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"Mario vs. Donkey Kong" review: It's one quirky Nintendo Switch game

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review: Nintendo Switch
Jason R. Rich

Hang onto your plumber's wrench, because Mario is back for a new, Nintendo Switch exclusive adventure. This time, his costar (and in this case, his arch nemesis) is none other than Donkey Kong. On the day "Mario vs. Donkey Kong" was released, Nintendo sent me a review copy of this action puzzler that's playable on all versions of the Nintendo Switch.

I've spent hours playing "Mario vs. Donkey Kong" on my Nintendo Switch OLED Model, both in handheld mode and in TV mode (using the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller). Within moments, I knew I was in for countless hours of fun, but plenty of challenges as well. As much as this is a side-scrolling adventure, I had to think creatively to solve puzzles while working against a clock. 

"Mario vs. Donkey Kong" is based on a Game Boy Advance game released way back in May 2004 (almost 20 years ago). Even if you mastered that game back in the day, you're in for a new and potentially more challenging experience. Keep reading to learn more about my time playing "Mario vs. Donkey Kong," and discover if this should be the next game you add to your Nintendo Switch library.

"Mario vs. Donkey Kong" at a glance

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review: Nintendo Switch
Jason R. Rich

Platform: Nintendo Switch | Number of players: 1 or 2 | Rating: E (Everyone) | Publisher: Nintendo | Game file size: 1.3GB | Genre: Action/Puzzle | Supported Switch play modes: TV mode, tabletop mode, handheld mode | Release date: February 16, 2024

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review: Nintendo Switch
At the end of each world, Mario comes face-to-face with Donkey Kong. Nintendo

This game is all about puzzle solving, so if you don't have the patience to figure out how to help Mario maneuver his way through each level, this game isn't for you. Sure, there's a fair mount of running, jumping, climbing and pouncing, but this is mainly to help Mario move around and solve puzzles. 

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review: Nintendo Switch
Each level is filled with puzzles. Some offer more obvious solutions than others. Nintendo

So here's the story: Mario has built a successful toy factory manufacturing mini-Mario toys. The factory is running smoothly and cranking out plenty of fun playthings, until one day Donkey Kong comes along and steals them all. 

He hides these toys within levels of a seemingly endless maze, so it's up to Mario's to recover each of missing mini-Marios and lead them back to their toy box. To do this, it's necessary to explore each level, figure out how to navigate through it as quickly as possible, locate a giant gold key that's used to unlock the next level, retrieve the mini-Marios that Donkey Kong has left behind in each of the levels, and avoid the traps and obstacles that Donkey Kong has left for Mario.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review: Nintendo Switch
One of your goals in each world is to recover stolen Mini-Marios. Nintendo

"Mario vs. Donkey Kong" has two gameplay modes. One forces gamers to work against a clock on each level. If the clock reaches zero, that level resets and needs to be started from the beginning. Meanwhile, each level contains traps and enemies that can cause Mario to lose a life. And to make things even more complicated, whenever Mario had to drop a gold key to solve a puzzle, a 12-second timer kicks in. If that timer reaches zero before Mario picks up the key again, it returns to its original location.

Oh -- and then there are colored switches. Lots of them. And they either clear the way or block a path, depending on what color they are. 

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review: Nintendo Switch
After collecting the Mini-Marios in each World, you need to lead them back to their toy box where they'll be safe. Nintendo

The second gameplay mode gets rid of the main timer, but still forces gamers to solve the same puzzles and achieve the same objectives. The timer associated with each golden key remains active. So yes, this second mode is a tad easier, but still requires a lot of hardcore puzzle solving. There are also objects that Mario can pick up, throw move and climb on. These too must be used strategically.

10 things that make "Mario vs. Donkey Kong" a fun adventure

Because this game is so puzzle-driven, it offers a vastly different dynamic than your typical Mario action-adventure.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review: Nintendo Switch
Each world within "Mario vs. Donkey Kong" is entirely different. Nintendo

Gamers still need to help Mario use a wide range of moves and skills to outsmart enemies and get past obstacles. For some gamers, it's this different format that's appealing. If you're a gamer who prefers non-stop action (instead of solving puzzles), "Mario vs. Donkey Kong" is probably not the game for you. 

