Mario vs. Donkey Kong remake’s new levels feel right at home

Mario and Donkey Kong stare each other down in Mario vs. Donkey Kong.

When it comes to Mario, Nintendo has remake fever. The publisher is currently on a hot streak as it revisits some of the series’ cult classics. We got a strong remake of Super Mario RPG last November and a new version of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is on the way this year. In-between those beloved titles, we’re getting a full remake of Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a unique Game Boy Advance puzzle-platformer. It’s something of a 20th-anniversary edition considering the original launched in 2004.

Ahead of its launch, I played through the remake’s first four worlds. For the most part, they’re 1:1 recreations of the original’s levels, with a charming visual boost that’s not far off from what we saw in Super Mario RPG. What I wouldn’t realize at first, though, is that one of those worlds was an entirely new addition made for the remake. That’s how naturally its new content slots in to a very faithful recreation.

Tiny changes

Like Super Mario RPG, Mario vs. Donkey Kong‘s Switch remake isn’t trying to mess with fans’ nostalgia. The core gameplay loop is entirely unchanged here: Mario moves through bite-sized 2D platforming levels turned into small puzzles. Each level has me finding a key and bringing it to a door, before sending me to a second screen where I need to rescue a mini Mario toy. I watched a YouTube video of the original game’s World 1 after beating the remake’s and it was almost identical.

There are some very subtle changes, though. For one, the remake removes high-score levels. There’s no longer a point bar at the top of the screen and the end result page only awards players a star if they collect three optional gifts in each stage. I’m assuming the unlockable Time Attack mode, which I have yet to test, brings that concept back, but I admittedly miss it in the base game. There’s not as much urgency to complete levels quickly aside from a stray stage gimmick like rising lava. Some tension gets lost in that change, though a ticking clock makes sure I’m at least a bit more conscious of how long I’m spending on each level.

Mario swings on a vine in Mario vs. Donkey Kong.

Other changes are miniscule. Levels don’t start with a short introduction screen showcasing its special gameplay hook, and the original’s 1-Up minigame has changed. Players no longer pick a prize from boxes after a level. Instead, that’s replaced with a bonus stage that pops up in each world where players have 30 seconds to grab a flying key and unlock a cache containing five extra lives. I can’t imagine either change will ruffle any feathers (the only thing that might is that Mario isn’t quite as talkative in a newly reimagined opening cutscene).

For the most part, it seems like Nintendo wants to keep the remake as leisurely and approachable as possible. There’s not a brain-busting puzzle present in the first four worlds, which I 100% cleared without putting in too much thought. Nintendo doubles down on that with a casual mode, which adds more stage checkpoints and lets Mario survive a hit from an enemy. I imagine the goal is to make something even more kid-friendly here, reinforced by a co-op mode that seems built for parents who want to help their children through stages.

A whole new world

The original Game Boy Advance release was a very short game; even a 100% run only took around 10 hours. Perhaps realizing that such a length would be a tough sell for a $50 game, Nintendo has added in two entirely new worlds (both of which will have their own set of “+” stages after clearing the story). I’d get to try one of those in World 4: Merry Mini-Land.

Coming after the lava-filled Fire Mountain, Merry Mini-Land tosses Mario into a theme park-inspired world with some fresh gimmicks. Chief among those are flowers that double as air vents. When I step on one, both I and anything I’m carrying get blown along its path. This, unsurprisingly, creates some of the first half’s freshest puzzles. They have me thinking a bit more critically as I drop a key or a spring onto a vent and flip a switch at the right time to activate another flower, or turn blocks invisible, to continue the object’s path.

Mario stands on a stage in Mario vs. Donkey Kong.

My favorite new stages compound a few ideas together. One standout has me using teleporting boxes to access different parts of the screens and hit switches in the correct order to grab a key. The second half is a more complex platforming gauntlet where I both have to time when I teleport to land on a moving platform and carefully hop over a row of falling rocks, making sure I can return to the other side safely after hitting a switch. Levels like that feel like a totally natural fit within the original worlds, keeping the same design spirit intact while flexing some modern creativity.

It’s great to see such high-quality additions included in the Switch version, though it does leave me with one lingering question: Was a remake really the best course of action for the series? It’s very apparent that the game underneath the new graphics was a 20-year old stab at starting a new puzzle series. Rigid movement combined with often obvious solutions makes the early worlds feel a little elementary. Considering that Mario vs. Donkey Kong doesn’t have a beloved story like Super Mario RPG, I’m not entirely sure what Nintendo gains here from remaking a niche GBA puzzler instead of creating an entirely new installment with a fresh set of puzzles.

Mario stands on falling rocks in Mario vs. Donkey Kong.

It’s something I’m hoping the entire package answers as it’ll need to work to justify a $50 double-dip instead of dropping the original on Switch Online for subscribers. Though maybe that’s me overthinking it; there’s a nostalgic joy in seeing an underappreciated game return with a fresh coat of paint and a fantastic new soundtrack. Perhaps that’s all the average fan really wants.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong launches on February 16 for Nintendo Switch.

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