In a title like Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem!, the newest entry in Nintendo’s Mario vs. Donkey Kong series, plot doesn’t really matter. That’s largely true of Mario games in general, and it’s certainly not a strike against this particular title. All you really need to know is that Donkey Kong has abducted Pauline, and it’s up to Mario and his army of wind up toys to save her. The title is characterized by classic Mario audiovisual presentation and is dripping with charm. Various characters from the Mario universe make an appearance, and the music features great remixes of classic Mario tunes. As far as gameplay is concerned, Mini-Land Mayhem is largely enjoyable throughout. The difficulty curve feels right, and while completing each stage isn’t generally too challenging, collecting the optional elements can certainly be tough.
Nintendo has a long and successful history of taking their own unique stabs at established genres. From Mario Kart‘s version of racing games to the gamut of Mario RPGs, these titles largely belie a strong understanding of what makes for fun titles within a particular genre, along with a healthy dose of Nintendo charm. Mario vs. Donkey Kong is essentially Nintendo’s take on the puzzle platform genre, evoking titles like The Incredible Machine, Lemmings and Chu Chu Rocket, while at the same time it speaks to the earliest platform titles from the company itself. The boss battles, for example, because they take place on two screens with Donkey Kong standing menacingly at the top are reminiscent of the old dual screen Game and Watch DK titles, if not of the original arcade Donkey Kong.
As with the other Mario vs. Donkey Kong titles, Mini-Land Mayhem tasks players with successfully steering wind-up Mario (and others) toys towards their respective exits. Once these toys are set running, the player has no more direct control over them, not even to make them stop. Rather, at that point environmental items such as girders, conveyor belts, and spring loaded launchers must be manipulated in order to guide the toys in the right direction. New tools are introduced in every world, and the amount in your toolbox in any given level is limited. It’s a surprisingly addictive formula and, even though this is the fourth Mario Vs. Donkey Kong title, one that doesn’t quite yet feel long in the tooth.
With all the stock worlds and levels in addition to the extra features that are unlockable based on clear performance-based criteria, there’s quite a lot of content in this thirty dollar package. The incentive to replay levels to complete them perfectly is high. Further, the stage is set for Mini-Land Mayhem to have quite a long life post-release. The level building and sharing elements are full featured, and players can download user created content through the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection. Also, there will be a community aspect to the title in the form of a challenge mode that allows players to vote for the best user created levels that meet criteria set by Nintendo itself.
As great as Mini-Land Mayhem is, there are a few things that could have been executed better. Earning trophies during the boss battles can be a little tedious because there’s a degree of randomness to Donkey Kong’s attacks. While the player might do everything perfectly, they still might lose a Mario toy in the process, robbing them of a perfect run of the battle. I found the lack of a way to fast forward frustrating on a few occasions. The game largely requires direct interaction while a scene is playing out in order to successfully complete it. But there are certainly instances where everything is set on the appropriate path, and all the player is doing is waiting for the relatively slow toys to waddle towards another point on the level, or indeed the exit. In those instances, the option to speed things up would have been nice. Also, the screen is often not large enough to contain the levels. Of course this is a balancing act when it comes to this kind of game on a portable screen, but I’d love to see an entry in the series appear on the Wii free from the constraints of a relatively tiny display. Repositioning the viewport can sometimes feel a little cumbersome.
There hasn’t been a lot to be excited about on the DS recently, but even if that weren’t a consideration,Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! is easily one of the best DS games of the year. It’s easy to see it appealing to both series newcomers and veterans, and like all great Mario games, it it should be enjoyable to a wide variety of ages. I’d love to see the series make the jump from the little to the big screen, as I think it could benefit from a less cramped presentation. There’s certainly room for improvement, but none of it takes away from how enjoyable Mini-Land Mayhem is overall. It’s highly recommended for any gamer even remotely interested in it.