He'll never win, of course. There's something cruelly ironic about that "versus" in the title. After all, if Mario ever really vanquished any of his enemies, he'd only have appeared in about three or four games. Which is why Nintendo, realizing that such an ill-fated prophecy would be better suited to the character than the company, have constantly reset the battle lines for every outing in the beleaguered plumber's 23-year career. Hence, as usual, this is no fair fight: Mario remains the underdog and Donkey Kong remains, well, king Kong.
And the history is important here. Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a puzzle-platform game based directly upon the original GameBoy's classic Donkey Kong '94, which was itself an ingenious take on the original Donkey Kong arcade game from way back in 1981. The gameplay? Chase Donkey Kong through a seemingly endless procession of spatial and switch-based puzzles, making use of Mario's inimitable acrobatic prowess. What's new? Well, Mario has managed to get his name in the title this time around. And it shows.
From the rounded, shiny character models to the saccharine color-coating of every generic environment, this is a typical 21st century Mario product. No longer the mute "Jumpman" of the original, our hero now has a proper name, a detailed appearance, and a fully-fledged cod-Italian voice that incessantly chirps out his favourite catchphrases. Even Donkey Kong, having taken centre stage in his own platform adventures 10 years ago, has his own repertoire of comedy pratfalls and sound effects. Why do I mention all of this? Because it's remarkable that such thick, impenetrably American gloss does not ruin the title. Mercifully, the game underpinning Mario vs. Donkey Kong's schmaltzy exterior is a distinctly old-school experience of touching simplicity and integrity.
Again, as in DK '94, a set of oh-so-simple moves and rules combine with such coherency and common sense that the emphasis is placed almost entirely on the quality, variety and ingenuity of the first-rate level design. Few developers dare to do this, and instead try to fob us off with gimmicky ideas under the guise of "innovations." Nintendo, on the other hand, rarely innovates until they've got the basics truly mastered. M vs. DK is a celebration of that mastery, and it's hugely satisfying.
The ability to freeze time while scanning the level layout is an excellent feature, allowing the player to plan ahead and appreciate the strategic side of these spatial conundrums. However, the correct path through each level is a little more obvious and straightforward than in the GameBoy original, so planning your progress now takes more of a back seat to time-pressed platform expertise. Not that this necessarily makes it a lesser game. In fact, Mario vs. Donkey Kong arguably boasts an even stronger all-around structure than before. Not only do the uniform stage-sizes and auto-save function make the game a wonderfully digestible pick-up-and-play experience, but the level design itself benefits from greater variety.
Standard levels consist (as before) of collecting a key and using it to unlock the door through which Donkey Kong has escaped. However, as a refreshing alternative to this already proven formula, every other level asks the player to simply rescue a stranded baby Mario toy. By comparison, these levels are pleasantly direct, and usually demand slightly more physical dexterity than they do puzzle-solving acumen. They also set up the ingenious, Lemmings-style levels that pre-figure the final boss encounter of each stage, in which Mario must safely guide the toys he has freed back to their toy box (each saved mini-Mario then affords our hero one life in the imminent boss encounter). It's a little derivative perhaps, but brilliantly implemented nonetheless. And that pretty much sums up the entire game.
It would be cruel to say that this wasn't every bit as good as its predecessor. It may be virtually the same game, and those who already chased the monkey ten years ago ought to know that they're not missing out on anything if they pass up this opportunity to do it all over again. But that's not really the point. Games like Mario vs. Donkey Kong will always be relevant as long as they remain fun, clever and rewarding, and as long as we have a perennial underdog like Mario to champion. He'll never win, of course. But he's damn good at trying.