Some apes, it seems, are more equal than others.
-George Taylor, Planet of The Apes
“The following is a contributor post by the ABXY Mage.”
In 1981, Nintendo introduced the world to Donkey Kong. At the same time, they introduced Mario, although back then, he was known simply as “Jumpman.”
While Mario went on to surpass the ape and become the most iconic character in all of video games, Donkey Kong continued to make quite a name as well. 1982 saw a hugely successful sequel in Donkey Kong Jr. and everything seemed in great shaped when 1983 brought a third game, Donkey Kong 3.
Donkey Kong 3 was a big departure from the series that had become a fan favorite. For starters, it ditched Mario for a pest controller named Stanley. Even though Mario was not yet the legend we now know, and is even the villain in DK Jr., this still seemed like a pointless and stupid decision.
On top of that, the game plays more like a shooter, completely ignoring the platforming roots that brought the first two titles so much success. Perhaps it is for these reasons that the world didn’t see another DK title until 1994, when it got two.
Of those two games, the most memorable is certainly Donkey Kong Country. Rare clearly had a much better idea of what to do with the great ape than Nintendo did.
However, for the purposes of this critique, we are going to care more about the game that Nintendo developed, Donkey Kong, for the Game Boy.
With 1994 bringing two new Donkey Kong experiences, it was the first time that the character and world of Donkey Kong would see multiple gameplay avenues and title releases simultaneously.
The initial split, as I mentioned, started with the Donkey Kong Country franchise, which would go on to produce two sequels and eventually make a comeback as Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Donkey Kong (1994) opted to go back to DK’s roots by bringing back its arcade-platforming gameplay, but brought it to more modern times by adding in puzzle elements.
Donkey Kong (1994) would then evolve, with Nintendo’s handheld systems, to become the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series. However, there is one major difference between Donkey Kong and the MvDK series.
In the original Game Boy game, DK kidnaps Pauline, who Mario then sets off to save. In Mario vs. Donkey Kong, he has his eyes set on a new, collectible toy. One day, while flipping through channels on his tv, Donkey Kong sees a commercial for the new Mini Mario. The “collect them all” advertisement immediately has DK spellbound, and he drops everything to get some.
Unfortunately for Donkey Kong, everyone wants to collect them all, and the store is sold out. Luckily for Kong, the Mario Toy Company is right across the street… for some reason.
Out of rage that the store, which was right across the street, was sold out, Donkey Kong decides to steal all of the Mini Marios he can from the toy company. I’m guessing that’s why he steals them, anyway. Although, it’s never made clear that he planned to buy them at the store… so maybe he was going to commit really strong-armed robbery?
Somehow alerted to the situation, Mario arrives just in time to see DK in front of the toy company with a giant sack full of Mini Mario toys. Donkey Kong dashes off with Mario in hot pursuit. We then begin the game, with the first world taking place inside of the Mario Toy Company that Mario and DK were just running away from.
Playing as Mario, once you complete the initial six worlds, Mario and the Toads enjoy a hearty laugh at DK’s defeat. Now, even angrier, Donkey Kong kidnaps the Toads and leads Mario into six more worlds. After saving the Toads, and defeating DK a final time, Mario gives him a Mini Mario. Just what he wanted all along. Then they put their arms around each other and the game ends. So, basically, it was all pointless, and the final ending of the game contradicts what little story existed.
Of course, being that it is an arcade-puzzle game, the need for story doesn’t really exist anyway. So, it’s just strange to me the amount they did put in without putting into that story an equal amount of effort. But hey, at least everyone is still friends at the end. Ever since DKC, Donkey Kong has never been the monster he once was, and we want to keep it that way.
Compared to nearly all previous Donkey Kong games (not DKC), the visuals are spectacular. Compared to all previous Mario games, they’re perfectly fine. While I understand that this isn’t a traditional Mario game, and have already pointed out that it is much more of a Donkey Kong game, there is a certain amount of flair expected to accompany the red-and-blue plumber. And Mario vs. Donkey Kong is lacking a little bit of that flair.
Now, unless you were a dog, you couldn’t say the game is not colorful. It is. The gameplay is actually built around colored blocks, ladders, and platforms being controlled by same-colored switches. However, Super Mario World it isn’t. Certain things occasionally appear to have that Super Mario RPG look to them, mostly the characters when they move, but it doesn’t look as good as that game either.
Most of the backgrounds have more detail than you might expect for a platforming, puzzle game on such a small screen. However, this detail isn’t always dynamic or interesting. The muted colors that help distance the background also make the scenery less eye-catching. There are some standouts, though. These few levels are highlighted even more right after finishing one of the less exciting stages right before.
In the foreground, many of the platforms and obstacles are just different colored blocks that have nothing to do with the level, with the occasional spot that fits the stage’s theme.
Enemy variation is also pretty minimal. There are probably less than a dozen unique enemies in the entire game. On top of that, every boss is a battle with Donkey Kong that plays out through a few different scenarios.
The best looking part of the game is the cutscene stills. And, the reason they can look so good, is because they are stills. Unfortunately, this also makes them a bit more boring. Considering the story is all but non-existent, they cutscenes really seem unnecessary.
