Mario vs. Donkey Kong, for the Game Boy Advance, comes along in the midst of a few decent shooters for the PC (Far Cry, Painkiller), yet it's more challenging and rewarding than either of them. The premise, along with the graphics, is simple. There's very little here you haven't seen on the old, old Super Nintendo (if indeed you ever saw one). Even on a handheld, the graphics are just good. It's the gameplay that's classic.
The game is a series of puzzles that has Mario climbing across levels to steal back the Mini-Mario toys Kong has stolen. Puzzle games can be insanely fun if there are enough puzzles, and the action can be repeated indefinitely or changed at a whim. Each stage in the game's first six "worlds" is effectively two puzzles, with a level at the end of the world where Mario must lead his miniature toys to safety in an entirely different type of puzzle, and then engage in a twist on old-school Donkey Kong. There are also six "plus" worlds, each with six hybrid toy-leadership/puzzle-solving levels, and final Donkey Kong Battles. Oh, and two more ultra-Donkey Kong battles, which make the original Donkey Kong look easy.
Each stage can be finished in less than a few minutes. But even the simplest puzzle can become infuriating when you decide that you're going to finish it and get every bonus point possible. If you're playing it with friends, make sure to do it through a GBA Player, so that everyone can sit around the TV taking turns controlling Mario. You'll be amazed at the amount of style and flexibility the game offers different players.
Titles like Grand Theft Auto, of course, offer you prettier pictures and a better story. But there's something special about Mario vs. Donkey Kong that anyone who was ever hooked on the early Super Mario Bros. will recognize. On some level, video games are simple electronic toys that reward repetitious button pushing. But with good games, there's something that makes them fun to play that goes beyond the graphics and the story. Shaping that gameplay experience is the art of the game designer, and Nintendo, the company that taught most of the world how to run and jump in a new way, continues to make games that demonstrate just how much artistry there is to be found in a toy.
Publication date: 06/03/04