As the keen eyed reader may have noticed from the screen shots or even the title, Mario vs Donkey Kong is an update to that arcade classic Donkey Kong. Brought to you by Nintendo Software Technology , it's full of all those little foibles that characterize NST games. To the uninitiated that means great graphics, great first impressions but usually some huge flaws somewhere down the road.
The first thing you'll notice about Mario vs Donkey Kong is the impressive graphics. Still screen-shots don't do the game justice, it really is quite beautiful on that tiny little GBA screen. Excellent art work on the cut-scenes also serves to impress, as does the clarity of the digitised speech samples. NST certainly know their GBA hardware, whether they know how to design fun games is another thing entirely.
Gameplay-wise, Mario vs Donkey Kong has much in common with Donkey Kong '94. Instead of simply working your way up a screen to confront the titular Ape, you must take a key to a key hole to complete the level. Differing slightly from DK '94, though, is that after you complete the 'Key stage' there is another immediately after. Yet this time, instead of carrying the key to the keyhole, Mario must jump and climb his way up to a Mario toy caught in a bubble. Who knows why it's caught in a bubble: it's just a generic storage device for the toy.
When you get to the final stage of a world, of which there are a healthy six (each containing 14 stages as well as the boss encounter) the gameplay alters slightly. You must now lead the Mario toys, or mini Marios, through a stage to a toy box, using the mini Marios to collect the letters T, O and Y along the way. The surviving mini Marios act as an energy gauge for the boss encounter, so it's usually important to save them all. This makes for an interesting break-up in gameplay, at least at the start of the game where the levels still feel fresh. With extended play, however, things start to fall apart.
Although Mario vs. Donkey Kong is technically a platformer, it's much more of a puzzle game, encouraging you to collect three important items per key stage and all the time pressing switches of different colours to progress. This idea of colour coded switches: Red, blue and yellow, is a new addition that wouldn't have been possible in the original Game Boy version and works well, at least initially. Whereas the original had switch puzzles that created temporary passages, or altered the direction of platforms, the reliance on the same colour coding for passage gets very tiring after about world three.
And world three does seem to be where the fun starts to end, as NST show their other trademark quality: the huge flaws. Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a great little game and would receive a higher score if it maintained the quality evident in the first three or four worlds. The problem is that the game gets gradually worse. The puzzles become stale and instead of introducing innovative new features like those found in DK '94 - released over ten years ago - it instead keeps with the same colour coded puzzle mechanic and simply ramps up the difficulty for each progressive world. Obviously this serves more to frustrate the gamer rather than reward and only the most dedicated gamer will see the game through to the end.
The mini Mario levels also suffer from this predicament, and the result is some truly appalling level design that smacks of a lack of ideas. You'll come to loathe the mini Mario levels and simply try to get through them as quickly as possible. To be perfectly honest it feels as though NST just stopped trying.
Mario vs. Donkey Kong becomes something of a train wreck just halfway into the game, with the colour coded puzzles offering nothing new apart from untold levels of frustration. Perhaps to a gamer that has never experienced the joy that is DK '94, Mario vs. Donkey Kong may hold up better, but when you've seen how excellent this game could and should have been, you can only be left disappointed.