Awkward title, great game…and DS auto pilot!

Infendo

It looks like a modest little puzzle game. It waits for you, secretly chuckling. You have no idea how much fun you’re about to have.

When you start Mario Vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem, it immediately hits you with classic  first-party Nintendo polish and charm: Great music, crisp animation, perfect play mechanics and Donkey Kong acting like a complete jerk.

As you play, the game’s insane attention to fun little details becomes clearer. For example, when you need to leave the game for a moment and you close the DS cover, Mario yells, “Hey! You! Get back here!” You open the cover. “Okey Dokey!” You might spend a minute just opening and closing your DS; Mario’s got a lot to say. This feature even works in jukebox mode. Yes, there’s a jukebox, and the music is awesome; It’s like having a tiny German Beer Garden Nintendo Tribute Band at your beck and call.

After a few hours of pure, flawless gameplay (orchestrating safe paths for your wind-up Mini Marios), you save Pauline…then realize the game’s actually just gotten started. There are new levels and an entire alternate version waiting. You know it’s your imagination, but the cartridge seems to weigh more than it did at the start.

This game caught me by surprise, because I don’t usually enjoy Lemmings-style clear-a-path titles. Within a minute, however, I was hooked by its perfect mix of comedy and clever mechanics. The game’s sunny outlook mixes hilariously with the sight of DK getting electrocuted and hit in the face with rockets. If only all obnoxious line-jumpers got such a comeuppance…

Fun details continue throughout: Surprise characters appear and the Options title screen seems to float in 3D space…like a tease for a certain upcoming handheld.

The Construction Zone level-editor begins with a tutorial that’s a mini-game itself, complete with points and trophies. Created levels can be shared online, becoming the basis for Challenge Mode. In fact, the game includes a Newsfeed feature to instantly notify you of new downloadable levels.

Want more? There’s an art gallery in addition to the jukebox.

Most importantly, MVDKMLM delivers that great, fine-tuned gameplay you rarely see outside of Nintendo: Each and every time you fail a level, you know exactly what you did wrong, and each retry brings you closer to the solution. Though you can blast through the initial story mode in a day, you might spend weeks collecting every item, opening all levels and mini games, and eventually seeing the locked-away real ending. This is a perfect long-term pick-up-and-play title.

And, yes, this DS game features Mini-Guide, an auto-pilot option that appears if you fail a level five times. I’m proud to say that I didn’t notice it until the final boss battle. Did I use it? Oh…look at the word count…I’d better wrap this review up.

Any flaws? Well, the gameplay is—more or less—the same concept over and over again…but that’s like criticizing a pinball machine for having too much pinball. I could nitpick that I hate when a game takes place in an amusement park and then doesn’t take advantage of that concept beyond pretty backgrounds. The amazing final boss battle, however, remedies that problem in a big, big way.

And that final battle is among the very best, funniest and most enjoyable Boss Battles I’ve ever played. It’s a great payoff.

With all the excitement building for Donkey Kong’s upcoming Wii blockbuster, there’s a danger that this more modest-seeming DS release might get overlooked. I hope that doesn’t happen, because MVDKMLM deserves to be played. If you can pick up both titles, don’t hesitate. If you like puzzle games at all, this one’s a gem.