Mario vs. Donkey Kong Hands-On Preview – A Promising Puzzler

The newly added co-op is a standout

Mario vs. Donkey Kong. A conflict as old as time. Like Godzilla and King Kong. Kind of. Putting whatever that non sequitur was aside, Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a series that I’ve, once again, not had much time with before now. But the series was popular enough to spawn several sequels that I’ve always managed to evade completely. Now, Nintendo is dipping into its back catalogue for yet another remake. And this time, it’s Mario vs. Donkey Kong. But while this isn’t quite Mario as you know it, it’s still just as compelling and more evidence that Mario is genuinely one of gaming’s most versatile protagonists.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong feels decidedly old school in its execution, bringing back the classic rivalry between Mario and Donkey Kong as it was all those years ago. However, these games are a far cry from what you’d typically know Mario or Donkey Kong for. Instead, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong is more akin to a puzzle platformer. As Mario, you’ll employ a mix of platforming skills and puzzle-solving to finish each level while collecting items. Of course, there are a few showdowns with Donkey Kong, too.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Preview

Being a remake, there’s much new here from when the game first appeared on the Game Boy Advance. Two new worlds have been added to bulk up the already meaty level selection to over 130. A casual mode is now optionally available, removing the time limit on each level and allowing Mario to get hit a few times before dying, rather than ending things with a single hit like previously. The entire game can now be played co-op, with the second player taking on the role of Toad. And finally, the game has had a visual overhaul, removing the dated “fake 3D” sprites of the original and instead employing a more traditional Mario style.

Booting the game, it’s immediately apparent how much effort has gone into visually overhauling the style coming from the Game Boy Advance original. Where the original introductory cutscene was a choppy selection of still images and animations, the introduction for Mario vs. Donkey Kong has been overhauled into an entire cinematic. Whoever is doing the cinematics for Nintendo, between Super Mario RPG and this, has to be commended. These beautifully realised sequences are so crisp and high fidelity that I almost forget that I’m playing on seven-year-old Switch hardware.

Mario vs Donkey Kong Preview

The cutscenes set up the premise of the game. Donkey Kong is spending his time off watching television when he sees an advertisement for the new Mini Mario toys. Wanting one immediately, he rushes to the store, sees that they’re out of stock, and steals a whole bunch of them from a conveniently placed toy factory across the road. Mario is compelled to get the toys back for some reason, so he chases Donkey Kong through multiple worlds, retrieving one toy at a time. It’s a bizarre story with the same charming sense of comedy as a Disney-Pixar film or Looney Tunes cartoon, but it gives enough context for what happens in the game.

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The game itself is simple. Mario vs. Donkey Kong is level-based. Each level has two parts – one in which you find a key and another in which you find the Mini Mario toy. The goal of each area is to navigate without dying, usually through some gimmick that is generally unique to that level. Each level is a smaller scale than a typical Mario level, with most of them fitting on a single screen, but they’re arranged in such a way that even just discerning the correct path through them can be a puzzle in and of itself.

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Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Preview

For this preview, I played the first four worlds of the final game. The first three are just as you’d expect, given that they’re the same as the original game. The fourth was one of the two new additions created for this remake. Each of the worlds has its own respective theme to keep things visually interesting, and, as I mentioned before, each level inside these worlds introduces a new gimmick or enemy to keep things fresh mechanically. There’s nothing as outlandish as the gimmicks introduced in each level of Super Mario Bros. Wonder, but they are notable enough that I never found myself bored of the proceedings.

After completing each world, two additional levels unlock, which are structured differently from the majority – a Mini Mario stage and a Donkey Kong stage. The Mini Mario stage is like a modern take on Lemmings – Mario must lead a squad of Mini Mario toys to a toybox, protecting them from a hazardous environment and creating a path for them. They’re a tense but fun distraction from the main game, and your success in these levels directly feeds into the Donkey Kong level that follows.

Mario vs Donkey Kong Preview

The Donkey Kong levels serve as the “boss battles” of the game, pitting Mario against Donkey Kong in a fashion reminiscent of the original Arcade game. The number of toys you save in the prior level influences how many times you can get hit in the Donkey Kong stage before perishing. Each encounter I’ve played so far is fun, but they are simple, and I would love for them to be a tad more challenging.

The star of the show here is easily the co-op, however. The second player can drop in and out with minimal fuss, and adding a second player adds a second key that needs to be found in each level. But the second player adds so much – saving time by hitting switches that Mario would usually have to backtrack to hit himself. There’s even physics here that makes some of the platforming almost trivial – with the right timing, Toad might be able to jump just high enough for Mario to bounce off of him to skip some tricky platforming. It does feel like it breaks the game somewhat, but the fact that you’re sharing lives means that you’ll probably see the game over screen more often than if you were just playing solo balances it out a bit, though I guess it’s dependent on your partner.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Preview

While I’m only scratching the surface of Mario vs. Donkey Kong, I’m excited to see how much it continues to evolve and expand as I head further into the rest of the game’s levels. I’m also incredibly excited to try out the “Plus” levels, which are supposedly a more difficult post-game rendition of the main game. But for now, my brief time with Mario vs. Donkey Kong has impressed me, even if it’s a more straightforward affair than other Mario games, and the co-op is an absolute game changer that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong launches on February 16th, 2024 exclusively for Nintendo Switch. Amazon has physical pre-orders for $59 including shipping.