Mario vs. Donkey Kong is fine, but Nintendo remade the wrong game

Mario vs. Donkey Kong is fine, but Nintendo remade the wrong game

We’ve reached that stage in the Switch’s life cycle when Nintendo — never averse to raiding its back catalog for material in the first instance — is liberally pulling old titles off the shelf to remake and pad out the aging machine’s release schedule, while its core development teams presumably focus on software for the hybrid console’s successor.

In the wake of last year’s Super Mario Bros. Movie, Mario has been a particular focus of Nintendo’s old game reclamation department. Late 2023 saw a remake of Super Mario RPG, while this year will bring a new version of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Sandwiched between these two we get something a little more esoteric: Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a remake of the compact 2004 puzzle-platformer for Game Boy Advance.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong belongs in a curious lineage of Mario platformers, almost an alternate history for what the games might look like if 1985’s revolutionary Super Mario Bros. had never happened. In these games, the original Donkey Kong arcade game is the template: Mario has a limited moveset and much less momentum, and runs back and forth on tight, one-screen levels that are densely packed with puzzles and tricksy challenges. After Mario vs. Donkey Kong, the series mutated into something else again, a sort of auto-platformer for the DS consoles in which the player controlled marching mechanical Mario toys called “Minis” with the stylus.

Mario jumps on a blue switch, surrounded by red and green platforms and outlines of blue ones Image: Nintendo

Mario vs. Donkey Kong is where those Minis made their debut. The conceit is that Kong, in troublemaking mood, has raided a Mario toy factory and stolen a sack full of the cute clockwork plumbers. In each themed suite of levels, Mario must rescue six of the toys individually, then lead them, pied-piper style, back into a toy chest, before facing Kong in a barrel-chucking boss battle.

After Super Mario Bros. Wonder so perfectly captured the freewheeling delights of the 2D Bros. games, Mario vs. Donkey Kong’s precise, constrained gameplay takes a little acclimatization. Mario has a few useful moves — he can jump higher from a handstand, or from a skidding direction-change — but controlling the plumber in a 2D platformer without a dash button or wall-kick initially feels like playing with one hand tied behind your back.

Acrobatics are not what Mario vs. Donkey Kong is about, however. This is cerebral platforming where puzzling out the route to the goal — whether that be a Mini in its capsule, or a key which needs to be carried to a locked door to reach the next screen — is just as important as making the (sometimes very precisely timed) leaps. The game constantly throws new mechanics and enemy types at you, though “enemy” is something of a misnomer here, as most of them serve some other purpose in the interlocking system of each level — often they serve as moving platforms. (In Mario vs. Donkey Kong you can stand on most enemies’ heads, as well as pick them up and throw them, like in Super Mario Bros. 2.) There are color-coded switches that flick platforms, walls, and ladders on and off; springs that can be moved around the level to reach higher spots; teleport blocks, floating Shy Guys who can be turned into platforms, and more.

Mario spins on a high bar in a jungle level full of Pirhana Plants Image: Nintendo

There’s no room for improvisation here; there’s typically only one solution to each level, although puzzling it out is a pure, logical pleasure. It can be less fun actually enacting that solution once you’ve figured it out. Mario vs. Donkey Kong sometimes feels even more old-school in its design than its 20 years would suggest, with tight time limits and precision jumping gauntlets that will test your patience and eat through Mario’s lives, as well as a level structure that can boot you back a couple of screens if your lives run down to zero.

Fortunately, one of the main features of this new Switch version is a “Casual” play style, which removes the time limit and adds mid-level checkpoints, which Mario is wafted back to in a bubble if he comes a cropper. I advise turning this on immediately; it takes nothing away from Mario vs. Donkey Kong’s puzzle-solving side, and makes the game much less irritating and repetitive to play. There are new two-player and time-attack modes, too.

The game has also been fleshed out with two all-new “worlds,” or suites of levels, expanding it from six to eight worlds. These are noticeably well-designed, with some cunning additions to the game’s toolbox like Slippery Summit’s icy surfaces; they’re both more involved and play more smoothly than the original levels. Even with the additions, Mario vs. Donkey Kong is not a long game, clocking in at 5 to 10 hours — although it’s longer than it first appears, with additional “Plus” levels for every world unlocked after you beat the final boss.

Mario carries a large key toward a locked door in a lava level Image: Nintendo

Mario vs. Donkey is a good game and this is a good new version of it. There’s just one problem: It’s not the best game in its series. And that game, which is getting seriously old and is currently hard to play, would have made a much better subject for this kind of remake treatment.

I’m talking about the originator of this style of Mario game: the 1994 version of Donkey Kong for the Game Boy, commonly referred to as Donkey Kong ’94. It’s one of the jewels of Nintendo’s catalog: a ceaselessly inventive, post-modern remix of what was then already an aging arcade title that expanded it into something much more multifaceted. After you beat the arcade game’s original levels, Donkey Kong ’94 transforms into a 100-level puzzle-platforming adventure that delights in reinventing itself every four levels with a new mechanic. One of the earliest is a switch that allows you to place platforms and ladders wherever you like, with the catch that they disappear on a timer. It just gets cleverer and more daring from there.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong was directly inspired by Donkey Kong ’94 and features many of its mechanics, including the lock-and-key system and the Super Mario Bros. 2-style treatment of enemies. It’s a very solid puzzler, but it’s just not as inspired in its design as the older game. Until Nintendo decides to give its actual puzzle-platforming masterpiece an equally considered remake, though — or at least deigns to add it to the Game Boy collection on Switch Online — Mario vs. Donkey Kong will have to do.