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Mario vs. Donkey Kong: The Final Preview

2004 was a great year for gaming on the go. The cargo shorts I wore were yet to become the much-maligned fashion no-no that they are today, and the Game Boy Advance SP was small enough to slip into one of my many baggy pants pockets while still leaving plenty of short-legged storage spare to hold my wallet, keys, and chunky flip-phone. As a result a significant amount of my gaming in those days was done on Nintendo handhelds, and one cartridge that traveled with me more than most was Mario vs. Donkey Kong.

Fast forward to 2024 and, while I can’t quite squeeze a Nintendo Switch into one of the front pockets of my pants without walking with a noticeable limp, I can play a modern reimagining of Nintendo’s addictive puzzle-platformer complete with razor-sharp visuals, a bouncy orchestral score, and a number of welcome new quality of life improvements. I’ve only had my hands on the first four worlds of the Mario vs. Donkey Kong remake so far, but it’s already doing a great job of transporting me back to a time when The Da Vinci Code was on top of the best-seller’s list and everyone still spoke using quotes from Napoleon Dynamite.

If you missed it the first time around, the plot of Mario vs. Donkey Kong sees the tie-wearing gorilla bust into Mario’s toy factory, snatch every last Mini-Mario toy off the assembly line, and then ape-escape from under the noses of the factory worker Toads – leaving Mario in hot pursuit. The brand new and beautifully animated cutscenes in this modern Mario vs. Donkey Kong make the mostly static screens from the original seem like storyboard sequences by comparison, and are only a few Seth Rogen chuckles away from seeming like deleted scenes from The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

In order to see the safe return of his stolen moustachioed mini-mes, Mario must complete eight worlds’ worth of puzzle-heavy platforming levels, which has been increased from the six worlds featured in the original. In each level there are coloured switches to control platforms and other mechanisms used to reach a key and transport it to each level’s locked exit. Each world culminates in a special level that has Mario lead his little party of plumbers to safety like a group of lookalike lemmings, before a boss fight with Donkey Kong who seems as jealous of Mario’s toys as the Joker is of Batman.

While there are no Super Stars or Fire Flowers to assist him, Mario is occasionally able to get his hands on the noggin-knocking hammer from the original Donkey Kong arcade game, and he can also pick up and throw wind-up Shy Guys and other enemies at each other like in Super Mario Bros. 2. In addition, he can perform special handstand flips to reach higher platforms, and even walk on his hands in order to use his feet to protect himself from falling projectiles.

The general level layouts in Mario vs. Donkey Kong’s first few worlds seem fairly similar to those of the original, but I appreciate the new bonus levels that can be harvested for extra lives. The simple ‘pick a box’ bonus mini-games of the original are gone. Instead you must now chase a flying key around a special level in each world that puts your platforming prowess to the test in order to snare the elusive key before the time runs out. It’s a lot more fun than simply trying to stop the cycle of a Wheel of Fortune-style arrow.

This modern version of Mario vs. Donkey Kong also features an additional difficulty mode and, while I spent the bulk of my hands-on time on the Classic setting which more or less matches the challenge of the original, I did briefly switch over to the new Casual setting to see how it compares. From what I could tell, this more relaxed mode does away with the level timer so you don’t have the pressure of puzzling against the clock, and it also gives you five invincibility bubbles per life to shield you from enemies and environmental hazards – making it perhaps better suited to younger players who might find the instant deaths of the Classic setting to be a bit unfair.

In either difficulty mode, this remake simplifies the original’s old-fashioned high score system; instead of a points tally you’re awarded a gold star on each level by grabbing the three optional presents and reaching the Mini-Mario capsule before the time runs out. However, there is apparently a new Time Attack mode that can be unlocked, so if you’re a speedrunner or you want to set some best times to challenge your friends with then there could be a substantial amount of extra fun to be found here. There’s also co-op support for two players through the entire campaign, which I’m looking forward to experiencing with whichever one of my kids I can convince to be Toad.

All that said, the brand new Merry Mini-Land, which is the fourth world in this remake, seems substantially more fun than the first three worlds from the original which precede it, packed with clever uses of environment-destroying Bob-ombs, petal-powered fans and portal blocks that presented some stimulating new challenges. It could be purely because those first few worlds feel too familiar to me as a fan of the original, but it does make me wonder if Nintendo would have been better off making a full ground-up sequel rather than this enhanced remake. I’ll know one way or the other when Mario vs. Donkey Kong is released on February 16. I might even slip on a pair of cargo shorts to celebrate.

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is a Senior Video Editor at IGN's Sydney office. He's always been more functional than fashionable.

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