mario vs dk key art
Image Source: Nintendo

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review – Still a Barrel of Fun

Old vs. new

The Switch remake of Mario vs. Donkey Kong demonstrates that the puzzle-platforming formula from the 2004 original hasn’t quite lost its spark. Somersaulting across puzzle rooms to rescue the Mini-Marios was fun then and is even more fun now. The newly recorded audio and enhanced HD graphics present Mario vs. Donkey Kong to a modern audience while adding new content for returning players.

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But is the added polish enough to draw in those outside the puzzle-platforming genre? While it may be hard to recommend Mario vs. Donkey Kong to those averse to puzzles and platforming, those even slightly interested in the genre will find a lot of enjoyment here.

key solution in world 4
Image Source: Nintendo via Twinfinite

The core gameplay loop of Mario vs. Donkey Kong hasn’t changed since its 2004 GBA days. The basic premise of solving pocket-sized puzzle rooms to take back the stolen Mini-Mario toys from DK remains the same. Pretty much all the content from the 2004 original is included here with a fresh coat of HD paint. The only aspect of the original that will be missed is a chunk of charming voice lines from the GBA version, but more on that in a minute. All in all, the Mario vs. Donkey Kong remake manages to add much more than it takes away from the compressed GBA original.

Perhaps the most significant addition is Mario vs Donkey Kong’s new co-op mode. Two players can now solve puzzles together simultaneously on any of the stages. Best of all, the second player controls Toad, a brand-new playable character with unique voice lines and animations.

But even if you don’t have anyone to play with, there are still plenty of other additions added to this remake. For example, there are two new Worlds to play through, each with their own Plus levels. There’s also a new Time Attack mode with set times to clear on each stage.

clearing stage in time attack mode
Image Source: Nintendo via Twinfinite

Finally, the remake introduces a Casual Mode which removes the restrictive time limit, adds checkpoints for each stage, and increases the number of times you can get hit. These are solid additions that inject new content and modern convenience to the 2004 GBA classic.

But that doesn’t mean nothing has been lost from the original on GBA. The highly compressed sound and voicework from the GBA haven’t made it unscathed in the remake.

Charles Martinet did a bang-up job voicing Mario in the original, but he only does a fraction of the voicework for this remake, with many of the more memorable lines being excluded entirely. Shy Guy and Donkey Kong have been completely recast, but at least Martinet still voices Mario for this remake, even if there are fewer memorable lines this time around.

My favorite enhancement has to be the reworked soundtrack in Mario vs. Donkey Kong. The jazzy music from the original has been spruced up with real instruments and live performances. The arrangements are all exceptionally well done, making it sound like there’s a top-tier jazz band groovin’ out in the background of the stages. If you’re not fond of jazz music, there are some ambient tracks and laid-back piano to relax to, such as those accompanying the new Slippery Summit World.

slippery summit level
Image Source: Nintendo via Twinfinite

But music and sound aren’t the only things to get a fresh coat of paint, graphics are up to modern standards in this Switch remake. Every Shy Guy, Piranha Plant, and Barrel is touched up with new HD models. Animations are also improved across the board.

Now let’s briefly go over the aspect that hasn’t changed all these years. Mario vs. Donkey Kong’s core gameplay loop consists of puzzles first and platforming second. You can perform handstands and the classic Mario 64 somersault, but these moves really only serve to accommodate solving the puzzles.

Each World has its own unique gimmicks, such as the wind petals of Merry Mini-Land or the Shy Guy ghosts in the Spooky House World. The Mini-Mario escort stages are a unique treat that changes up the usual formula nicely and gets you thinking in novel ways.

And yes, there are boss fights awaiting you at the end of each world. These DK battle stages are fun and feature interesting mechanics, further switching up the purely puzzle-oriented gameplay.

