Saturday, June 7, 2008

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review

An old-school rivalry heats up

Mario versus Donkey Kong-- one of gaming's oldest rivalries. The original Donkey Kong was released to arcades in 1981 successfully entering Nintendo and now heavily-praised game designer Shigeru Miyamoto into the gaming world. It would be another decade and some change before a true sequel would be made. This title was released for the Game Boy in 1994 keeping the original name and classic arcade look and feel, but altering the gameplay quite a bit. The game received rave reviews and was loved by many a Kong-fanatic. A decade later in 2004, as if marking the ten year anniversary of the Game Boy installment, Nintendo and NST teamed up to create an all-new installment with the appropriately titled Mario vs. Donkey Kong for the Game Boy Advance. Does this title still have that monkey magic, or is this gorilla barking up the wrong tree?

It looks simple now, but wait until you play some more.

No longer addicted to kidnapping Pauline, Donkey Kong has sort of devolved from desiring damsels to developing a fixation for the latest toy obsession: Mini Marios. Rather than purchase the toy for himself with all those banana coins his Kong family earned while messing about in the Donkey Kong Country series, he loots the entire factory of Mario's miniature playthings (no, not those miniature playthings! ...Pervert.). Now it's up to Mario to shake out those cobwebs and remember all those tricks from his Jumpman years as he sets out to take those toys back through six worlds of challenges, trials, and tribulations.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong may seem quite familiar to the original Donkey Kong and definitely the 1994 version. NST obviously followed the textbook design of the Game Boy entry down to the jumping and platforming. However, the GBA game is a completely new experience with brand-new levels and obstacles to overcome. The wrapping may be familiar, but the gift is completely new.

The second world pits you against fire-spitting Piranha Plants.

As previously stated, there's six worlds. Each world has eight levels (48 levels initially)-- the first six being Mario challenges levels, the seventh is a Mini Mario level, and the final level is a boss battle against the big ol' ape himself. The Mario levels all follow the same pattern in that they're split up into two stages. The first stage has Mario faced with a locked door. It's his job to pick up a key, navigate it through the level, and open up the locked door. The second stage is one where Mario will need to break a Mini Mario free of its crystal sphere captivity in order to complete the level. In each of Mario's levels there's three packages placed in strategic spots for the plump plumber to collect. Sounds simpler than it actually is. Each level always brings some new obstacle, enemy, challenge, and/or twist to the formula to keep things fresh. An opening movie at the introduction of each level shows a new trick that players might not have known about. Others make you wonder if the developer is questioning your intelligence. Mario will need to learn how to shimmy up ropes, learn how to trapeze on horizontal bars, pick up various items needed to reach higher areas, and dodge enemy fire. Besides teaching an old dog (or plumber in this case) new tricks, there's new challenges such as conveyor belts, timed lasers which go off intermittently, donut platforms which fall after Mario's on them for enough time, multi-colored switches that change the layout of the level, and enemies to worry about such as Shy Guys, fire blasting Piranha Plants, haunting Boos, floor-crashing Thwomps, exploding Bob-Ombs, and many more. In addition to all of this, you're being timed. The faster you complete a level, the better your score. The better your score, and you might beat the high score which nets you a star. These stars unlock expert levels after the main adventure has been completed.

I'm having flashbacks of Super Mario Bros. 3.

And to beat those expert levels you'll need to have some impressive moves, right? The moves from Donkey Kong '94 are all here and accounted for. Mario can jump on top of most enemies, pluck them up Super Mario Bros. 2-style, and chuck them into other foes or toss them atop some spikes, using the enemy's back as a means across the otherwise hazardous spikes. The hammer is a staple of the classic Donkey Kong formula, and it returns for this installment allowing Mario to plow through enemies effortlessly. A cool twist on the hammer is that you can toss it up into the air, climb up a ladder, and then catch it in order to clobber enemies on a higher elevation. This is a necessary feature in later levels. What moves are new here are ones that Mario's used on his 3-D ventures. While he can't wall jump, Mario can perform other means of acrobatics such as triple and super jumps. Mario will also need to flip and walk on his hands to ward off falling cinder blocks with his feet in some levels.

The latter two types of levels are Mini Mario challenges and battles with Donkey Kong. The Mini Mario stages have Mario guiding a sextuplet of Mini Marios to a toy chest. Along the way there's enemies to fiendishly avoid and T, O, Y letters to collect before the toy chest is unlocked for the Mini Marios to hop into and for Mario to complete the stage. The battles with Donkey Kong are the least creative of the types of levels. These are confrontations where the goal is to toss objects at Donkey Kong while trying to survive. Since the game awards points for how much health you have left, the secret of battle (and the best score) is to try to come out untouched. This is easier said than done as each fight is different than the last. The first world is as simple as tossing barrels into DK. The second has you climbing on ropes, dropping hanging fruit and timing your drops onto the mangy monkey below.

Oh, it's on like Donkey Kong!

At first glance, you may be doing the math in your head... six worlds, eight levels each, so that must mean there's 48 levels in all, right? Well, thankfully that isn't so. After completing the game once there's a mode where you play with the Mini Marios through all the preliminary levels. After that, depending on how many stars for high scores you've acquired, there's the damn difficult expert levels to wrap your brain and thumbs around, so there's a lot of content and bang for your buck.

Donkey Kong and its 1994 incarnation both used simple graphics and simple design. Mario vs. Donkey Kong attempts to differentiate itself by using a wildly different art style. The characters are 3D rendered models just like Donkey Kong Country but obviously not as detailed or dynamic. I would have preferred 2D sprites as the models just feel out of place-- especially for something as simple as past efforts. The sound department isn't too hot either. The music is largely forgettable save for the main theme which is a combination of the Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong themes. Another note, Mario and Donkey Kong must have had SO much they wanted to say to each other during the arcade and 1994 games because they talk A LOT during Mario vs. Donkey Kong. They (mostly Mario) are almost overly chatty. Regardless, I was just amazed that they could pack in so many voice samples into the game.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong does an excellent job of differentiating itself from the original arcade and Game Boy Donkey Kongs while simultaneously keeping a familiar aura about it. The game gets quite challenging later on, and it's more about knowing the correct path to take than overly complicated levels. There's a lot to do, there's many high scores to attain, secret levels to discover, and hours of gameplay to sink your paws into. The presentation might not be optimal, but it's not an excuse for anyone to miss out on this great Game Boy Advance game. Hopefully you can hunt it down under fifty bucks (or acquire it by other means) as this is one of the rare ones.

[SuperPhillip Says]

Story: Fed up with kidnapping foxy women, Donkey Kong steals all of the Mini Marios from the factory.

Graphics: 3D rendered models look out of place, but everything else looks great.

Gameplay: Mario's a one hit kill kind of plumber in this game, so plan your moves carefully.

Sound: The music is largely forgettable, and Mario is one that you may want to put a muzzle on eventually.

Replay Value: 48 levels to start with with over 100 in all.

Overall: 8.5/10

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