For fans of the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series, the good news is that Mini-Land Mayhem! is another truly stellar entry in the series. For those who are not yet fans, the good news is that Mini-Land Mayhem! is an excellent place to start.
Mario's latest business venture (seriously, when does he ever find time to do any actual plumbing?) is an amusement park, with a theme of small, clockwork inhabitants. They're even giving little clockwork Pauline toys away to the first 100 visitors, a promotion so successful that even an early-rising Donkey Kong only manages to be the 101st visitor, leaving him without any toys.
No worries, though; the real Pauline is right there, and that's just as good. It's up to Mario (and his horde of wind-up doppelgangers) to get her back, a feat accomplished by... uh... sending toys through some doors. Don't think about it; it's more fun than it is rational.
To anybody who's played a Mario vs. Donkey Kong game before, the goal will be clear enough. To everybody else, imagine a streamlined approach to the classic computer game Lemmings. The Mini Mario toys begin in one location of the stage, and you must guide them safely to the goal. Along the way there are obstacles, many of which result in instant death, but unlike Lemmings you cannot lose even one Mini Mario without failing the level. This is not a problem in the earlier stages, but it won't take long before your mini-management skills are really put to the test.
The Mini Marios aren't exactly known for their intelligence: they walk straight forward (once activated) and don't stop until they are destroyed. They will, however, turn around once they hit a wall, a simple gameplay mechanic that very quickly leads to unexpected complications.
Using the stylus (and some very precise and responsive touchscreen controls) you will have to erect girders to keep the Mini Marios from marching straight into their deaths. Spike-lined pits, for example, can either be bridged or blocked off. What you decide to do will affect the path that the toys will follow, and every girder you place will either make your job simpler or much, much more complicated.
To keep things interesting, each stage also has a handful of collectibles to find. There is a playing card in each one, and if you collect all nine, you will unlock a special minigame. There is also an M coin in each level to collect in order to unlock more challenging special stages, and normal coins that add to your score. Hit the target score in any given level to earn a trophy for your effort. Clearly, there's a lot of optional content and achievements to chase down, and attempting to collect everything makes the act of simply getting the Mini Marios to the exit seem like a cakewalk.
There are various other types of stages as well that help to keep the gameplay fresh. Periodically you will have to guide toys other than just Mario to their own respective exits, including Toad, Peach and Pauline, and while they behave identically to Mario they complicate the exit strategy by having their own goals that they must be guided toward (or sometimes passed) in order to complete the level. Other stages place a golden key in the possession of one of the Mini Marios, and he must reach the exit before his peers in order to unlock the door for them.
On top of this, there are boss fights, which pit the clockwork army against Donkey Kong himself. While it's basically just a question of guiding the Mini Marios to the top of the screen, Donkey Kong refuses to make things easy for you. He'll disable placement of certain girders and toss barrels down at you, neither of which is very polite, but it sure does make for some unexpected additional challenge.
There's more to the main game than can even be discussed here; part of the fun is the spirit of discovery, and nearly every stage stands on its own merits as a satisfying and well-designed puzzle. But, in addition, you also get a fully-functional level designer (with its own set of stages designed as tutorials), and it is here that the game's near-infinite replay value comes from.
Levels can be designed and shared with other gamers through the DS's Wi-Fi capabilities. The process of designing them could not be simpler; while the text-free object menus take a little time to get used to, the process of transferring your ideas to the screen is smooth and intuitive. Conquering Donkey Kong in the main game will take you time enough as it is, but tossing in the ability to concoct and download fiendish additional levels as well means the game will remain fresh as long as you still have interest in playing it.
The graphics in Mini-Land Mayhem! are crisp and colourful, with pleasantly smooth animations. These lead to some very amusing cutscenes, and give the game a sweet, sunny atmosphere. The music is great too, jam-packed as it is with excellent remixes from both Mario and Donkey Kong games past.
The puzzles included with the game (eight worlds' worth, with additional special stages, minigames and other level types to be unlocked) make for a lengthy, memorable gameplay experience on their own. But toss in the level editor and the opportunity to download other players' creations, and you've got an indispensable addition to any respectable DS library.
Lots of gameplay, great graphics, a wonderful soundtrack and flawless touchscreen controls make Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! a worthy addition to an often-overlooked franchise. While the game's real-time puzzle element may not appeal to everybody, those who do take the time to become familiar with it will appreciate its unique and challenging approach. Mini-Land Mayhem! proves that – four games in – the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series hasn't lost one ounce of charm.