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Nintendo amps up an old feud in 'Mario vs. Donkey Kong'

Donkey Kong, possessed by a consumerist frenzy for Mini-Mario toys.
Nintendo
Donkey Kong, possessed by a consumerist frenzy for Mini-Mario toys.

Let's say your nemesis broke into a factory that made deluxe toys in your likeness, ran off with dozens of them, and then dropped them across a series of exotic locations. What would you do? Call your lawyers? The police? Or would you chase the thief, painstakingly reclaiming the merchandise?

Such a farce might face a millionaire, but in Mario vs. Donkey Kong, it plagues the iconic plumber himself. It's unclear what relationship Mario has with the "Mario Toy Company" that makes his clockwork mini-mes, but he's as dedicated to recovering its property as a hen would be to wrangle her chicks.

In this remake of a 2004 Gameboy Advance title, you'll steer Mario through levels that are tactical puzzles as much as they are action challenges. Presented with new cutscenes nearly as polished as The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the game is exquisitely animated and precisely engineered. But it can be just as frustrating as fun — and it seesaws between both extremes most when you're playing its new cooperative mode.

Collect presents and gold keys to progress through dozens of levels.
/ Nintendo
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Nintendo
Collect presents and gold keys to progress through dozens of levels.

Where last year's Super Mario Bros. Wonder returned the series to its sidescrolling roots, Mario vs. Donkey Kong's 2D levels are usually confined to a single screen. You'll complete each by flipping switches, climbing ladders, jumping on moveable trashcans, and avoiding enemies like purple rhinos (no Koopas and Goombas here!).

Without the traditional Fire Flowers and Power Mushrooms, a single misstep will cost you a life. While the game's shortest levels can take less than a minute to clear, repeated deaths eventually drove me to the forgiving "casual mode," which bubbles Mario when he perishes and safely deposits him at the latest checkpoint.

Boss fights resemble the original Donkey Kong arcade game.
/ Nintendo
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Nintendo
Boss fights resemble the original Donkey Kong arcade game.

My decades of Mario experience notwithstanding, the game forced me to relearn the basics. For example, a short button press and a long button press both result in a jump of the same height, which caused me to misjudge important distances. You also can't defeat enemies by leaping atop them. Instead, you'll often use them as platforms. You can stand on them, pick them up, and then toss them to give you a leg-up in new areas.

After you collect all six of a world's Mini-Marios, you'll have to shepherd them through a final puzzle stage. They'll follow you, heedless of their safety, as you guide them to collect big capital letters that spell the word "TOY" (they'll also cry out in cute, plaintive voices should you abandon them). Once they're safely stowed, you'll face Donkey Kong himself in boss fights that resemble his original arcade game.

It can sometimes be more challenging to play with a partner than to play alone.
/ Nintendo
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Nintendo
It can sometimes be more challenging to play with a partner than to play alone.

If all that sounds daunting, adding a partner can take the edge off — sometimes. While the second-player Toad character can boost your jumps, the cooperative mode also introduces a silver key to collect and a gold one that normally unlocks each exit. While my wife and I relished the extra complexity on some levels, others completely drained our lives and left us despondent. Over time, we lost the appetite to play together.

Despite souring on the multiplayer gameplay, I still found Mario vs. Donkey Kong to be compact and clever. Think of it as an amuse-bouche compared to the sumptuous buffet that was Super Mario Bros. Wonder. $50 is steep for such an appetizer, but Mario fans and puzzle gourmands will surely eat it up.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Perkins Mastromarino
James Perkins Mastromarino is Here & Now's Washington, D.C.-based producer. He works with NPR's newsroom on a daily whirlwind of topics that range from Congress to TV dramas to outer space. Mastromarino also edits NPR's Join the Game and reports on gaming for daily shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition.