Review: Mario vs Donkey Kong (GBA)

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I wrote this for the Official Nintendo Magazine (UK) a few years back. It’s a rewrite of this article which is where they found me. “We’ll give you money if you write a new version just for us” they said. So I did. NOM skewed a little younger so I wrote it as if to a younger audience. It’s a bit punchy, and I feel like knowing why helps a bit.

This one’s enhanced with some new pics too.

Mario vs Donkey Kong

Everyone’s favourite fat plumber returns to battle that great ape one more time.

The title screen

Our story begins, as it usually does, with a monkey watching TV. Lying on the couch channel-surfing late at night Donkey Kong spies a commercial for some wonderful new Mini Mario globes, and he’s instantly enraptured. Wouldn’t we all love a spherical Italian plumber to call our own? Those charms are hard to resist, I tell you.

Immediately our buddy DK rushes out to the shops only to find they’re completely sold out. Now as you may have seen on the National Geographic channel gorillas are quick to anger, and ol’ DK won’t go home empty handed, oh no. He breaks into the conveniently-across-the-street Mario Toy Company and steals an entire batch of Mini Marios.

The ol’ monkey watching late-night TV

This is where the real Mario comes in, our hero in red. It’s his (and therefore your) responsibility to track down this mischievous monkey and rescue the Mini Marios. That they’ll be rescued only to be sold into virtual slavery to slobbering children and nauseatingly cute schoolgirls is entirely not the point.

In typical Mario style the game is divided into worlds, with names like Donkey Kong Jungle and Fire Mountain, and stages, imaginatively called things like 1-3 and 4-2. You must complete a level before you move on, but after you’ve beaten it you can come back to it any time and give it another run. This will come in handy later.

Each stage is divided into two halves, both with simple and clear objectives. For the first half you must help Mario pick up the key and carry it to the lock, a task that’s often complicated enough on its own, as Mario cannot carry the key up ladders or while dropping from too great a height.

In the second half you find and rescue a Mini Mario that Donkey Kong has left behind. As you might expect there’s more to it; your progress is complicated by both a vicious time limit and bonus presents, as well as natural hazards. And animals. It’s a big bad world out there, kids.

DK will smash that button and reverse the conveyors
while you try to carry the bombs and throw them at him

Each level is trickier than the last, and happily the difficulty curve is perfect. While you can sleepwalk through the first few stages it will quickly become obvious you should pay more attention or suffer the consequences. It’s not unlike school then. Even when you’ve come to grips with the controls and can plot your path through the stage in seconds you should probably apply a more critical eye. Sure you can tear through the game as fast as possible, but in each stage there’s more than a deviously located key and lock, there are other goals which are cruicial for getting stars.

Ahh, the stars – it wouldn’t be a Mario game without stars would it? That’s right, shake your head, it wouldn’t be. Every stage will reward you with a star if you play it right, and when you’ve acquired all the stars… Well, it’s worth your time, let’s leave it at that for now.

Jump up! Throw the key. Hit the switch! Get the key. Be quick!

You can easily beat the stages within the time limit, but each second left on the clock is worth a hundred points towards the score required to get a star. In addition there are three presents scattered around each stage, each worth enough points to make their collection almost mandatory – typically a third of the required amount.

At the start of every level Mario learns a new move, and there’s a lot of new actions he can perform now, like backflips, handstands and rope climbing. Once you’ve watched the brief tutorial it’s on to the action, and the action is – from the very start – all good.

If you could reach the blue switch you could block that laser…

Some players may experience some deja vu when playing Mario vs Donkey Kong. Many of the levels, and the fiends in the levels, pay homage to previous games in the Mario series. There are fireball spitting flowers, shyguys, ghosts and switchblocks, a certain gorilla, barrels and springs, all familiar items but here used in exciting new ways. Colour coded ghosts will freeze when you press the right switch, becoming steps. Others will become solid so Mario can pick them up and throw them.

The first levels take place in the Mario Toy Company complex, and they’re pretty simple. Training levels, really, which is handy ’cause it can take some time to figure out how everything works. One of the first things you’ll find are the floor mounted switches, which are not unlike the switch blocks in Super Mario World, which must be stomped on to activate ladders, blocks and platforms of the same colour. The changes aren’t permanent: activating the blue switch will deactivate the red, stomping the red switch will deactivate the yellow, and so on. It can take a few tries before you learn the proper order and layout of each level.

This is so much like Donkey Kong Jr ❤️

From there it’s on to the Donkey Kong Jungle, and it’s a lot tougher now. For starters there’s a lot of vines to climb. If you’ve played Donkey Kong Jr you know what I’m talking about here. Climbing, dropping and jumping to and from vines is the order of the day and you’d better be ready or that star will elude you.

Fire Mountain is where we start to separate the men from the boys (or monkeys from gorillas, perhaps?). It’s a lot more difficult now, and you’ll find youself working hard to knock a few seconds off your time to get that elusive hundred points for the star. There’s often several ways to complete the stages, and the most obvious one will rarely be the right one. If you’ve got a friend to team up with you’ll probably discover paths you’d never think of on your own.

Lasers, bombs, and a monkey with a switch.

Next up is Spooky House, which looks a lot like the Ghost House in Super Mario World. Here’s where the ghosts come in, smugly ethereal in their shyguy masks. Our old friend Boo is back as well, following you stealthily if you dare turn your back on him. There are a lot of moving platforms in this world, and Mario’s jumping skills will be taxed to their limit.

It’s every cool part of Super Mario World condensed into greatness

Mystic Forest is the next world we’ll encounter, with javelin-carrying shyguys and – luckily – lots of convenient hammers with which to bop them. There’s also conveyor belts, lots of conveyor belts, and there’s a new kind of switch to change their direction. One level has you remotely moving a key to the bottom of the screen using only the reverse switch. Very cool.

Twilight City Plus is where things start to get incredible – take everything you’ve encountered so far, and add lasers. Combined with springs, animals, conveyors, ladders, switches, keys – and yes – platforms, it’s stunning. And what when you’ve gathered all the stars? More? Say it ain’t so!

Verdict: This game is platforming brilliance, it’s some of the best original platform game to hit the GBA. If you can get over the fact that Mario never shuts up you can’t go wrong.

The first game:

Donkey Kong (1994), Game Boy Color

Mario vs Donkey Kong didn’t handspring out of nowhere. Back in 1994 Nintendo released a sequel to the original arcade Donkey Kong also called, strangely, Donkey Kong. Often referred to as DK 1994 to avoid confusion it was a phenomenal update on the original platforming game. You’d recognize it immediately as the prequel to Mario vs Donkey Kong, with most of the same play elements the same in both games.

Mario has most of the same moves, there’s a key and lock in every level, and all the incredible platform action is intact. There’s one hundred stages plus a final boss fight, enough to guarantee a lot of fantastic gaming. DK ’94 was one of the few games to support the Super GameBoy too, so while it wasn’t as colourful as the new game it was certainly better than other GameBoy games of the time.

Now in the original review I went into a little more detail about Mario’s history, and was quite a bit harsher about some aspects of the game. That one probably reflects my feelings about this amazing game with a little more accuracy. For the magazine I aimed to be a little less critical.

The game is absolutely awesome. The shitty pre-rendered sprites and annoying incessant Mario chatter do not really detract from its greatness, and in light of what a chatty bitch Mario has become in more recent games, it’s not really out of place here.

So, ultimately, it’s one of the best GBA games extant. You should get it.

[ May 29 2020 ]

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