming series of their own, it is easy to forget that the Donkey Kong franchise – which, in a way, started it all not only for its two main stars but for Nintendo as well – continued to develop via a chain of sequels that expanded upon its gameplay. Among all of those, the one that arguably took the biggest liberties with the core concept of the property was its fifth outing, released for the Game Boy thirteen years after the original game hit arcades.
Also called Donkey Kong, perhaps as an indication that the gameplay it offered was so significantly different in comparison to what came before it that the work qualified as a reboot of sorts, the game held plenty of similarities to its precursor. Via a sidescrolling perspective, Mario was meant to traverse tight platforming levels that stood far apart from what he would usually tackle in a Super Mario Bros. adventure thanks to their structure, which instead of spanning horizontally was entirely contained within one or two screens of the handheld.
As such, much like the handful of stages presented in the series’ arcade inception, these courses gained complexity and length in how they used ladders, elevators, and platforms to create climbable scaffolds the hero was meant to overcome as he chased the gorilla, forging a unique mixture of platforming and light puzzle-solving, for besides avoiding pitfalls, traps, and enemies by jumping, players had to analyze the almost entirely visible stage and figure out a way to get through it.
Although it was positively received and even if it sported three of the key components of a successful Nintendo franchise (that is, charm, simplicity, and cleverness), it took a whole decade for the format to be revisited. And that occasion came up in 2004, when the Game Boy Advance received a new installment of the series, albeit under the re-branded label of Mario vs. Donkey Kong. In it, the world’s most popular mustachioed and surprisingly athletic stocky Italian has become the owner of a toy company that is about to release lovable little wind-up miniatures of the hero.
Unexpectedly, though, Donkey Kong, while sitting at home watching television, catches a glimpse of the product’s advertisement campaign and starts longing badly for the merchandise. Not too long afterwards, he breaks into the local store and walks away with a bag full of Mini-Marios, much to the horror of the Toad retailers who witness the theft. Promptly, the new entrepreneur goes after the obsessed criminal.
True to the narrow and self-contained nature of its numerous levels, the version of Mario that is present in Mario vs. Donkey Kong does no running, walks relatively slowly, and is subjected to physics that are unusual for his standards yet reasonable. However, the character still packs an impressive amount of moves, including some of a more athletic nature. He can do a handstand that allows him to block projectiles falling from above as well as execute a circus-like double jump; he can perform his traditional backflip, which is often a skill reserved to his 3-D outings; and, in Super Mario Bros. 2 fashion, he can pick up enemies and other objects from the ground and lift them above his head so they can be either used as weapons or simply moved from one place to another.
The absence of a running action speaks volumes about the type of gameplay that Mario vs. Donkey Kong possesses. As it happens in Mario’s quests of pure platforming, there is plenty of precision-demanding obstacles to be found: pits filled with emptiness or spikes have to be jumped over; static, movable, or temporary platforms need to be reached; burning oil drums, fire balls, invincible Boos, mean Thwomps, and other sorts of dangers must be avoided; vines have to be climbed; and more.
The slower pace of it all and the fact the distances Mario has to cover are short, though, open the way for a more meticulous kind of gameplay, and Mario vs. Donkey Kong embraces that rhythm to throw dashes of puzzle-solving into the mix. The riddles players have to clear rarely reach heights of staggering complexity; with the exception of some late levels, gamers do not really have to think very hard about what needs to be done. There is, however, an ingenuity that permeates the entirety of the quest, even if it really never impresses to a stunning degree.
Charmingly, all stages start with a brief – and skippable – animation that showcases the plumber executing an action that will be central to the beating of the course, alongside with the buttons that need to be pressed so that it is performed. It is a touch of family-friendliness; and the variety of these tutorials ends up revealing Mario vs. Donkey Kong is always finding new ways to take advantage of its simple mechanics and restricted environment.
Consequently, Mario vs. Donkey Kong has a nice array of different gameplay-affecting assets. Shy Guys can be thrown on spikes in order to become living platforms that will help Mario get through those dangerous zones; springboards and horizontal poles can be used by the character to reach considerable altitudes; wall-shattering Bob-ombs show up from time to time; trash bins can be carried around the levels so they can serve as stepping stones towards higher ledges; and switches of all types, which are so prominent they end up emerging as the game’s defining feature, abound.
