Mario vs. Donkey Kong is interesting in that it's the only game in the Mario vs DK franchise (to date) that actually allows the player to control Mario; indeed this was originally planned to be a sequel to 1994's Donkey Kong on Game Boy, so arguably those two have more in common than the other games in the series. Mario vs Donkey Kong primarily revolves around puzzle-platforming, while the Mini-Mario guiding sections that the rest of the series is built around makes for only a small percentage of the experience. Think of Mario vs Donkey Kong as a modern take on the classic Donkey Kong arcade but with a puzzling twist, and you'll be on the right tracks.
The storyline is almost prophetic - Mario is so famous he's started his own toy company, manufacturing Mini-Mario action figures that have become so popular they are all but impossible to get hold of (remind you of anything? *cough* amiibo). Obsessed by the figures yet unable to obtain his own, Donkey Kong heads straight to the source and steals the newly built stock from the factory, which is where the game begins. Playing as Mario your task is to recover all the stolen toys and 'give Donkey Kong a good talking-to for not pre-ordering!'
Structurally the game is initially divided up into six unlockable worlds, each with its own theme. Beginning in the Mario Toy Company factory the player progresses through familiar Nintendo territory, such as Donkey Kong's Jungle, a Ghost House and more. Each of these worlds is comprised of eight levels; of these six are platformers, one is a Mini-Mario level and finally a boss battle with DK himself.
The first half of each platforming level tasks the player with finding a key and carrying it to a locked door, then in the second half it's time to rescue one of the Mini-Mario toys. These levels are a great mix of puzzle solving and skilful play, with Mario able to employ a fairly impressive range of moves including handstands, double jumps, backflips and picking up/throwing objects or enemies. Mastery of the moveset is crucial in order to make it through all the levels unscathed and within the time limit. While not huge (most only being a few screens in size) the levels are chock full of little puzzles and impeccable design, requiring a little thought to figure out the correct route and a little skill to make it all happen. It's all very satisfying when you make a perfect run and achieve a gold star for beating the hi-score.
Once you've rescued six Mini-Marios in each of these main levels, it's time to guide them out to the safety of a toy box in a special Mini-Mario level. These levels will be familiar ground to fans of the later games in this series, although the slight difference is the Mini-Marios are guided on their way by Mario, rather than being set off on their own path. In a nice change from the standard levels - the Mini-Marios can't climb ladders or perform any advanced moves, so Mario must open the way for them through ingenious use of switches and platforms. However, before they can be brought into the toy box you'll need to have them collect the letters T, O and Y along the way. You can finish the level with only a single Mini reaching the end, but the more you've saved when you complete the level carries into the boss battle.
The final level of each world is a boss battle with Donkey Kong; your 'health' being dictated by how many Mini-Marios you rescued in the previous level. These boss battles are generally fairly simple to figure out and pass with a little practice (although towards the end they do get a little tougher) but you'll only receive an elusive gold star if you defeat DK without taking a hit and with a full compliment of Mini-Marios.
Completion of the first 6 worlds (and a final battle with DK) unlocks 6 new 'Plus' Worlds which twist things up a touch and see Mario guiding the Mini-Mario out of each level instead of simply just collecting it. You'll also be able to access Expert levels, which require a set number of stars to unlock, each progressive level requiring even more stars. In case you haven't caught the gist of this, that's a whole lot of content that's going to take some beating, especially getting a gold star in all the standard and plus levels in order to unlock the full compliment of levels for expert.
What's lovely about this game are the ways in which it references the original Donkey Kong, with familiar looking objects, tunes and sound effects that go some way to making it feel retro yet refreshing. Some people aren't going to like the graphic style though, which uses pre-rendered graphics for a pseudo-3D look and feel to the sprites. While still undeniably charming, this visual style looked blocky even on a GBA sized screen, so be prepared for viewing via Wii U to feel like Legoland has exploded onto your TV screen. It's not all bad though, as there's lovely use of colour and the usual Mario charm is all present and correct. What is annoying, however, is Mario has seemingly just discovered the power of speech and is a little too chatty, even stringing together full sentences during cut scenes which quite frankly just seems a bit weird. Seriously Mario, shut up and jump.
All in all, this is a mighty fine platform-based puzzler. It's got a good balance between being both thoughtful and fun and is perfect to pick up for a quick play; the sizeable amount of unlockable content also means there's plenty to get stuck into. Playing on Wii U via Virtual Console doesn't really offer any additional benefits (the game saves between levels anyway, so even Virtual Console save states don't bring anything to the table) although some people might like the option to play on the big screen. For us though, it's all about chillin' out with Mario and DK on the GamePad screen as that seems to be the best fit. If you do happen to have spare eShop credit burning a hole in your virtual pocket and fancy a slice of classic retro-themed puzzling action, you could do a lot worse than this re-released little gem.