Review: Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move (3DS eShop)

Don't Panic

At times it feels like Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move is designed as a time trial to measure the shortest amount of time in which players will fling a 3DS across the room. Once the game is afoot, every trick in the book is deployed to trigger urgency: Constant unstoppable motion, ticking clocks, shaking tiles and frenetic music that speeds up right as you beg it to just take a breather to avoid having to replace gaming hardware and nearby shelves. The path to victory is occasionally dark and often overwhelming but the light at the end always feels within reach — and is, if you’re willing to wrestle with your sanity for it.

Minis on the Move marks the first 3D entry in the traditionally side-scrolling series, and while the perspective has shifted the goal remains static: corral cute wind-up toys around peril and collect trinkets along the way. Much like Picross’ shift from pixels to polygons, Minis on the Move deftly carries over a great deal of what makes the series fun — safely steering an unrelenting march through traps with on-the-fly thinking — and its plethora of modes stretches the simple premise into all sorts of intriguing territories, but unlike Picross 3D doesn’t feel as though the new dimension really adds anything. Since the game is played entirely with the touchscreen, which shows a flat, top-down map of the field, the 3D is pretty but fairly moot to gameplay.

Mario’s Main Event is, as expected, the heart of the beast, with a straightforward goal to simply get the sole Mini to the end of the stage by laying down a path using tiles fed to you through a pipe. Each stage has three Mario coins littered about and nabbing all of them nets you a Perfect star: amass these to unlock new modes and minigames. Grabbing all coins, or even just getting to the end at times, can be a tall order in this vicious puzzler as it isn’t afraid of a few twists; in true Nintendo fashion, the game gently introduces each new mechanic with a few softballs, followed by some fastballs and then downright aims for your head. Oh, and then it brings a second, third and fourth pitcher to the mound to pelt you. Many obstacles don’t need an explanation — conveyor belts, launchers, keys, traps, twisting tiles, and so forth — and on their own are easily managed, but bundled together and with the mode’s massive sense of urgency it’s easy to find yourself in over your head right quick.

Being able to quickly manage your surroundings is crucial: Minis on the Move is the game we’ve found to be most fond of panic since ChuChu Rocket! forced us all to lay down in a dark room alone for a while. You can hang on to five tiles at once, and the more you hold the faster the music plays and the pipe itself shakes. This lends a constant sense of urgency, because if a sixth one drops into the pipe then it’s Game Over. Send a Mini off the map or down an incomplete path and it’s Game Over. Into a trap or enemy? Definitely a Game Over. Not to mention how that dumb clock always seems short of time — yep, you guessed it: that’ll be another Game Over.

You can’t slow down the speed at which you get new tiles, but you can tap the incoming one to make it drop in quicker. The tiles that come in aren’t totally random but often seem reluctant to give you the one you need to advance, and there are a few options to handle unwanted tiles. Throwing enough of them into a special Trash tile on the field yields a Magic tile that can create a path between two or more placed pieces; forming a closed circle without a Mini on it will create a new Trash tile, and having a Mini in the loop spawns a bunch of extra time pick-ups while raising the platform (the most “3D” portion of the mode); and Bomb tiles allow you to clear out another placed tile, in case you need to forge a new path or clean up a mess.

A master of surprise Mario’s Main Event isn’t, with tried-and-true tricks and traps that don’t particularly feel fresh or new, but it is well crafted with nary a stray tile. The difficulty ramps up awful quick, though, and if the stress or challenge become too great there are other modes that offer twists on the formula and more Perfect stars to collect. Puzzle Palace’s 60 stages skip the time stress and random distribution of tiles to get Minis to the end using a pre-determined set. Many Mini Mayhem unleashes a number of Minis on the field at once and demands you rotate and shift tiles around to get them safely to their warp pipe across its 50 stages. The absolutely sprawling Giant Jungle includes a mere three boards but each feels about eight times the size of a regular stage — here, the goal is to navigate to the end while collecting clocks and the ten Stars scattered about. Largely the same tactics apply across the board — with Giant Jungle in particular feeling like a massive endurance test — but each mode has their own distinct flavor and it’s easy to find a favorite. We’re particularly fond of Puzzle Palace’s cerebral emphasis over the other reactive main games.

However, the secret best part about Minis on the Move is tucked away among the four minigames: the two types of Cube Crash, likely as close a quote of the lovely WiiWare title Art Style: Cubello as we’re ever going to see. A large shape floating in 3D space is in need of bustin’ by flinging Minis at it, and a Type B-style spin throws a bunch of varying sizes that need to be broken as quick as possible. There’s a satisfying friction to Cube Crash and the mode happens to be the only portion of the entire package where 3D visuals feel important by its need to judge depth. Unfortunately there are only three stages of each type, but Type B’s focus on precision and score gives it strong legs.

The other minigames aren’t nearly as enjoyable — Mini Target Smash does what it says on the tin but isn’t as satisfying as Cube Crash, and both Fly Guy Grab and Elevation Station require super-fast stylus spinning that has never been fun. All mini games are locked away behind how many Stars you’ve acquired in the main games. Stars also unlock Toys for the collection, essentially a character model gallery where you can scrub dirt off them for some reason.

Running out of stages in the main modes doesn’t spell the end of the game: a level editor allows players to create new stages and share them online so long as it’s possible for a Mini to actually reach the end. The editor is simple and intuitive, and you can store up to 100 stages both created and downloaded. That’s a lot of minis.

The gameplay may not make much use of its new dimension but the visuals certainly do, with pleasing wind-up toy depictions of Mario, Toad, Peach, Donkey Kong and Stockholm syndrome-suffering Pauline. Environments are chunky and faithful to the toy box direction, but it’s a shame that for the majority of time spent in the main games you’re staring at a rather plain grid of 2D tiles. Gameplay is cleaner this way, but being able to directly manipulate the environment in previous Mario vs. Donkey Kong titles was a big part of the charm now lost here. The game’s audio is bouncy and fun, doing a great job of clueing players in to what is going on: the recurring change of tempo reflects how much butt you need to haul is a helpful, paranoia-inducing indicator.

Conclusion

If a common enemy can bring two adversaries together then players must've done something real horrid to get the plumber and the ape to team up against them like this. A hectic pace and near-constant tension make Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move’s puzzles feel all the more diabolical, if not a little unfair at times, and conquering them all requires the patience of a saint and the cunning of The Saint. While this entry of the series doesn’t really justify the move into 3D with retaining stubbornly flat gameplay, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with Minis on the Move. Just remember to take a deep breath from time to time.