These, in particular, can change the direction of treadmills; deactivate killing lasers; and make platforms appear. In all of these cases, they are the major fuel of the title’s puzzles, especially because when stepping on a switch of a certain color the platforms that are colored differently vanish, creating situations where gamers must carefully think about the order in which they will press the buttons and how they will approach each level’s navigation.
The main quest of Mario vs. Donkey Kong is broken into six distinct worlds of good thematic variety that individually introduce new mechanics and enemies to the formula, and each one of them holds eight stages. In the first six, Mario must go through two separate sections. Firstly, he will have to locate a key and carry it all the way to a door that has been locked by the fleeing Donkey Kong, and the fact holding the item makes him unable to climb stairs generates some interesting gameplay conundrums. After that, in the second segment, he must find a way to reach the Mini-Mario that has been left behind by the villain.
Meanwhile, in a nice twist, the seventh level of all worlds has the character leading his little army of minions through an obstacle course so they can collect three letters that will unlock a toy box which serves as their destination in the stage. Since the Mini-Marios move independently and are considerably smaller and less flexible than the hero, these levels pose the challenge of not allowing them to be hit by any foes as well as of finding a way to get them to locations that, to Mario, would have been very easy to reach, producing a gameplay dynamic that is very distinct from that of the rest of the game. Finally, all worlds culminate with one duel against Donkey Kong that, with unique twists, heavily echoes those of the original arcade title, with the ape launching objects at Mario while the plumber tries to find a way to get to him.
Individually, the levels of Mario vs. Donkey Kong do not take long to beat; more precisely, the time players can spend in each one of them is limited by a clock that falls in between two and six minutes, which speaks volumes about how they are brief and suitable for a handheld, allowing gamers to pick up the system for a short while, clear a few stages, and return to the game later. With that general brevity in mind, Nintendo takes a few important measures to build Mario vs. Donkey Kong to last, and they work.
First of all, and affecting the adventure’s length to a lighter degree, there is how Mario is, save for in boss battles, killed with a single hit or by falling from a place that is too high. It is punishing, and it is bound to make gamers have to retry many of the courses over and over again, but it rarely rises towards frustration because the progress that is lost is never truly significant due to the size of the levels. More important than that, though, is the fact Mario vs. Donkey Kong has a truly whopping ninety-six stages.
After finishing the six areas of the core game, a whole new adventure – also with six worlds and a boss encounter at the end of each one – is unlocked. And although they reuse the assets and scenarios of the main quest, the levels presented in this mode (which is thick enough to qualify as an extra game) are noticeably more challenging than and completely different from the ones faced before them. In fact, the distinction is so obvious that their goal is totally unique, for they have Mario activating a lonely Mini-Mario and guiding him through hazards.
Additionally, as a nice incentive for players to return for more, each stage yields a punctuation based on how much time was left on the clock, how many enemies were disposed of, and how many of the three optional gifts located in the level were collected (which, arguably are too easy to find at times). If the score is high enough, gamers will be awarded with stars that can then be used in the unlocking of twelve expert levels of especially high difficulty.
The overall charming simplicity and the generally competent level design of Mario vs. Donkey Kong make it easy to notice that the game was never meant as a grand statement or as a fierce competitor for the crown of best Game Boy Advance title, but was – instead – planned from the get go as a kind of effort that is ideal to a handheld setting. The abundance of content found in it is delightful and the way its brief puzzle-platforming stages were made to be cleared within a handful of minutes turn it into an ideal portable experience.
As a consequence, although it is not technically impressive, for its lovable visuals lack in scenario details and its audio leaves something to be desired in terms of quality, it is very enjoyable to play through. Furthermore, it rescued, from almost total obscurity, a gameplay idea that was tucked away in an overlooked Game Boy title and made it available to a new generation of gamers, who were able to – through it – revisit, in fresher colors and in a new expanded format, the historic duel that, from inside an arcade cabinet, put Nintendo on the map.