Review: Mario Vs. Donkey Kong (Game Boy Advance)

Mario vs. Donkey Kong
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: GameBoy Advance
Release Date: 05/24/2004

The GameBoy Advance has been the home to countless ports of classic Nintendo and Super Nintendo games. Why, just this past month Nintendo released a limited edition Gameboy Advance glorifying the appearance of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, along with a bevy of old school classics (Super Mario Bros., Zelda, Excitebike, etc.) with their original old school pixel-laden boxart. It makes sense that these games would find their home on Nintendo’s portable little system: the graphics and presentation (along with the simplistic design of most of the games) lends well to being developed for a handheld system.

While there have been numerous ports of existing titles, Nintendo has strived to provide new games and ideas using classic concepts. Metroid Fusion and Mario and Luigi are two examples of taking two existing properties updating them for a new generation of gamers. Mario vs. Donkey Kong is Nintendo’s newest foray into updating a classic, that classic being Nintendo’s first big hit: Donkey Kong.


Wow, where to start? If you thought Final Fantasy Tactics was complicated—just give up now. Unless you have a PHD in philosophy, this game will be a tough banana to open. For those who are ambitious, Mario vs. Donkey Kong tells the story of a gigantic tie-wearing ape (why a tie? I’m so confused!) who takes over a factory (no! not a factory!) in an attempt to steal Mario’s new hot selling Mini-Mario toys (I need to lie down). Don’t feel bad if you don’t quite understand what I just told you, because to be honest, it took me a couple of play-throughs to grasp it myself.

So, yes, the story is ridiculous, but what do you expect? Games like this are not bought for the complex and intriguing story—that is what RPG’s are for. Hell, the original Donkey Kong made absolutely no sense (a plumber valiantly attempting to save a damsel in distress from a barrel throwing ape?), and that was one of the most popular arcade games of its time.



One of the first things I noticed upon playing Mario vs. Donkey was its impressive graphics—for the GameBoy Advance at least. The game begins with a group of fairly impressive 3-D still shots of the classic Nintendo 80’s icons. These stills inform the player of the game’s ridiculous story—incase they were really interested in why they were trying to thwart the feisty ape.

The game itself is done with quasi 3-D pixels, which is definitely give this game an unique look compared to most other GameBoy Advance games that rely solely on 2-D pixels. For the most part, the graphics really work, and it shows what developers can do to push the GBA’s hardware. Unfortunately, the action can slow down when a lot of action is on the screen, and the models are a little pixilated, but that is really no surprise. As much as I was impressed by Mario vs. Donkey Kong’s graphical presentation, I couldn’t help but wish the game would have done more of a homage to the classic 2-D sprites of its predecessors. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the attempt to push games in new directions, but it think this game (especially be based on two iconic game characters and being on the GBA) could have benefited from an updated old-school look. That’s just me though, and I really can’t complain about the graphics here, because they work.



I am kind of torn with the sound, because while I enjoyed the abundance of in-game speech and classic sound effects, I wasn’t such a fan of the generic background music. Let me talk about what worked first however.

Ever since Mario first declared, “It’sa me, Mario!,” way back on the Nintendo 64, I’ve come to expect his cute little voice in every subsequent game featuring the loveable Italian plumber, and Mario vs. Donkey Kong did not disappoint. There is just something incredibly amusing about hearing Mario’s infectious little voice, even when he is jumping around the stages giving his classic hoots and hollers. My favorite use of his voice came after finishing each level when Mario would burst out a little exclamation towards the brutish Donkey Kong, each causing me to chuckle. Mario’s voice wasn’t the only thing recognizable used either, as certain sound effects from the classic Donkey Kong appear, like the music played after acquiring the infamous hammer.

Though I enjoyed these sound effects, the actual music did little to gain my interest. Maybe since this is update of such popular games, I expected catchier tunes, but I just couldn’t stomach the generic songs played during each stages. Luckily, the sound effects did a good to mask the bland music, but even so, it would have been nice to have some catchy tunes along with Mario’s exclamations.



For the most part, the controls are spot on. This is a very simplistic game, so there really isn’t much in the ways on controls, which is probably why they are so refined. Essentially each stage is progressed moving and jumping Mario along platforms, wires, stairs, and anything else Mario can use for support. To give the game a little needed life, Mario has a couple of flashy moves that only the master jumper himself could pull off. Sure, Mario can perform a regular jump, but he also possesses a nifty (and useful) back flip as well as a handstand jump/double jump. Both of these are easy to use, which is good because a lot of the times you will have to perform a quick back flip whilst riding a moving to platform to get a trickyy ledge. The only problem I had with the controls was the performance of the back flip. Performing a back flip is done by running in one direction and then quickly pressing the opposite direction (along with the jump button simultaneously) to perform the move. Easy, right? Yes, almost too easy. It seemed like the controls for this move were a tad bit sensitive, because often times I would mean to turn around and jump only to perform a back flip of potential unwanted death.



