This is yet another 'something odd, something fun' game from Nintendo. Mario vs. Donkey Kong stars our favorite plumber jumping, swinging, climbing and tossing everything in his path to get back his beloved...mini Mario dolls. Right. Way to take a simple premise and create an entire game around it, Nintendo. They actually manage to pull it off, too, with a very fun, enjoyable arcade-type puzzle game.
Remember the old Donkey Kong arcade game? How about Donkey Kong Jr.? No? Noobs...er, ignore me, I'm lost in nostalgia. Okay, the game starts out as such: Donkey Kong watches a commercial for the new Mario dolls and becomes enamored with them. He is so captivated, in fact, that he rushes straight to the toy factory and steals every doll they have. Naturally, our plumber hero Mario is off to save the day, and the...dolls. Right.
The game has a few different objectives. Each stage contains two parts. The first involves finding a key and taking it to a door, but this is not as simple as it sounds. The key may be up on a high ledge, behind a wall, trapped in a cage, or in any one of several unfavorable situations. What you've got to do is traverse enemy and spike-laden stages, hit switches, climb ladders, swing on tightwires and do all sorts of acrobatic stunts to get that key and get it to the door. It's not always obvious what you have to do, but the game initially shows you a short demonstration before each level, illustrating a maneuver or special move that might be useful.
The second part of each level involves actually finding the Mario doll. Like the key, the doll can only be gotten by traversing various obstacles, though you don't have to take the damn thing anywhere...yet. After you've beaten six levels and freed six dolls, it's time to put them away. You'll have to lead them like lemmings (hold on, being sued by Psygnosis) to the toy box, but you'll also have to keep them save from harm. Anything that can kill Mario will break a doll, and pretty much everything that moves can kill Mario, the fat bastard. Naturally once the dolls are safe, you'll have to battle Donkey Kong himself and make the land safe again...for about five seconds.
The whole of the game is puzzle-solving, with some advanced skills needed, though not till later. Which is one slight drawback: the difficulty curve. The game starts out rather timid, holding your hand through the first few worlds with fairly simple and, dare I say it, obvious levels. The factory, jungle, volcano and ghost house take it slow, easing you into things. Then you hit world 5 and are introduced to a whole new scheme of reflexes and timing. It's sort of like driving along on a highway, then having to jump across an unfinished section. Yes, I just watched Speed.
Anyway, even though the game ramps up the difficulty rather quickly, it's a welcome change. The later worlds really test your gaming mettle in both puzzle-solving and thumb-wielding. Compound all this with the fact that you have spikes, lava, the classic Mario enemies, three presents to find in each level and a time limit to do it all in, and you've got yourself a fun little game.
I'd really like to know how they get Mario to look like that. It doesn't look like any sprite I've ever seen. The game's got sort of a pseudo-3D look, but it's done nicely here. Mario's got height, weight and girth (ugh, that sounds wrong...) and the enemies are just as well-presented.
The levels all have pretty backgrounds and nearly everything is in a constant state of motion. The cutscenes are some really well-rendered stuff, and probably the closest we'll ever get to FMV on the GBA. The only thing that bugs me is Mario seems really small, yet in the cutscenes he's not that much shorter than DK. Odd.
What really got me was all the voice work. My favorite line? "Get back here, you stupid monkey!" I might've heard that wrong, but that's the gist of what was said. Mario talks a lot, much more than in previous games, and more than just the normal grunts and yells. The music is enjoyable, enough so that it won't drive you mad in case you should happen to be stuck on a particular level. Nothing I could hum on command, though...
There's six worlds open initially, but to fully complete each level you need to find the three presents and meet or beat the high score. There's not a lot of opportunities to get points by killing enemies, but you do get points depending on how much time is left when you beat the level. So, in some levels you'll have to learn the puzzles and do them with a degree of speed to get the high score and the gold star that follows.
So you beat the six worlds, and then what? Well, how about six more worlds and 42 new levels? Yeah, you like that, don't you? And even when those are out of the way, you're still not done. While this may be an arcade game by nature, it will keep you busy for quite a few hours.
I look back on such games as Donkey Kong Jr. fondly for the number of hours I whiled away trying to get the high score, then trying to beat that score. Mario vs. Donkey Kong revives that same action/puzzle gameplay with a few new twists and tricks, along with over 100 levels to keep you busy. Plus, those Mario dolls are so damn cute...I'm gonna go stuff a bunch in a big burlap sack and scatter them across six different geographical areas.