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Mario vs Donkey Kong review - a slow-burn that gets tricky

Our Mario vs. Donkey Kong review unpacks everything you need to know about Nintendo's latest addition to the beloved franchise on Switch.

Mario vs Donkey Kong preview - Donkey Kong next to Pocket Tactics logo

Our Verdict

While it takes its time to build momentum, once it clicks with you Mario vs Donkey Kong is a rewarding and enjoyable remake, and another win for the Mario franchise. The simple gameplay gets deceptively tricky, and is supported by wonderful visuals: just make sure you stick with it.

I’ll gladly admit that when I began preparing to write this Mario vs Donkey Kong review several weeks ago, I wasn’t necessarily convinced by the new Nintendo title (which is a modern overhaul of the game of the same name from 2004 for the Gameboy Advance). Broadly, I thought it was passable, but very samey, too easy, and not worthy of its price tag. Now, after many further hours of game time, my perception of the game has completely changed… at least, mostly.

Sometimes when you buy a new game, install it, and eagerly load it up for the first time, it’s easy to feel underwhelmed by the result. There are some situations where the game just refuses to click with you, and occasionally you can tell within the first few minutes. This happened to me recently: I paid a decent amount of money for a new game, played five minutes, and then vowed never to touch it again. I then flicked back to a game that I know I enjoy: you know the type; something that’s guaranteed to leave you satisfied (usually one of the best Nintendo Switch games).

The thing is, for me, Mario vs Donkey Kong began being a game destined to fall into the first category and has ended up being in the second. Huh. It’s been quite the rollercoaster, so let’s start at the beginning.

Mario vs Donkey Kong - Mario carrying an enemy

I was fortunate enough to get access to the new Mario game several weeks ago; an opportunity that I was extremely eager to jump on because I’d just caught up with the glorious, superlative, staggeringly fun Mario Wonder. Mario vs Donkey Kong is a huge change of pace. I went from a game all about chaos and speed, to patience and strategy. In hindsight, I should have expected the whiplash.

Mario vs Donkey Kong is a game in which you, Mario, chase Donkey Kong through various worlds and levels attempting to save the Mini Marios that the boisterous ape has stolen from a factory. Getting through the levels isn’t as simple as stomping a few goombas though: it’s about brains rather than brute force. You assess your surroundings to solve puzzles in order to reach the next level. With a timer working against you, the pressure is on to be simultaneously calm and decisive, moving with a good degree of speed and precision.

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Maybe that all sounds quite hard. It’s not. In the early levels, Mario vs Donkey Kong is a breeze as the game coaches you through various scenarios letting you get to grips with the mechanics without almost any difficulty. The boss ‘fights’ are similarly easy. The only challenges seemed to be with fiddly obstacles, rather than complex ones. This period of the game does go on too long, and it means that there’s very little satisfaction in doing well, and getting a perfect score. It was at this point that I grew frustrated with the game. It felt like a bit of a slog, and I longed for the high-octane fun of Wonder, or Mario Kart.

In order to fairly review the game, though, I kept playing and something finally clicked. I can’t pinpoint the moment that it happened, but I suddenly found myself appreciating what Mario vs Donkey Kong had to offer. This coincided with a change in difficulty, as the game asked more of me, it forced me to engage more in exchange. I had to think harder, which meant that I studied the game in greater detail to figure out the solutions to the puzzle, in turn appreciating the small details like the catchy music, nice animations, and fabulous sound design. Everything became more worthwhile, and the game finally turned into something fun.

Mario vs Donkey Kong - Mario hanging from vines

So, finally, here are the big plus sides of Mario vs Donkey Kong. It has a lot of charm and personality: all the designs are great, and it’s a polished game that evidently has had a lot of love poured into it. Once it gets into the swing of things, the puzzles are challenging and satisfying, and make you step back and think creatively, rather than just trying to force your way through the levels. Because the variety and difficulty increase as you progress, you can play for five minutes or five hours and get something from it. It actually becomes quite addictive.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that there are still some issues with the game. I do think that the early stages are too slow and easy, and that it’s hard to find momentum when a lot of the levels feel the same. And, it would be nice if you had to use some of the gameplay mechanics more frequently (backward flipping is very fun, but comes in handy very rarely). Still, those concerns do fade away as Mario vs Donkey Kong hits its stride.

To go back to what I mentioned earlier, this is how Mario vs Donkey Kong became a game that I can go to when I want some certain, guaranteed entertainment. After a few hours, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and will be rewarded with a simple, but deceptively engaging experience. It probably doesn’t need a sequel, but as a complement to the broader Mario franchise, it’s definitely a success. Or, it is when it eventually clicks for you.

Mario vs Donkey Kong - Mario being burned by fire

For more Mario antics, read our Mario Wonder review. Or, see all our speculation about the Nintendo Switch 2, and check out our picks for the best Nintendo Switch RPGs.