Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review – A Charming Relic With Infuriating Design

    How does the 20 year old GBA puzzle platformer hold up?

    Over the last couple of years, the concept of video game remakes has completely shifted. What were once easy ways to make money by porting beloved games to modern consoles without little effort have instead become a genre in their own right. Numerous remakes over the past console generation have altered the way we think of the very concept of porting a game to modern consoles.

    Whether it be Resident Evil 4 Remake adding several graphical, gameplay, and story improvements, Final Fantasy VII Remake/Rebirth introducing an entirely new story to the beloved JRPG classic, or Persona 3 Reload making the beloved game more palatable to modern fans, remakes are no longer simple cash grabs. Instead, they are ways to make already brilliant games better than ever.

    Nintendo has joined the remake trend recently. With the recent release of the Super Mario RPG remake and the upcoming Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door remake, Nintendo is finally deciding to take advantage of their massive lineup of games that haven’t touched modern consoles in years.

    One of the many recent remake announcements was Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a remake of the 2004 cult classic GBA puzzle platformer. On the surface, the announcement seemed like a fan rejuvenation of a long-forgotten spin-off series. However, upon closer examination, the remake’s announcement seemed…random. Many confused the game with the Nintendo DS’ March of the Minis. Additionally, it would be releasing in-between Persona 3 Reload and Final Fantasy VII Rebirth.

    How would Nintendo manage in releasing a remake that very few people asked for in between ones that people have been wanting for years? After finishing Mario vs. Donkey Kong on the Nintendo Switch, I can confidently say that, while the game has a charming premise and visual style, it suffers from dated level design, infuriating controls, and a lack of content that justifies its $49.99 price point.

    A Forty-Year-Old Rivalry Reimagined (Again)

    Mario vs. Donkey Kong Levels

    Mario vs. Donkey Kong has a great premise, even after twenty years. The game seeks to re-imagine one of gaming’s oldest rivalries. The setup is a little different, though: instead of Donkey Kong stealing a damsel in a King Kong-esque scenario, he instead steals a set of Mario-themed toys simply part of a line of figures called “Mini-Mario.” A frustrated Mario chases after him in order to reclaim the toys he spent so long working on. The premise, while absurd, is admittedly charming. This charm extends to the game’s updated visual design.

    The original Mario vs. Donkey Kong had sprite art that one would expect from the Gameboy Advance era. The new remake, on the other hand, instead has a higher-resolution update to all of the character models. Now, Mario, Donkey Kong, and the various Toads look like their depictions in the Mario Party series and various Mario Sports franchises. The update works wonders for the game; Mario vs. Donkey Kong looks great on both handheld and docked mode.

    The new art style will undoubtedly appeal more to newer fans. Though, after looking at footage of the original game, I do admit I have some fondness for the original’s art style. However, I quickly forgot the charming nature of the game’s premise and art style once I sunk more hours into the game and slowly began to realize that the twenty-year-old puzzle platformer had received very few updates to make it accessible in the modern era. As a result, Mario vs. Donkey Kong feels like, quite frankly, a relic from the past.

    In With the Old, Out With the New (Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review)

    Mario vs. Donkey Kong Ice Physics

    The new iteration of Mario vs. Donkey Kong, rather than feeling like a modern game in its own right, instead feels like a simple port of a Gameboy Advance game without any care to update it for the Nintendo Switch beyond aesthetics. The most immediate example of this is in the level design. While the first world is unique with a toy factory aesthetic, and later worlds would have some cool ideas like an amusement park and city, most of them feel reductive and cliched.

    There’s a jungle level, an ice level, and a lava level. None of the levels feel unique or interesting. Instead, every single level falls into a repeated pattern. The first half of the level has Mario attempting to grab a key to open a door. Along the way, you will be forced to maneuver against a world-specific gimmick. Maybe it’s a conveyor belt, a set of ropes to clamber onto, or ice physics that renders the red plumber into little more than an uncontrollable object.

    After the first half, you then have to collect a Mini-Mario after working through even more obstacles. Once you play six levels, you then play a level alongside the Mini-Marios as you get them to collect three letters of the word “Toy,” before luring them into a toy box. Finally, you will fight Donkey Kong by throwing a set of random objects at him four times before the boss, then world, is completed.

    Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Screenshot

    This repetitive level structure isn’t helped by the looped music and aforementioned cliche level design. This, though, is the tip of the iceberg. The main problem with Mario vs. Donkey Kong is its controls. At numerous points, I got the sense that the controls were taken right from the Gameboy Advance’s limited design. Sometimes, using the analog stick would work, while sometimes, it would be bizarrely ineffective.

    Furthermore, some inputs would be completely unrecognized by the game, while some would work just fine. The hitboxes were also very inconsistent. There were moments when I was convinced that I was able to dodge a set of spikes until the game disagreed and set me back to the most recent checkpoint.

    The twitchy controls and reductive design weren’t helped by how slow the game feels at points. To the uninitiated, the game looks like an ordinary Mario platformer, so when you go to jump across a gap, you expect a certain level of physics that are not upheld by the game’s design. Instead, it’s almost like Mario is constantly being held back by an invisible weight. This leisurely pace is further heightened by the amount of time it takes to recover after suffering damage from the game’s numerous obstacles.

    All of these problems combined create a game that feels frustratingly dated. The depressing thing, though, is that Mario vs. Donkey Kong had plenty of potential to be a worthy remake of the cult classic 2004 title.

    A Depressing Sense of Missed Potential

    Mario vs. Donkey Kong Levels

    When I first started this review for Mario vs. Donkey Kong, I had to dredge up my frustrated nostalgia for Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis. I never ended up beating the touchpad-dependent puzzle game, but I still managed to have some fond memories of the 30-40 dollar game.

    As I finished Mario vs. Donkey Kong, I remembered the original’s price point. I quickly realized that the original Mario vs. Donkey Kong on the Gameboy Advance cost $29.99, while the new game cost twenty dollars more, according to the Nintendo eShop. This realization baffled me as it occurred to me that there’s very little new material that the remake introduces.

    Sure, there are two new worlds, but to those unfamiliar with the original game, they feel exactly the same as the other worlds. Additionally, after some research, I realized that there were some features missing from the remake. Throughout each level, players can collect three presents. In the original game, the presents served as a lottery at the end of levels where players could get a random reward like a one-up. Also, after the first half of a level, a new variation of the level’s music track would play. Neither of these features were in the remake.

    After I made these realizations, I had an epiphany: most of the game’s problems could be solved with either more time in the oven or a lesser price point. If Nintendo priced the game at $29.99 or took more time to address the game’s controls, level design, and missing features, I probably would’ve enjoyed it more.

    Instead, Mario vs. Donkey Kong has been quickly overshadowed by the aforementioned Persona 3 Reload and Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. In researching material for the review, I realized that I hadn’t heard anyone talk about the game since its release, even though it released on February 16, not that long ago. Not only was it overshadowed by other major remakes from other companies, it was overshadowed by Nintendo’s very own Partner Showcase just a few days later. 

    Honestly, it’s a shame. Mario vs. Donkey Kong could’ve at least been a worthy remake to stand alongside Nintendo’s ongoing initiative to resurrect several of their oldest and most beloved games that were reduced to highlighting the front page of eBay. It does, after all, appeal to long-time fans of the spin-off franchise.

    Instead, it’s a game that, more than anything, is reminiscent of the remakes of the past: designed only to fill a release slot with very little effort. I can only hope that we can get one more reinvention of the Mario and Donkey Kong rivalry at some point down the road.

    Nintendo provided Final Weapon with a Nintendo Switch copy of Mario vs. Donkey Kong for review purposes.


    While Mario vs. Donkey Kong has a charming concept and visual direction, the twenty-year-old puzzle platformer shows its age through frustrating level design, bizarre controls, and very little content that improves upon the original. Further, with its $49.99 price point, it's hard to justify purchasing the remake unless you're a die-hard fan of the original GBA title.
    Saras Rajpal
    Saras Rajpal
    Saras is a passionate creative writer, with a love for immersive sims, superhero games, and Persona. He is currently writing a thesis about Persona 5 and is pursuing a career as a full-time writer.

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    While Mario vs. Donkey Kong has a charming concept and visual direction, the twenty-year-old puzzle platformer shows its age through frustrating level design, bizarre controls, and very little content that improves upon the original. Further, with its $49.99 price point, it's hard to justify purchasing the remake unless you're a die-hard fan of the original GBA title. Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review - A Charming Relic With Infuriating Design