The song above, in my opinion, is one of the best on the entire soundtrack. It, like a very few others, has that jazzy, DK sound you’ve come to expect from the gorilla’s games. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all of the tracks. The track below is a perfect example of boring, uneventful background music that adds nothing to the already bland level it is supposed to be scoring. Now, I’m not saying it’s unpleasant. It’s just not memorable in any way.
Criminally, due to the Game Boy Advance’s poor sound quality, even some of the grooviest songs are ruined by the garbled muffles. The tinny-sounding high pitched notes are pretty much the worst thing about the entire soundtrack, though, even if you don’t hear them in all of the levels.
The track below is only ten seconds, and I bet you stop it before it gets halfway through.
As for sound effects, they are mostly on point. Mario makes all of the familiar sounds when jumping or picking something up, the creaky rope sounds, the springs, and the enemies all sound as they should. Nothing to write home about when it comes to the game’s sound, really.
Nearly the entire game plays as you think it’s going to. There is only one noticeable element that does not, and it’s a biggie. It’s Mario’s movement. There is something distinctly not-Mario about about his jump physics and the way he runs. I suppose they were attempting to mimic more of the Donkey Kong feel, but it seems out of place here.
However, once you get used to it, it works fine. It occasionally causes difficulty in certain platform challenges, but you figure it out. Other than that, there’s no lag and no glitches, so it plays pretty smoothly throughout.
The ability to deflect falling objects by standing on your feet returns from the previous game. It is an interesting, though underused, mechanic, as is the ability to hold and hang from the tails of certain enemies, which also returns from Donkey Kong (1994).
The Mini Marios are the big gameplay addition, and they add to the game in a couple of different ways, depending on which part of the game you are playing. The game is essentially divided into three sections: Regular Levels, Plus Levels, and Expert Levels.
In the Regular Levels, each world contains one Mini Mario stage. In these, you must lead the Minis through the level to collect letters that spell “TOY” before leading them to a toy box. The number of Minis you safely navigate to the toy box determines how many lives you will have in the following DK boss fight. “Collect them all!”
In the Plus Levels, Mario must lead a single Mini through the stage to locked door to which the Mini Mario has the key. The levels play out in a completely different way than the Regular Levels stages with Minis. So, these variations really add quite a lot to the level designs, player strategy, and difficulty.
Being that this is a hybrid of Mario and Donkey Kong games, it borrows from each series in various aspects. The accessibility of MvDK takes its cues from the Mario franchise.
At the start of every stage in the Regular Levels, there is a single screen, ten-second tutorial that shows you one tip. Strangely some of them show you things you have already had to figure out in previous levels, but several of them are helpful for new players. Of course, this is a puzzle game, so you’ll still have to figure out how to solve each stage.
As I stated previously, Mario vs. Donkey Kong borrows from both Donkey Kong and Mario series. Strangely, while the gameplay follows the DK series’ evolution, the difficulty follows the Mario series’ lead.
While there are the three sections of levels, and each comes with an increase in difficulty, the ramp-up just isn’t steep enough. The Regular Levels are essentially the Easy setting. These make up a whopping 49 of the 104 levels in the game. The Plus Levels, which would then be the Normal mode, make up 43 of the 104. Finally, Hard can be found in the 12 stages in the Expert Levels.
That means that, roughly, the first half of the game forces you to play on Easy. There is little-to-no challenge found here, with the “most difficult” levels being those of the Mini Marios and the DK battles.
The Plus Levels are when it really starts to get interesting, but even still, these levels aren’t challenging enough to have you struggling much.
By the time you get to the expert levels and realize you have to go back and redo levels to get better scores, you probably won’t care enough to enjoy the increased challenge of the Expert Levels.
If you enjoy the difficulty scaling of the game, then it has quite a bit of replayability to it. Each level contains three gifts that can be collected. If you didn’t get them all, you can go back and do that. You will have to if you want to unlock the Expert Levels. The only way to access those twelve stages is to beat the high score in Regular and Plus levels in order to earn enough stars to unlock them. So, if you want to beat every level in the game, it has built in replayability.
While Mario vs. Donkey Kong reuses many of the gameplay elements of Donkey Kong (1994) it also adds the Mini Marios, which in turn took the franchise on a new, and even more successful path. Unfortunately, being the bridge between DK ’94 and Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of The Minis, leaves MvDK looking a little less than unique, especially when it isn’t all that standout compared to other puzzle and platform-puzzle games. Even the final boss fight against Donkey Kong is essentially a remake of the final fight from Donkey Kong (1994).
My Personal Grade: 6/10
It’s a little too easy. Actually, it’s mostly too easy. Also, the story, if that’s what you want to call it, is really ridiculous and pointless. There might as well not be one at all. The cut scenes are all stills and the voice acting borders on offensive.
Having said that, it’s moderately fun. There are some good ideas there. It works well as a pick-up-and-play every once in a while type of game. So, what it really boils down it is: the amount you will enjoy Mario vs. Donkey Kong will really depend on your skill level, preference, and play style.
Aggregated Score: 6.1
The ABXY Mage leads a double life of unfathomable hipness, if his expertise in jazz is any indication. Music maker, fandangoist, writer, you can find this hip cat as ABXY Reviews on Twitter and on YouTube.
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