Here are 10 things that I really like about this game:

  • The colorful graphics and music pay homage to classic Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong adventures.
  • "Mario vs, Donkey Kong" can be played on the classic Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Switch OLED Model or Nintendo Switch Lite. It supports the system's handheld mode, tabletop mode and TV mode.
  • While the main hero in this game is Mario, a second player can join as Toad in two-player mode. When a second player joins, some of the levels and obstacles change a bit, so even if you've already figured out some levels on your own, you can expect some differences when you revisit them with another player.
  • The game features more than 130 unique levels in eight vastly different worlds, including Mario Toy Company, Donkey Kong Jungle, Mystic Forest, Merry Mini-Land, Slippery Summit and others. Each is filled with different puzzles, obstacles, enemies to outmaneuver and interesting ways you'll need to outsmart Donkey Kong.
  • The puzzles in each level grow more challenging and require gamers to help Mario learn and master different skills and special moves.
  • When playing the game's classic style mode, each level has a timer. If it reaches zero before you achieve that level's objectives, you're forced to start from the beginning of the level. However, if you choose the casual style, you get rid of the main timer, can activate checkpoints in each level so you don't need to return to the beginning, and Mario can take extra hits.
  • For gamers looking for greater challenges, there's the plus worlds mode. You'll discover more complex puzzles in each of the worlds.
Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review: Nintendo Switch
  • Throughout each level, there are bonus presents to find. If you collect all of them in each level, you get a "perfect" rating. Once you get enough of those, 16 bonus levels get unlocked. These are the most challenging of all.
  • If you manage to complete the game -- all 130 levels -- there's the time attack mode that allows you to go back to the beginning and revisit each level, but you get less time to complete it. There are also a few extra surprises.
  • At the end of each world, Mario goes face-to-face against Donkey Kong in an arcade-style, action-oriented battle that requires quick reflexes, perfect timing and using all of the skills you helped Mario master thus far.

"Mario vs. Donkey Kong" gameplay

Even after you solve a level's core puzzle (which can be a challenge onto itself), you'll need perfect timing and quick reflexes. Sure, things start out easy, but the puzzles gradually become more complicated and the objectives become harder.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong Review: Nintendo Switch
In casual mode, there's no time limited to complete each level, but you still need to solve puzzles, overcome obstacles and discover the best way to reach your intended destination. Nintendo

At times, I found the game frustrating. Once I figured out how to solve a puzzle (which often took multiple attempts), it's still necessary to achieve the specific objectives within each level. And if you're playing in classic mode, you always need to move fast since you're racing against a clock. 

I buzzed through some levels in minutes, but I found myself needing to revisit others numerous times, which I found to be a bit repetitious. However, as soon as I got through a particular level, I was pleasantly greeted by a new set of challenges.  

What I didn't like about "Mario vs. Donkey Kong"

  • Some of the solutions to puzzles were not at all obvious and required a lot of trial and error. Plus, just figuring out the core objective in each level, or how to reach a certain area within a level was not always straightforward.
  • "Mario vs. Donkey Kong" showcases some gorgeous graphics and animations, but some of the core game play is very similar to the original game from 20 years ago.
  • The combination between this game being a traditional 2D platformer with action-adventure elements, versus the need to solve sometimes complex puzzles isn't always balanced. Some levels are extremely action-oriented, while others are more about strategy and solving puzzles. If you're expecting a traditional "Super Mario"-style game, this is not it.
  • A young gamer will likely find this game too frustrating and complicated, while a skilled gamer will probably find it too easy. Thus, it's best suited to casual gamers (ages 12 and up).

"Mario vs. Donkey Kong": Final thoughts

Gamers who fondly remember playing this on a Game Boy Advance will enjoy the nostalgic elements. For younger gamers, "Mario vs. Donkey Kong" offers something new and unique. It nicely taps the core capabilities of the Nintendo Switch, while offering several game play modes which can keep the right type of gamer entertained for hours on end. If you're not the type of gamer who enjoys puzzles, you'll likely find the game fun at first, but ultimately frustrating and repetitious.

Are you looking for more existing Nintendo Switch games to play? Be sure to check out our in-depth reviews of "Super Mario Bros. Wonder," "Super Mario PRG" and our coverage of the best Nintendo Switch games you can play right now.

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