Mario vs. Donkey Kong – Barrels of Fun

The story of the fight between the plucky Italian plumber and his beefy gorilla bully is a tale as old as time. Or at least, as old as Mario himself. Donkey Kong has been causing trouble for the ol’ Jump Man since the early days of the franchise, and he’s back to do it again in the remake of the aptly named Mario vs. Donkey Kong, originally released on the Game Boy Advance in 2004. I missed it the first time around (and since playing the remake, feel like I’m worse off for it) but it was a joy to go in fresh and experience it for the first time in its new and improved form, with extra levels, improved graphics, and a whole mode filled with co-op goodness. 


If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll find the heart of the game to still be much the same. It’s a puzzle-platformer that sees Mario, ever the hero, running, jumping, and environment-manipulating as he chases down Donkey Kong – the antagonist, but also clearly a victim of capitalism and all-too-susceptible to marketing. Donkey Kong has seen an ad for the newest big thing – the tiny clockwork ‘Mini Mario’, and has decided to buy out a whole store. When he finds that store already empty, he decides to steal them from the factory instead, sending a whole tonne of Toads into a tizzy and going on the run toting a sack filled with the goods.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong level screenshot
Mario vs. Donkey Kong level screenshot

The Mini Marios are mechanical, but also sort of sentient, so saving them from the clutches of a greedy gorilla is a compelling reason to chase him down. Each level will see you rescuing one of your captured comrades, and at the end of each section you’ll be tasked with guiding them to more permanent safety. Honestly, it didn’t take long before I actually felt pretty attached to the little guys. A little disturbed, because part of me really can’t figure out how sentient they’re supposed to be, but mostly attached, and more than a little protective. Is this what parenthood is like? I have to assume so. 


Making your way through the levels often requires some quick thinking, and at times a good amount of trial and error. Things are pretty easy when you start out but undeniably become more complex along the way, with the introduction of more brutal enemies and slightly more elaborate mechanisms blocking your path. Mario can navigate these using a series of increasingly impressive jumps, landing on switches and somersaulting over obstacles, but he can only do that while his hands are free. To finish each level, you’ll need to collect the key to unlock it along the way, and once he has that key in his hands he is limited to running and jumping. If you want to collect the extra items in the level as well as simply making it through, you’ve got to plan things properly.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong level screenshot
Mario vs. Donkey Kong level screenshot

And this is where Toad comes in. The biggest new addition to the remake is the inclusion of a co-op mode that brings our favourite little mushroom-headed guy into the mix, adding an extra lock (and therefore an extra key) to the door at the level end. It doesn’t really matter who collects which key, but you can only hold one at a time, so you’re forced to work together. Thankfully, having an extra buddy usually works in your favour. You can jump off each other, better co-ordinate switch management and timing, and try new ways (sacrificing yourself) to obtain collectibles. When you’re playing solo, one hit will kill you, but when there are two of you, you can bubble right back in. 


Though I tried out a few levels solo, the whole thing was way more fun with a friend. It gives the two of you a chance to talk out strategy, work together on boss battles, and generally just laugh along the way. Each level has its own extra bonus level that appears after you’re done with the campaign mode called ‘Plus’ mode which gets Mini Mario more involved in the whole thing, and let me tell you there’s nothing quite like leading a mini version of yourself around, dying, and then having a friend come straight along and valiantly call “HE’S MY SON NOW, I WILL PROTECT HIM”. I just couldn’t have experienced that on my own. I’ll forever hear “MM’s” sad calls of “Mario” as I fell to my death, but am comforted knowing that Toad was there to care for him. 


Did I get too emotionally involved in this game? Maybe.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong level screenshot

For those who find the game too challenging in its original form, they’ve included a Casual mode this time around. I don’t see experienced gamers needing to rely on it too much, but it does take the stress of the timer away from levels if that’s something that particularly causes you concerns. And hey – who doesn’t want to solve puzzles on their own damn time sometimes? I can absolutely see the Casual mode being great for younger gamers who might want to try this out on their own, or with parents who can guide them through it at a slower pace. The regular co-op mode will also provide plenty of opportunity for parents to do that with older kids, but it’s nice to truly be able to see how this is accessible for all ages. 

Overall, I think Nintendo have managed to do that rare thing here (just as they did with Super Mario RPG at the end of last year) where they’ve only added value in adding new features, not detracted. The game is much better for having co-op mode, and it obviously looks bright and spectacular with its new facelift and fully animated cutscenes (there was only so much the GBA could handle). This won’t be one for the action-platformer fans, but if you’re after something a little more cruisy to get that puzzle brain ticking, this is very likely to do the job. It’s safe to say I had a great time chasing after that big gorilla, and getting far too attached to my mechanical children in the process.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code kindly provided by Nintendo. 

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