It's difficult to follow up on a gaming classic like 1994's Donkey Kong for the Game Boy, but a few years ago Nintendo managed to come up with a sequel for the Game Boy Advance, Mario vs. Donkey Kong, that retained the gameplay of the original, but also added some new tricks. Now we have the sequel to that sequel, Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis for the Nintendo DS, that completely tosses the gameplay style of the previous two games and goes off in its own quirky direction.
Mario and Donkey Kong are merely window dressing here. The plot involves Donkey Kong's unrequited feelings of love enraging him to the point where he kidnaps Pauline (the original Donkey Kong damsel in distress) and taking her to the top of a tower where Mario himself cannot fit. He sends the Mini Marios off to save the day (which is where we, the players, come in), but we never get a chance to control Mario himself. It feels like such a tease to see and hear him, but not be able to actually control him. Instead we're stuck playing as the Mini Mario toys that were so charming in the previous game and must steer them around 2D platformer levels with the stylus and touchscreen. The Mini Marios retain some of Mario's amazing abilities: they walk, they jump, and on occasion they even toss fireballs.
The problem is that the Mini Marios are so darn stupid. Players don't actually control them directly, but instead swipe the stylus in the direction the Minis should move. The Minis will then keep on moving in that direction until they either a) bump into a wall and reverse direction or b) die. The object of each level (and there are at least 72 levels by my count) is to steer all of the Mini Marios to the exit door. Bonus points are awarded for sending all of the Minis in a level to the exit door together in sequence, not allowing a Mini to die, and for not stopping the Minis once they begin moving. Levels can be merely cleared by maneuvering a single Mini to the door, but big points and gold stars are awarded for getting all of the Minis moving together. Some levels contain only two Minis, while later levels top out around eight Minis all moving together in chaotic harmony (or harmonic chaos, depending on your point of view).
Each group of nine levels has a unique theme (jungle levels with ropes, Princess Peach's castle featuring a remix of a familiar theme from Super Mario 64, and so on) and their own unique set of obstacles. Magnetic floors allow the Minis to walk up the walls and across the ceilings. Shy Guys patrol on foot and can be used to ride over dangerous surfaces. Piranha Plants spew fireballs into the path of the Minis. There are switches to flip and blocks to move. At the end of each set of levels comes a fight with Donkey Kong himself in which all of the Minis that made it safely to the exit can be fired at Kong on the DS's top screen. Falling debris and missed shots can break the Minis, however, and if the Minis are all destroyed then the fight is lost.
March of the Minis includes a detailed construction kit that allows players to create their own custom levels. Eight custom levels can be saved to the DS game card and are built from the objects seen in the main game. As the game progresses players are able to unlock new construction kit items including Mini Toads and other such fun surprises. Levels can then be swapped via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection website, and the game's developers are continuing to create new levels for download free of charge. The game can store twenty-four custom levels at a time (not counting the eight slots for creating your own levels). And for everyone out there like me who worried about idiots creating unbeatable levels, the game will not allow a level to be shared unless the designer can finish the level. That's right, each and every custom level must be successfully tested before the game will mark it available for sharing.
So, the big question here is whether or not Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis is any fun. Yes, it is. However, I think I'd rather have seen the gameplay mechanic here linked to a different franchise. The game is completely different than its predecessors which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I have a certain level of gameplay expectations that come with a title from the Mario vs. Donkey Kong brand. That's just a petty complaint though. The game is fun and is recommended for puzzle fans, although the main game is very short. I completed the 72 main levels in three days, but now I must go back through the game and earn enough points to collect many gold stars to unlock the extra content revealed after defeating Donkey Kong for the final time. I have a feeling that the construction mode is what will make this game a beloved title.
But next time, Nintendo, I want to control Mario and not his toys. Got it?