If Mario vs. Donkey Kong got one thing right, balance would be it. This essentially a puzzle game, as you forced to figure the quickest and easiest way to obtain a key and return it to its proper home. While it does sound overly simple in practice, part of the fun is the different elements used to distract you from completing each level too easily. Each level tries to incorporate a new gameplay element (helpfully shown via a little demo before each stage) needed to advance. Most of the stages revolve around Mario turning on and off different color switches needed to make platforms/stairs appear or disappear based on their color. While some levels are tougher than others, none are too difficult.

I think of playing Mario vs. Donkey Kong in two steps: thinking and acting. When I first start a level, I try to think the best route to accomplishing my goals: acquiring the three presents—which are used to gain a bonus stage at the end of each level—obtaining the key, and freeing the Mini-Marios. Once I’ve discovered how to do this (usually through trial and error and the loss of many lives), I successfully complete the stage in a quick and efficient manner for maximum points. Sure, there are some levels that require a longer thinking stage, but that is what makes this game so fun: cramming your brain to finally figure out the correct route, and then realizing how foolish you were for not noticing it in the first place.

Apart from these normal stages, there is also one level where your objective is to lead all the Mini-Marios you have freed into a large toy chest by collecting three tiles that spell out the word “toy.” While these stages are essentially used to determine how much health you have while facing Donkey Kong (which I’ll get to in a second), I found them to be very fun and refreshing from the platforming action of the pervious levels. I almost wish there more levels like this, but alas, maybe being limited made them more enjoyable.

The last (and final) part of a level consists of battling the big ol’ ape himself—Donkey Kong. Though each level is handled in different manner, most of them consist of Mario chunking some object at Donkey Kong’s kisser. How many times Mario can be hit is determined by how many Mini-Marios you saved in the previous level, so facing Kong is only as difficult as you choose it to be.

And for those who are known to make many mistakes (don’t worry, I am the master of foolish deaths) acquiring all the presents in each stage will give you the opportunity to acquire bonus lives (sometimes even three) making it easy to rack up a large number lives to combat your clumsiness. Anyone should be able to complete this game, though only keen players can acquire the top scores for each stage—so whether you are playing for fun or sport—Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a blast for all players.



How hardcore are you? Do you strive to obtain the best scores in each game you play, or just play to have fun—even if it takes you hours more than it should? Well, if you of the hardcore type, Mario vs. Donkey Kong has a good amount of replay value. As with most games of this nature, completing a stage in the shortest amount of time will reward you with a high score and a star, which will then in turn unlock expert levels—not including the plus levels you obtain after finishing the game. So, even if you are a casual player and finish the game, six brand-new plus levels are opened up, instantly increasing its longevity. I am not sure if anyone would have the patience to sit through all of the levels, but providing them definitely helps this game last longer than the original Donkey Kong.



Well, let’s see. This game is based on a ten year old game (Donkey Kong 1994), which is in turn based on a twenty three year old arcade game (Donkey Kong). Yes, it is not very original (at all), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good game. Mario vs. Donkey Kong was not meant to be an original game either, it was meant to be a fun addition to the twenty three year old gameplay we know and love—which it does, successfully too. Sure, there is the addition of the Mini-Mario stages, but there is only one each level, so it is really hard to tout that has being overly original, though they are a welcoming addition to the platforming. Like its story, it’s easy to ignore this fault.



The name alone sells this game. It doesn’t matter if this game was a glorified thumb-wrestling battle between the two Nintendo stars, people would buy it because they have faith in any game with their name power. It just so happens that Mario vs. Donkey Kong lives up to the reputation of the two stars. Anyone who enjoys the original Donkey Kong or the updated Donkey Kong 1994, will without a doubt love this game, because it’s essentially based on gameplay that has proven to be a success.



This game is addictive based on its simplicity and ease to pick up. Once you get the hang of the way the game handles, the rate at which you breeze through stages should increase exponentially, making it hard to put the game down. When I was playing, I kept telling myself I would quit after I beat a certain stage, only to find myself finishing the level. Unlocking the plus levels upon completing the game will only enhance this addiction, unless that is you are sick of the game at this point, but since the game is so fun, this is unlikely.



I think the idea of updating a classic game by utilizing its core gameplay and adding new elements is such a good idea, and something that Nintendo should do more of—instead of just releasing straight ports. Mario vs. Donkey Kong works so well because it lends itself to portable gaming: the levels are short, fun, and easy to play. It would have been nice to see Nintendo incorporate more from the Mario series aside from the obligatory enemy designs, like perhaps a stage based on levels of the original Super Mario Bros. game. The same can be said for Donkey Kong. Why they didn’t offer a revamped version of the original Donkey Kong with their graphical engine is beyond me, and a little bit of a disappointment, considering the potential Nintendo had. Whatever the case, Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a good game that needs another ten to bring up its score—so here it is!


Final Scores:

Story: 5/10
Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 6/10
Controls: 8/10
Balance: 10/10
Replayability: 8/10
Originality: 5/10
Appeal: 9/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Misc: 10/10

Overall Score: 78/100