Monday, October 25, 2004

Review: Mario vs. Donkey Kong (GBA)
Posted by Shocker :: 8:02 PM

So say you're Donkey Kong. You get your start as a villain in a game titled after you, in which you just can't seem to squash this incorrigible hammer-wielding plumber, foiling you at every turn. So instead of slipping further into the dark side, you give up that life, pledge a life of Good, and, with the help of your family, pilot a successful 3-game series on the Super Nintendo and a decent sequel on the Nintendo 64.

That was years ago.

Now you're sitting at home, watching TV. Sure, you've got all the bananas you can eat for the rest of your life. You've got royalty checks coming in monthly. But the one thing you don't have is any work. Now you're flipping through channels and you see it. It's that plumber. The same one who beat you to start his career. And he's still going strong. Marketing up the wazoo. So you snap. You run to the Mario Toy Company, steal every mini-Mario you can find and dash off into the night.

Who can blame you?

Well, that plumber can. This is the story for Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a decidedly weird game published for the Game Boy Advance. Piloting Mario, you chase Donkey Kong through 6 varied worlds to recover the stolen mini-Marios and defeat him in direct combat. Styled as a strategy/puzzle style game, it makes use of platforming elements to give it real character.

Each world in Mario vs. DK is broken up into 8 stages - 6 "2 part" stages, 1 "Mini-Mario" stage and 1 boss fight. The 2 part stages have you first trying to retrieve a key (and bringing the key to the door of the stage), then making your way through a larger stage to pick up a mini-Mario. By far, this makes up the bulk of the game, and generally, it's pretty fun and challenging. Each 2 part level begins with a short introduction to tell you about what gameplay mechanics you might be using. This can range from a move that Mario has in his arsenal, to a way to manipulate switches in the game to move the key about. The game relies on relatively simple gameplay mechanics: red, blue and yellow switches (red kills blue, blue kills red, yellow kills either and is killed by both), as well as conveyor belts, moving platforms, donut blocks (the ones that fall if you stand on them), and crumbling floors, to name a few. In addition, you'll have to avoid, use or defeat classic Mario enemies (shy guys, boos, etc).

These elements blend nicely to create a very smooth experience, and, once you master Mario's moves (of which he has many), you'll be running through each stage with style. Stages are made even more difficult by the addition of three packages you can collect in each stage, enabling you to possibly gain more lives playing simple mini-games at the end of each level.

The Mini-Mario stages are.. Well, frustrating. With seemingly short time limits, you have to navigate 6 AI controlled mini-Marios through a mini-platform maze by hitting switches that will keep them from being killed by spikes, thwomps and enemies. This would be fine, except it's generally confusing what path they're supposed to take, and they must collect letters to form "TOY" before you can get them out of there. The number of Mini-Marios you save determines how much life you'll have in the boss fight.

The boss fight stages are reminiscent of boss battles in Super Mario Bros 2 mixed with Donkey Kong - DK on the top, throwing out evil things, Mario picking them up and throwing them at Kong. Mario can have up to 6 life points, while Kong always has 4.

The graphics are done in the style of Donkey Kong Country - pre-rendered 3D style animation. They look decent, although you can barely make out the Mini-Mario shapes among a jumble of pixels. Personally, I would have preferred they do something a bit more colorful, since the game is silly (in premise). Plus, brightening up the game would allow the player to more easily see what is going on. Sound is good - The game has more voicework in it than all of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on the NGC. Plus, you get all of Mario's jumping noises that sound like they were ripped straight from Mario 64. The music is decent, but not noteworthy.

The game does a nice job paying homage to the Mario series. Aside from Mario's dialogue at the beginning of the game's excellent cinemas (for the GBA), Mario's moves are ripped straight out of Mario Sunshine/64. The first time you hit a backflip, you'll feel right at home. The second stage is styled like Donkey Kong Jr., complete with vines and fruit you can knock down onto enemies (in some cases where you have to). The game also features the original Donkey Kong hammer that you can use to clear out enemies (in some cases, you have to, as well).

So what's the downside? Well, while I think the game is pretty good, I'd never buy it. Why? For everything the game has going for it, it's just a slightly better-than-average puzzler. I played through the whole game in almost 4 hours, and got hung up maybe twice. Moreover, the controls, while fluid, which I like, are also imprecise, which I don't like. On the small screen, you're not going to be able to discern terribly well when you're a sprite away from falling onto spikes or in safe territory. Like EA's FIFA 2002, trading a bit of precision for style can be great - except when precision is required. For all the precise moves you have to make in this game, you're never quite sure it'll come together in the end - whether Mario will overjump, or whether he'll under jump; whether he can reach a certain platform with a move you're about to try.

Somewhat true to the genre, it's fairly linear - meaning there's only one way to get through most stages, so should your intuition lead you astray, you're going to be starting over. It also has that whole strategy "One stage just being your daddy" thing going on, which is never all that fun. The time element adds an extra constraint, though, by pressing L+R, you can pause the clock and move the screen to gander at the stage. It's a nice feature, and one that I probably should have used more.

Overall, though, for such a short adventure (6 worlds), and frustrating controls, I'd recommend renting it. If you never rent for your GBA, then I wouldn't recommend a buy. It's a fun game, and very weird, but it's probably not one I'd add to my personal collection. I give Mario vs. Donkey Kong

- Dan

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