Usually, game sequels give you more moves. So when Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem announces from the beginning that you’re no longer able to jump, you might be wondering what’s going on. In this case, though, the stripping down was a good decision, as the developers have wisely taken out some of the reflex-demanding fiddliness that compromised the cold-blooded puzzle logic that defines the series. Unfortunately, they’ve also taken away some of the presentational delights that made the previous installment so much fun.
In the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series, you don’t control Mario. You don’t even control the titular “minis”—little Mario-shaped wind-up toys that wander the Mushroom Kingdom landscape. Unlike in previous games, you can’t swipe on them to jump, tap them to change direction, or really do anything to alter their inexorable forward march. What you can do is manipulate their environment—stretch conveyor belts, place walls, arrange pipes, and otherwise tweak the game’s world—to make the minis’ journey to the level exit inevitable. Sometimes you have to change parameters as the minis move ahead, so there’s some real-time attentiveness involved, but much of the time you just sit back and watch as they move through the route you’ve mapped, as though you were playing a brightly colored helicopter-parenting simulator.
The game is pretty clearly influenced by the PC classic Lemmings, but Nintendo has done what they usually do with game formulas: they simplified the source to find its essence. There’s no job classes—except for a few special levels, the minis are as alike as the workers in a communist opera—and the sprawling, destructible environments of the Lemmings games are shrunk down to fit on a barely scrolling DS screen. Each wee little level contains just a few parameters, perfect for playing in 90-second bursts and therefore well adapted for the subway, elevator, and bathroom enhancer that is the Nintendo DS.
But that simplicity does mean that at least two-thirds of the game’s levels are just too easy, especially since the frequent (and welcome!) introduction of new elements means that a lot of time has to be spent on tutorializing. At least half the levels, maybe more, can be solved on the first go just by putting your minis in motion and figuring things out as they go. This is especially grating because Nintendo never copied the speed-up button that reduced boredom during the Lemmings endgame; there’s definitely a little too much time spent with your chin in your hand, waiting for the minis to tromp along the path you made ready long ago. And the new requirement that every mini make it out alive, which was an optional score-booster in previous games, means you’ll spend a lot of time just keeping the troops in line, which isn’t particularly fun.
Still, there’s enough challenge to provide some good brain-bending action toward the end of each world, and the mini-games unlocked by getting all the collectibles provide an enjoyable hand-eye-coordination workout. Even better, the game comes with a level creator, though you have to finish the full campaign before you can use all of the elements. In the previous game in the series, Nintendo did a great job spotlighting the best user-generated levels and making them available via the DS’s WiFi connection, and if they do that here—and it looks like they will—then there should be a long stream of new challenges for the eager player.
My only major complaint with the game is the presentation. A puzzle game doesn’t need a whole lot of visual flair, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. And Mario vs. Donkey Kong: March of the Minis had truly great presentation, including the best opening cutscene on the Nintendo DS—arguably one of the best cutscenes ever, thanks to its cinematically brilliant use of the DS’s unusual aspect ratio (shall we call it 2.16:9?). Mini-Land Mayhem is a much tamer affair, with GBA-level animation and less engaging music. Maybe old age is just making me jaded (or maybe my DS screen is going), but even the graphics seem a bit less charming. Worse still, while the previous game set Mario on the path of rescuing Princess Peach, this one demands that you rescue Pauline, Peach’s less-glamorous rival. Nintendo, there’s a reason Pauline has neither her own game nor a small army of cosplayers (Co-players?): No one has ever cared about rescuing her. Let her marry Donkey Kong, and perhaps in matrimony he’ll find the contentment that the snooty Mario wishes to deny him!
With just the content included in the box, Mini-Land Mayhem would be a solid little puzzle game, though not quite as good as its predecessor. But Nintendo’s promise to continue supporting user-created content means you can expect a whole lot of creativity to be unleashed by the community. The best level in the game is one that probably hasn’t even been made yet, and I’ll be looking forward to playing it!