Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Switch review: A puzzling puzzler

A classic Mario game with some puzzling changes.


It’s wrong to throw barrels at gorillas. I know this, but I did it anyway, repeatedly. And I’m ashamed to say I enjoyed it. Before you judge me too harshly, though, think of this. The giant ape stole my toys.

That’s what I’m guessing Mario’s internal dialogue is like in Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on Switch, as he chases his longtime foe across six worlds to recover, by force, the branded merchandise DK stole. The chase is a familiar one for any who played the Game Boy Advance original, except where it isn't. Nintendo updated Mario Vs. Donkey Kong in ways that sometimes feel a bit haphazard - full visual overhaul, for example, but limited puzzle changes. The result is a clever little remake-slash-reboot, albeit one that feels strangely unfocused at times.

You look familiar

Donkey Kong, with a sack over his back, grimaces at Mario

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on Switch occupies a peculiar hybrid space of its own. It’s partly a faithful remake. Some worlds and puzzles are recreated in 1:1 fashion with updated graphics and smoother controls, and you get the extra-challenging “Plus” worlds after finishing the main game. It’s also partly a reimagining. There’s a time attack mode in place of the original’s level scoring feature, and Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on Switch introduces two brand-new worlds and shuffles the order around a bit. Spooky House, for example, is the fifth world now, and two new ones replace Mystic Forest and Twilight City.

That might sound disappointing if you’re a purist hoping for few changes, but it’s for the best. Merry Mini-Land and Slippery Slope, the two new worlds, are home to some of the game’s best puzzles that make smart use of every mechanic in the game. That said, it also makes the point of the entire package a little confusing. 

The additions are excellent, though for much of the game, I found myself wishing Nintendo had gone all-out and just made six new worlds. The creative force is clearly there, and the puzzles shine brighter without having to rely on touch gimmicks like the DS and Wii U games. If you’ve played the original, how good the Switch remake is for you depends on how much you love Mario Vs. Donkey Kong puzzles.

Gentle, but rewarding mind games

Mario swings on a pole in a jungle, with Piranha plants to his right

There’s a lot to love, though. Off Donkey Kong goes, over ice hill and merry dale, through caves filled with lava and into haunted houses. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong’s settings are all standard Mario worlds, but Nintendo puts them to better creative use than we usually see in mainline Super Mario Bros. platformers. Whimsy characterizes Merry-Mini Land’s stages, for example. Springboards bounce you through puzzles more complex than the previous three worlds, wind currents blow you safely over obstacles – but not without a breathless twinge of fear that you actually sent Mario to a spikey death – and trials demand precision and good planning to overcome.

However, my favorite world is Donkey Kong Jungle, the second world and one that remains largely untouched. In addition to clever enemy placement and new threats, Nintendo borrowed a couple of mechanics from Donkey Kong Country and adapted them for Mario. You get ropes in place of moving trampolines, and getting through each challenge requires careful timing and smart use of each rope to avoid obstacles and even smarter movement to avoid getting eaten by clockwork crocodiles. The Donkey Kong Country nod is a small, but refreshing touch, and I’d have liked to see more extra-Mario inspirations to shake things up even further.

Mario holds a key over his head as he races toward a locked door over a lava pool

That goes double for the worlds with puzzles that were weak, even in the original game, particularly World 3. It has an unpleasant habit of pairing challenging first stages with second halves that use basic puzzles and rudimentary design. A remake is a perfect opportunity to fix the original's shortcomings, but for some reason, that didn't happen here. Still, levels are short and end quickly, so even when you run into a dud, it won't last long.

That breezy nature is another of Mario Vs. Donkey Kong's strengths. For all my talk of careful planning and smart strategy, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong is an approachable puzzle game. Even in the later worlds, you’ll rarely come across a puzzle that stumps you. It’s a gentle mental exercise, the kind of thing that’s just challenging enough that you feel a bit clever for figuring out, but relaxed enough that you can unwind with it at the end of the day.

Lookin' good, Mario

Donkey Kong stands on a platform with three buttons in front of him as Mario waits underneath

It’s hard to overstate just how good the Switch remake looks, and the upgrades aren’t just aesthetically pleasing, though they certainly are that. Smooth, easy-to-read textures and colors replace the original’s visual jumble and make navigating stages less straining. These improvements are visible everywhere in the game, from platforms and arrow indicators to enemy colors that stand out more vibrantly from the background, but especially in World 3, Fire Mountain. 

The Game Boy Advance version uses a blurry effect meant to resemble heat, but – for me, anyway – it’s distracting and too busy. The Switch version cuts that entirely and opts for a background that resembles being in an underground cave or volcano, which looks better and keeps the focus firmly on the stage, instead of the effects. It’s a welcome accessibility upgrade.

That’s good, since there aren’t many accessibility options otherwise, and the ones that are included could use some help. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on Switch has a standard mode, with time limits and one-hit-death, and a casual mode, which adds checkpoints to levels, five health points for Mario, and infinite time. Time limits make me freeze. I enjoy just leisurely seeing how every stage works, but still want the challenge of no health and no checkpoints, which Mario Vs. Donkey Kong says is just too bad for me. It’s a minor complaint, but the unnecessary friction is annoying.

What changed and what remains the same in Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on Switch is a little confusing at times, and it raises the question of why a remake was the best choice and not a full new game. Still, "if it ain't broke" and all that. The original Mario Vs. Donkey Kong holds up nearly 20 years later, and nearly every new addition makes the already-strong puzzle game even better.

Nintendo provided the copy of Mario Vs. Donkey Kong used for this review. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong launches for Nintendo Switch on February 16, 2024.

Contributing Editor

Josh is a freelance writer and reporter who specializes in guides, reviews, and whatever else he can convince someone to commission. You may have seen him on NPR, IGN, Polygon, or VG 24/7 or on Twitter, shouting about Trails. When he isn’t working, you’ll likely find him outside with his Belgian Malinois and Australian Shepherd or curled up with an RPG of some description.

  • Two cleverly-designed new worlds
  • Excellent visual upgrades
  • Smart, but approachable puzzles
  • Rationale behind what's changed and new feels haphazard
  • Could benefit from better accessibility
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    February 14, 2024 5:00 AM

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