Mario and Donkey Kong are two of the most iconic characters in the history of Nintendo. For those that are unaware, you may be surprised to know that the two of them were in fact bitter enemies many years ago, with the release of Donkey Kong that heralded a new golden age for Nintendo and for video games themselves.
Fast forwarding thirty years, the pugnacious plumber and gargantuan gorilla are still at loggerheads with one another in Mario vs Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem. A sequel to March of the Minis, Mini-Land Mayhem again puts you at the helm of a group of wind-up toys in your attempts to track down Donkey Kong. Despite the basic concept remaining the same, Mini-Land Mayhem is a highly satisfying platform puzzler, packed inside a gorgeous presentation, great level design and a sense of cuteness and fun that's hard not to get wound up about.
Mini-Land Mayhem isn't exactly what you'd call heavy on story, but the opening cinematic is charming enough that it warrants a mention. Mario and special guest Pauline are at Mini-Land for its grand opening, and are handing out Mini-Pauline wind-up toys for the first hundred people to pass through the gates. Donkey Kong, excited at the prospect of getting his hands on a toy, lines up with everyone else, but ends up being the 101st in line. Infuriated with not getting a toy, Donkey Kong absconds with Pauline into Mini-Land, and Mario decides to hop aboard a train with the Minis in order to rescue her.
The core gameplay of Mini Land Mayhem is pretty straightforward - you have to guide your Minis to the exit door within the time allowed. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. A touch of your minis will send them off into perpetual motion, and they will change direction only when bumping into objects or each other. This means that they can be at risk of being hurt by enemies or falling into traps. When one of your Minis breaks down, you must restart the level. As well as this, there is a time limit between how long each of your Minis has to reach the door once your first mini has activated it. For the majority of levels, you will only have to contend with guiding the Mario minis to an exit, but some will see you opening capsules containing other Minis which you must guide to their specially-marked doors. Every final level of a world will see your Minis face off against Donkey Kong, where you must activate three switches to deliver electric shocks to the great ape and progress further.
So how then do you successfully complete a level? As it so happens, there are many ways. Littered throughout the level, you will see rivets of different colours. Depending on the colour, you will be able to use certain devices. Red rivets will allow for a simple platform or wall that does not move, while blue rivets indicate the use of ladders. Meanwhile, purple rivets will allow you to use moving platforms. You have limited lengths that you can create these devices across, but are able to collect additional units within a level to increase length. On top of these rivet-based platforms, there are also springs and warp pipes that can be added and removed in a similar fashion from predefined spots. There are also pick-ups that your Minis can use along the way, such as the classic giant mallet, to rid the area of enemies. Combined together, all of these different devices and gameplay requirements produce quite a frantic puzzler. You will find yourself frequently removing and replacing platforms and ladders to save your Minis from destruction and beating the ever-present clock.
Having several Minis onscreen at once also ups the tension of the level. You'll find that your Minis will break down quite often if you're too slow, but Mini-Land Mayhem never gives you the impression that anything but your own abilities will hamper you. The combination of different properties will lead you to think a few steps ahead to keep your minis safe and ensure that all of your Minis will make it to the exit on time. For example, there may be a gap which can only be crossed with a moving platform, but an enemy may be waiting for you on the other side. You can direct the platform in such a way that it will repel the enemy into the other direction for a short while, allowing you to switch again to cross and pick up a hammer to eliminate the enemy from your path.
Mini-Land Mayhem is wrapped in a very sumptuous appearance. A wide pallet is used and all of them come across as vibrant and striking, even the levels which have a darker tone about them. The actual art style may be considered "cutesy" for some, but such a mindset doesn't give credit to just how well put together it all is. The cutscenes and gameplay both have a rich and detailed appearance and there is enough variety that it's almost impossible to mistake one level for another, especially across different worlds. Watching the adventures of the Minis unfold, it's hard not to have a smile brought to your face from the sense of fun that they can evoke within you. They may not be characters in of themselves as Mario and Donkey Kong are, but the smooth animation and representation of their mannerisms gives them character to break down the idea that they are mindless machines.
By a similar token, the sound design of Mini-Land Mayhem is best described as gleeful and appealing to the ears. The various mechanical crankings and clankings are all as clear and smooth as can be hoped for on the DS console. The Minis themselves also have entertaining noises, from their general walking around to the sounds of their breakdowns. Likewise, the encounters with Donkey Kong are enlivened with his usual assortment of grunts and bellowing. Music in the game has remixes of past Mario themes, along with several newer tracks that really hit the right spot in keeping the jovial atmosphere of the game maintained throughout.
Getting through the main game itself can be a fairly swift task. The main quest won't stretch you initially if you simply try to finish levels as quickly as possible, but there is a lot of replay value in going back and collecting all of the items on a level, such as letter cards and M-coins. If you collect all of the items you will also receive a trophy for the level. In time, you will be able to unlock some special levels which are outside of the main game which prove to have a significantly higher challenge. Mini-Land fans will also enjoy the Construction Zone, which allows you to create your own levels for Minis to complete and share amongst friends. As a portable game and one that may be played a lot on public transport, it has a degree of being light enough to play on a whim, but it's also engrossing enough to be worth devoting some solid hours to.
Mario vs Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem is a well-polished and immensely enjoyable game. It exudes charm in all areas, from level and character design to the game's addictive nature. In a lot of ways, the standard Super Mario series receives a lot of the spotlight in the Mario universe, but Mario vs Donkey: Mini-Land Mayhem is very deserving of some of your attention as well. Its straightforward goal belies the satisfying and joy-filled gaming that can be had by anyone who chooses to slip this cartridge into their DS slot.