The Mario vs. Donkey Kong franchise sits in an odd place. While the games are generally well-made and mostly entertaining, it's a difficult series to really get invested in and care about. The games tend to come and go largely unnoticed, often overshadowed by other high-profile releases that promise to push genres forward rather than rest comfortably on their laurels. This is precisely the problem with Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem!; while it's by no means a shoddy game, it does little to break the mold set by other titles in the series and demand any real attention. The series seems content catering to its core fan base and no one else; that's great news to diehards but mostly inconsequential to everyone else.
This particular edition of the Mario vs. Donkey Kong franchise finds the big ape kidnapping Pauline at Mario's new amusement park. Rather than putting himself in harm's way to save his girlfriend (remember, this is Bizarro World Mario who doesn't know of Princess Peach), the hero plumber sends an army of wind-up toys after his nemesis. I'll never understand how Donkey Kong can be defeated by tiny machines that he can literally crush underfoot, but it seems to work, so we'll just go with it.
Gameplay takes the classic Lemmings approach wherein players must guide each mini-Mario to each stage's exit door before time runs out. Stages normally have two to three minis running about, so the big trick is getting them all to the door at almost precisely the same time in order to move on to the next stage. Sometimes the game even throws a curveball your way by adding a wind-up Toad or Donkey Kong to the mix, so suddenly specific characters have to be led to specific doors. It's the same path-finding puzzle-solving that we've been doing for years, so don't expect any great leaps or bounds in the gameplay department.
The hook for the game is the fact that players must construct each mini's route to the door on the fly with a finite amount of resources, and the path is often tied to a theme. One level set may have you navigating with sets of conveyor belts, while another features moveable warp pipes that you'll have to place in the perfect spots. Each set of eight levels progresses more or less in the same manner, with the first couple of stages introducing the new gimmick and then the difficulty steadily ramping up until culminating with a boss battle against DK.
Newcomers and casual players will be happy to learn that this difficulty curve is very gentle, and the main story line stages are extremely easy to solve. Things get a bit trickier when you try to collect all the medals, coins and cards in a stage, but very rarely will Mini-Land Mayhem do too much to strain your brain.
Those hankering for a true challenge may be able to find it in the bonus stages created by members of the community (or Nintendo itself). Players who fancy themselves level designers can head into the game's Construction Zone and create stages of their own with the very intuitive and easy-to-use drag and drop editor. The game makes it as simple as possible to create your own stages, and when you've created a new level, you can post it on Nintendo's servers for other players to download and rate. Along the same lines is the very cool Challenge mode, where Nintendo lays out a weekly challenge for new stages while setting out a specific set of rules and guidelines. It's a pretty awesome way to keep content flowing while providing a bit of direction and focus for would-be creators.
The major downside to the Construction Zone is that the content is locked away until you complete each set of stages in the main campaign. If you want to use springs for your levels, then you have to beat all the spring stages in the game proper before they're unlocked. The same goes for pretty much all the other gimmicks, so if you want to pepper your playground with anything other than girders, you'll have to grind through the campaign. Newcomers to the series likely won't notice, but longtime fans will no doubt be irked by the fact that they can't jump in and start creating right away, and are instead weighed down by having to play through a bunch of stages that they likely don't even care about.
It's the creation and sharing of new levels that will determine how long Mini-Land Mayhem manages to stay relevant. Most players can blast through the campaign in a few hours, so the new content created by community members will be integral to maintaining interest in the title. As is the case with any game that relies heavily on user-generated content, there's a lot of garbage out there, but there are also some real gems. The trick is creating enough of these worthwhile levels to make players keep coming back for more. Unfortunately, that's one aspect of the game that we really can't review.
One the technical front, Mini-Land Mayhem packs a considerable one-two punch of cuteness and nostalgia. The wind-up toys are adorable in every way, and each stage evokes classic Nintendo charm. Furthermore, the game's soundtrack is composed of 20 years of great Mario tunes, remixed and remastered to sound completely new and different. Even if you don't love the gameplay or find the mechanics all that thrilling, the Mario vs. Donkey Kong franchise has always been good at charming the pants off people, and that's not going to change now.
Although Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! is a well-executed title, it's also saddled with outdated mechanics in a genre that doesn't really have that many adherents in the modern gaming world. The slow, methodical pace of levels will have you crying for a speed-up button, and the lack of challenge throughout the campaign will underwhelm hardcore puzzle fans. While the Construction Zone, level sharing and weekly challenges are fun additions that keep the game relevant, they're also aimed at a very specific subset of the audience. While those folks will likely spend a great deal of time with the game and create some true masterpieces, most players will likely ignore that whole segment of the experience. Like a wind-up toy perpetually running into a wall, this game is adorable, but the franchise isn't going anywhere.
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