Mario and Donkey Kong’s New Co-op: Reigniting an Age-Old Rivalry

Mario vs DK
Image: Nintendo Life

From the moment its flashy intro cutscene starts, it’s clear that Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a remake of the 2004 Game Boy Advance puzzle-platform classic, has no intention of revolutionizing anything at all. It completely and faithfully reproduces the opening movie of the 20-year-old original (albeit with a nice makeover) and then quickly moves on to present modernized versions of all the levels you’ll have encountered if you’ve played this before — every one of them almost identical to how you’ll remember.

We’ve spent a lot of time playing Mario’s latest (re)adventure over the past week, and four worlds in, it’s pretty much what we expected so far for the plump plumber. This is a faithful retread in how it delivers levels that adhere to the layouts, enemy positioning, and traversal options of its source material. Not much has changed here in terms of the core mechanics, puzzles, and so on that make up the bulk of the game, which is a positive thing when your source material is so delightfully addictive.

Of course, it’s not all recycled levels — far from it, actually. There are now two completely new worlds to dive into that bring the total number of courses up to a generous 130. There’s also local co-op (more on that later), a casual setting for those of you who like to chill, and even a new time attack mode added for good measure. And all of this is on top of tougher Plus levels and challenges that unlock after your first playthrough. Unfortunately, we’re not able to discuss the new worlds just yet, so you’ll have to wait until our full review to find out what surprises await in Slippery Summit and Merry Mini-Land.

Before we delve further, let’s backtrack a little for those who are new to the game. The original Mario vs. Donkey Kong was a clever expansion of the core gameplay found in 1994’s excellent Donkey Kong on the Game Boy, itself a huge expansion on the basic setup of 1981’s Donkey Kong arcade. Donkey Kong has stolen a bunch of minifigures from the Mario toy factory and it’s up to you to gather them up again by bounding through levels that are divided into two areas. You’ll need to find a key to open a door in the first section, which then leads to another area where the mini Mario you’re after sits ready to be collected.

Each level is populated by a variety of colorful enemies who can’t be stomped in the usual Mario manner but can be picked up and thrown, alongside various items that can also be tossed about to get rid of enemies or reach ledges. There’s also the usual mix of spikes, ropes, shifting blocks, moving platforms, and all the environmental obstacles and invention that you’d expect from a typical 2D Mario game.

It’s up to you to navigate these often delightfully tricky little mazes by using the Italian maestro’s various jumping maneuvers. There’s a slower pace than you’ll be used to here if you’ve only played the mainline Mario games, and focusing on how Mario employs different jumps for different challenges — even more so than the regular games do — gives this spin-off its own unique vibe. It’s more relaxed, purposeful, and focused on small challenges, rather than running a gauntlet of tricks and traps at full speed.

As you can see from the screens (and if you remember these original worlds in detail, you’ll spot it straight away), everything in Mario vs. Donkey Kong is pretty much as it was when we played it back in the day, everything except for a rather magnificent paint job here that brings it all in line with the most modern of adventures through the Mushroom Kingdom. We’ve been dipping in and out of this new remake and the original to compare and contrast and, while they play the same, it really does make a big difference to the experience overall to be able to take in these worlds with so much added clarity and detail.

Each world in Mario vs. Donkey has its own theme — you know the drill — and if you’re playing solo, you may find yourself surprised (given the game’s very kid-friendly vibe) that there are some rather decent challenges to be had as you move from jungle to construction site, spooky house and so on. Fear not, this is still a fairly relaxed game overall, and the new casual mode is there to make it even more so, with its checkpoints and unlimited timer, but there is definitely enough to it to warrant the real showpiece addition to this remake – cooperative play.

We had assumed that the second player here would take a very minimal role, as Nintendo has previously added options to get kids/parents/siblings/friends involved that gave them precious little to do or control. However, what we’ve played with a pal so far in Mario vs. Donkey Kong has really benefited from having two people working together to make it through the game’s levels before the timer runs out.

Add a second player via drop in/out co-op and these levels generate a silver key alongside the regular gold one you’ll need to open their doors, giving each player their own goal. Either player can collect either key, interact with every enemy, and so on, and you’ll always respawn after an accident so long as your partner hasn’t also come a cropper. There are also a few new obstacles thrown in in this mode, with crumbling platforms and such making for new challenges as you attempt to stick together and clear a stage.

This remake also sticks to the overall layout of how worlds flow from the original, giving you six basic levels to work through one at a time – you’ll get a shiny gold star for gathering all presents in each one. These are then topped off by a stage that sees you guide mini Marios through a gauntlet of obstacles as they mirror your movements, and a good old boss battle against DK himself to wrap things up.

It’s simple, intuitive, fun times for the family — fun that young children will have no issue joining in with, and, honestly, Mario vs. Donkey Kong feels better with a friend along for the ride. Indeed, once the challenge steps up — even just a little bit — you’ll find that essential teamwork and communication makes for a lot of silly laughs. It’s still a great time solo, but it’s surprising just how much co-op adds to the fun factor here.

We can’t currently go into any detail on the game’s new time attack mode or those two new worlds, but we’re now officially thrilled for the full release of this one. The original Mario vs. Donkey Kong — and doubly so if you haven’t ever played it before — is a genuinely great spin-off that’s been updated here with a bunch of meaningful changes, new modes, and a modern look-and-feel that should see it top the 2004 original as the best way to experience this particular slice of Nintendo magic.

Will you be grabbing Mario vs. Donkey Kong when it launches on 16th February? Make sure to let us know, alongside any other thoughts you have on this remake, in the comments below.

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