Mario and Donkey Kong. Industry icons from Nintendo's earliest days - the franchise characters that started it all. Though more recently they've set their sights on new horizons, the duo used to be the greatest of enemies. At least, until Donkey Kong became smitten with Mario's new toy.
Mario vs. Donkey Kong is partially inspired by the first Game Boy iteration of Donkey Kong (dubbed "Donkey Kong '94" for its year of release), but only in concept. MvDK is a hodge-podge of gameplay devices and innovations that makes it a really bright and fresh experience.
As the story goes (told through series of cinematic still-frames), Mario opens a toy factory to manufacture miniature replicas of himself. While channel surfing, Donkey Kong happens upon a commercial for these Mini-Marios, and simply must have one; but when he goes to the store, they're all sold out. His only alternative is to ransack the toy factory and steal the Mini-Marios. As should be obvious, Mario gives chase. DK leads Mario through six different areas of the world, all the while dropping Mini-Marios in surprisingly puzzle-like stages.
Yeah, MvDK is a puzzle game. It's no Tetris - there are definite platforming elements (Mario gets plenty of chances to show off his jumping prowess, and even handstands) - but each of the game's stages is structured as a puzzle. Each of the six areas (each one itself a different theme: in the factory, a jungle, a haunted house, etc) consists of eight stages. The first six are the bread and butter of MvDK, and contain two screens. On the first screen, Mario must get to a key, and bring it to a locked door. In the second screen, he must get to the Mini-Mario. Of course, it's not all that simple - there are obstacles, switches, conveyor belts, enemies, and all sorts of things to get in the way.
The seventh stage is somewhat reminiscent of Lemmings. The six Mini-Marios you previously rescued will follow Mario as best they can, and the stage's goal is to lead them into a toy box while solving more puzzles and keeping them from dying. You'll want to get as many as possible into the box, as each one you get will give you a health point for the eighth stage, a showdown with Donkey Kong. This battle is different in each area, though in every one you have to hit the monkey four times with whatever the stage provides.
Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a graphically well-polished game. It's fully 2-D, but every sprite is well-rendered to give the illusion of an extra dimension. Everything looks crisp and clear, and the environments in each area are distinctive and, well, cool. The game's music and sound effects are pretty respectable as well. Surprisingly, the game contains more Mario speech than any other to date, with a number of spoken lines like "Get back here ya' big monkey!" that add to the comic effect of the story.
One of the greatest things about MvDK is its level of replay. The basic game - six areas, eight stages per area (and an additional final battle stage) - is enough on its own to occupy a player for quite a while. Though it's not exactly long, it becomes very challenging, and later stages come to demand a near-perfection of play skill. But that's not all; when you beat the final DK stage, two whole new games open up. The first is similar in structure to the basic game, with six areas, each one following the same theme as before. However, there are seven "Plus" stages, not eight, and the first six Plus stages are a sort of hybrid of 1-7 from last time: you must find Mini-Mario, who's holding a key, and lead him to the locked door (the seventh Plus stage in each level is still a battle with the primate).
The second new game is made up of Expert stages. These are stages all their own, with no grand levels to tie them down, but they must be unlocked with stars from the basic and Plus stages. You get a star in a stage by beating the game's high score, which you can do by beating a stage quickly, getting all the present items, and defeating as many enemies as possible. As getting stars on later levels is a near-Herculean feat, and both the Plus and Expert stages are more difficult than the first game, MvDK offers plenty to keep a player busy.
It's fun, it's challenging, and it lasts. Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a well-crafted and well-delivered production, offering an almost completely new experience that will test your wits in the process. It's a title no puzzle fan should miss.
Overall arbitrary rating: 8-8.5/10