For a pair of characters who are supposedly arch-nemeses, Mario and Donkey Kong don't fight all that often. Sure, there was the original Pauline-kidnapping incident that introduced two of Nintendo's most beloved characters, and their timeless battle was revisted in the 1994 Super Game Boy title Donkey Kong, but beyond that and the two Super Smash Bros. games it would seem that Mario's time is spent engaging the Koopa Troop and Donkey Kong's days involve a battle of monkey mettle with King K. Rool. But now Nintendo has seen fit to revisit and rekindle the rivalry in 2004's Mario vs. Donkey Kong for the Game Boy Advance. The skirmish this time around centers around Mario's new toy factory and his popular line of mini-Mario toys. It seems that the big ape has a soft spot for mini-Marios, and faster than you can say "gotta catch 'em all" he's gone and stolen all the toys for himself. Mario takes off in pursuit, aiming to recover the stolen goods and put DK in his place once again.

At the heart of Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a Game Boy Advance update to the classic Donkey Kong (also known as Donkey Kong '94 to avoid confusing it with the original arcade game). Mario must navagate a series of side-scrolling environments, jump over gaps, toss enemies around, collect items (gift boxes this time instead of Pauline's personal items), and eventually get the big key to the locked door. There's some new elements this time around, however. Previously, unlocking the door opened the way to the next level; here each level is split into two halves. After opening the door in the first half, Mario is taken to the second half where the goal is to reach a discarded mini-Mario toy. Snagging the toy is what completes the level. By the time Mario has reached the seventh level of each world, he's trailed by six mini-Mario toys. For Level 7 our hero must guide the toys to the toybox while collecting three tiles along the way that, when collected, spell out T-O-Y. The toys cannot pull off all of Mario's majestic maneuvers, so the challenge is to find alternate routes and methods for the wind-ups to reach the goal. There are six worlds to clear (initially) each with six standard levels, one puzzle level, and one duel with Donkey Kong himself (more on that in a moment). Beyond this a whole new set of challenges unfold.

Nintendo has seen fit to equip Mario with all his old moves from his last encounter with Donkey Kong. He can walk, jump, walk on his hands to deflect falling debris, do a backflip jump to gain extra height, pick up enemies and toss them around, climb vines, throw various objects, and swing from wires. Newcomers to the series will appreciate the help boxes and instruction screens that explain how to pull off these feats of daring-do, but those familiar with how to make Mario move so well will feel right at home. While the skills are familiar, the environments are new. The old classics such as hanging from a monkey's tail are back, but there are also new push button switches that change the lay of the level (the old pull switches are gone, it would seem) and lava spews that launch rafts to new places.

At the end of each world Mario faces off against Donkey Kong. Each encounter adds something new to the fight, but ultimately the goal is to whack the big ape with whatever's handy four times before he strikes you with a weapon of his own up to six times. That's right; Mario can take up to two more injuries than Donkey Kong (Mario's actual life meter is related to how many mini-Mario's he successfully leads through the preceding puzzle level). In their first encounter at the end of World 1 DK pounds switches to change which platforms are safe to stand on and Mario must grab a trash can, jump up to DK's level, and toss the can at him four times. At the end of World 2, on the other hand, Donkey Kong moves around below Mario and tosses enemies upward at him. Mario must climb the vines to drop fruit below to konk Kong on the head. While the method to defeat the monkey is usually quite obvious, it's managing to implement it that is the challenge.

Nintendo upped the presentation of the game from the last time around and has rendered the characters in 3D. Mario and crew are colorful, well animated, and always in motion at some level. The practice of adding yips and yahoos to the characters' mouths continues here with Mario's exclamations of jumping for joy and Donkey Kong's grunts of pain. There's even a little actual voice thrown in for good measure, such as Mario's now-classic "Here we go!" and a brief television commercial for bananas that catches Donkey Kong's interest for a moment. The musical cues are based on past riffs, with the sound of Mario hammering away at enemies and the familiar opening theme to the original Donkey Kong game present exactly where you'd expect them. Other familiar sounds include the effects for grabbing an item, throwing a barrel, and doing a backflip jump.

At first glance Mario vs. Donkey Kong appears to be shorter than its prequel, clocking in at only 90 levels total compared to Donkey Kong '94's 100. Nintendo opted to trade in levels for replay value, as now there are incentives to return to old levels to beat the target score. Points are awarded for defeating enemies, collecting gift boxes, and finishing each level quickly. Obtaining the high score in each level unlocks new levels in an "expert mode", plus there's a plus mode that unlocks halfway through the game. Also keep in mind that each of the standard levels in the game consist of two halves, whereas the prequel levels do not. One criticism: Donkey Kong '94 did not reveal how many levels were left to explore, making one wonder just how much longer the game would go on. Mario vs. Donkey Kong shows up front how many levels and worlds one must work through. This is minor, however, and does not detract from the gameplay. Everyone whose hearts were captured and their weekends stolen by Donkey Kong '94 should definitely make a point of playing this game, as it would seem games such as this one only come around once every decade.


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