I appreciate the smooth difficulty balance as each World’s puzzles ramp up in complexity. This remake’s two new Worlds almost seem like cut content from the 2004 original; that’s how organic and seamlessly they mesh with the other stages. These two new Worlds add unique gimmicks such as wind currents and ice platforms, so they’re not just repeating content from the original, which is nice.

using wind currents to progress
Image Source: Nintendo via Twinfinite

I particularly enjoy the Expert levels that get unlocked after completing the game and collecting over 100 Stars. The remake adds more Plus and Expert stages to the original, with a stage count of over 130 this time around. Even with so many stages, both familiar and new, I never got tired of solving the puzzles and guiding Mini-Marios through danger. However, while I never got bored or fatigued by the constant puzzle-solving, I did get frustrated from time to time.

The movement in this faithful remake is solid, though understandably less snappy and fluid than traditional Mario games. The slow methodical pacing of solving the puzzle rooms suits the more stop-and-go movement well enough, but it isn’t perfect.

One gripe I have is the hit detection when jumping on or avoiding enemies. For example, Shy Guys and Thwomps kill you if you don’t do a pixel-perfect jump on the tip of their propeller or avoid their large hitbox. There were moments when I should have landed safely on a platform, yet the game recognized me hitting a spike adjacent to it instead; these hit detection problems are typically never an issue in modern Mario games.

hitting a thwomp
Image Source: Nintendo via Twinfinite

Another slight complaint I have is menu navigation. The stage selection menu is cumbersome to navigate between worlds, especially when you start unlocking the plus and extra worlds and have a dozen tags to manually comb through. Likewise, the cursor for stage selection is not distinct and my colorblindness made it very difficult to tell what I was selecting in the menu.

Aside from some occasional hit detection issues and menu gripes, Mario VS. Donkey Kong provides a super solid and fun puzzle-platforming experience with very little to complain about.
With the remake’s added Worlds and new Time Attack mode, there’s a surprising amount of content here for the puzzle-platformer enthusiast to be satiated for some time.

And while you don’t need to be a diehard fan of the genre to enjoy what Mario vs. Donkey Kong has to offer, you do need to love puzzles to continue playing the wealth of Plus and Expert levels. This is a game focused on puzzles, with platforming taking more of a supporting role. So if you’re just after a platforming game, this might not scratch that itch.

mario chasing after donkey kong
Image Source: Nintendo via Twinfinite

Somersaulting through bite-sized puzzle rooms in search of Mini-Marios is even more of a treat than it was back on the GBA. While I’ll miss the dialogue that didn’t make it into the remake, I fully welcome the added stages and reworked music. I enjoyed my HD revisit of Mario vs. Donkey Kong quite a bit, even to the point of earning every Star in the game. While there’s not a lot here that will appeal to those who weren’t attracted by the original game, it’s still a solid remake that adds fun new stages and HD polish.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong
I enjoyed my HD revisit of Mario vs. Donkey Kong quite a bit, even to the point of earning every badge in the game. While there's not a lot here that will appeal to those who weren't attracted by the original game, it's still a solid remake that adds fun new stages and HD polish.
Pros
  • Well-crafted puzzles that continue to entertain and challenge even after the credits roll.
  • Fun Mini-Mario stages and DK boss battles.
  • Good replayability due to the new Time Attack mode and co-op functionality.
  • The new music arrangements and graphical enhancements are solid.
Cons
  • Hit detection is questionable on rare occasions and navigating the rows of menu tabs isn't convenient.
  • Most of the charming voicework from the original didn't make it for the remake.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review. Reviewed on Switch.

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Author
Matthew Carmosino
Matthew Carmosino is a freelance writer for Twinfinite. He started gaming in the mid-90s where his love for SquareSoft RPGs like Chrono Trigger changed him forever. Matthew has been working in the game industry for two years covering everything from story-rich RPGs to puzzle-platformers. Listening to piano music on a rainy day is his idea of a really good time, which probably explains his unnatural tolerance for level-grinding.