Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review – A Much Needed Update

A strong rivalry deserves a strong remake.

I often need to remember that Mario and Donkey Kong aren’t best friends. Though it can be hard to keep track, depending which games you play. But it all began as a rivalry – when Donkey Kong ’81 pitted Mario against DK to save the ever-endangered Pauline. Mario vs. Donkey Kong always felt like a natural evolution of that game and Donkey Kong ’94. However, given its origins on the Game Boy Advance, it’s arguably aged poorly.

Now, Nintendo has given their famed remake treatment to the original game. While it’s an impressive redux, it wasn’t the most decisive game to begin with.

The plot of Mario vs. Donkey Kong is simple but effective. Donkey Kong eyes off the mini-Mario toys he sees on television, heads to the shops to buy one, and is disgruntled when he discovers that they’re sold out. Angry, he steals many of them from a factory across the road, and Mario feels compelled to help. He chases Donkey Kong along several worlds, rekindling a rivalry as old as time. It does a good enough job of providing context to Mario’s shenanigans, even if I’m not totally sure what Mario’s motivations are.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review - Donkey Kong Watches TV

But being a puzzle platformer, I don’t think the story matters all that much to a game like this.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a remake of the Game Boy Advance game initially released in 2004. Serving as a spiritual successor to the original Donkey Kong game, the game’s general premise has you playing as Mario as he unlocks doors and rescues the stolen mini-Marios. Most levels are smaller than a typical Mario course, and many usually only take up the screen with minimal scrolling. But each requires a mix of careful platforming and puzzle-solving to complete. It’s a slightly slower-paced experience than your typical Mario game, but much more thought goes into how you move through each level.

The remake brings two new worlds that are slipped between the original six. Each world is subsequently split into six standard stages, with a mini-Mario stage and a Donkey Kong stage finishing off each world. The worlds are varied enough, with new elements introduced in almost every stage. The new worlds haven’t just been tacked on either – they’re slotted in at a point where they feel appropriate, at least from a difficulty perspective.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review - Ice World

Most levels are split into two zones. The first requires Mario to collect a key and take it to a door to unlock the next zone. The second zone in each level is more straightforward, requiring you to make your way to the mini-Mario and collect it, ready for your showdown with Donkey Kong at the end of the world. I previously called Mario vs. Donkey Kong a puzzle platformer, and that’s because a lot of challenges come from discerning the best route through each level. Pressing one switch might open one route but close another, for example, so you’ve got to work out the correct order to get through properly.

The other two level types are the mini-Mario and Donkey Kong levels. One of each of these level types appears in each world. The mini-Mario level has you leading a group of mini-Marios through a level, ensuring they get to a toybox without taking damage or falling off the course. The mini-Marios can’t be controlled directly, so these levels can be especially tense if you’re going for the perfect rank. They’re fun diversions from the typical level structure, but I would’ve loved to see more of them in the game overall.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review - Mini-Mario Level

Donkey Kong levels are just what they sound like – levels where you confront Donkey Kong himself. Most of them usually require dodging Donkey Kong’s attacks before finding an opening to attack. Attacking three times ends the match and opens up the next world. In my preview last month, I’d hoped that these encounters would become more involved, and I wasn’t disappointed by the battles that played out in the rest of the game. They’re not particularly difficult, mind you, but they feel like great expansions on the classic battles fought in the original Donkey Kong all those years ago. The new battles are a nice inclusion and a highlight for me.


While it can be easier to get through the earlier stages, later stages in the game really ramp up the tension. Every level is timed, at least in Classic Style mode, and a lot of the higher-level play comes from perfecting and mastering the tight platforming options. This is one of the first games to popularise the movement mechanics that would later become staples in Mario games, including backflips and the triple jump, so it makes sense that they would feel almost perfectly implemented here. It’ll be interesting to see the kinds of tricks players come up with to clear some of the tougher levels in record times.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review - Jungle Climb

When you’re seemingly done with the game and finished with the first eight worlds, the game flips the script and introduces “Plus” variations of those worlds. Each of these is similar to the ones prior, but the objective between the original stage and the mini-Mario stage is merged. In each stage, Mario must escort a mini-Mario holding a key to a locked door. They’re a clever way to combine the objective types of the previous worlds, but the fact that they’re a visual retread of previous worlds feels disappointing. Expert Levels are included too, and there’s a new Time Attack mode as well which rounds out the already robust content offering.

This remake also brings a newly added co-op mode, allowing a second player to take on each stage as Toad alongside Mario. Toad moves slightly faster, but his presence enables a degree of multitasking not possible in the original game – presuming you can communicate with whoever you’re playing with. Being able to save time is a godsend in some of the more complex levels, and even though co-op adds a second objective to each stage, it perhaps still doesn’t feel like as significant a concession to the utility you gain by adding a second player.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review - Co-Op

What I enjoyed about the co-op, however, is that it adds a great degree of manoeuvrability to the already tight platforming. Toad and Mario can collide, meaning that you can jump off of one another to reach heights you couldn’t reach just playing solo. Once again, it breaks the game somewhat, but the fact that two players can quickly burn through the same pool of lives together balances everything out.

The original game utilised a scruffy, crunchy-looking rotoscoped, pixelated look that served the smaller screen of the Game Boy Advance well. While I’ve had many an argument with friends about whether the original visual style had “charm” or “character”, the new style of Mario vs. Donkey Kong is much better. It looks like classic Mario, and seeing all these enemies that only appear in this game but in the typical Mario-looking art style keeps things fresh.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review - Intro Scene

Surprising to me is that the soundtrack has been overhauled similarly. The original music in the game felt loud and tinny, once again, perhaps owing to the console it appeared on, but the new music is a vast improvement and he remake has smooth, jazzy music that fits the mood of the levels better. They’re fantastic updates that, while not faithful at all, fit the overall presentation much more.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a strong remake of a game that would only appeal to some. But the visual improvements, difficulty options and addition of co-op make it much more accessible to a broader range of people without compromising on what made the original so popular.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a great remake – implementing a strong shift in artistic direction, engaging co-op options and well-crafted puzzle and platforming elements. Co-op is an especially clever inclusion, and combined with difficulty options, broadens the appeal of an otherwise niche experience to a wider audience. While hardcore players might be let down by the lack of difficulty, Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a sensational update that fans of the series and even newcomers will enjoy.
Immaculate Improvements To Presentation
Tight Platforming And Satisfying Puzzling
Co-Op Adds An Extra Layer Of Fun
Repetitious Plus World Design
Simplistic Donkey Kong Battles