Mario vs. Donkey Kong: History of a Great Gaming Rivalry

Anna Lucas ‘24 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Video game franchises are filled with rivalries. Link and Ganondorf, Sonic and Dr. Eggman…and, of course, Mario and Bowser. However, Bowser isn’t Mario’s only rival. When Mario was first introduced, he was butting heads with a different character: the strong-armed gorilla, Donkey Kong. Mario and Donkey Kong have faced off in games spanning several decades. With a new game on the horizon, it’s worth looking back on where the rivalry got its start. 

The first game to pit Donkey Kong against Mario was a 1981 arcade game known as Donkey Kong. In Donkey Kong, Mario must rescue a damsel — known only as Lady — from the clutches of the namesake gorilla. To complete each stage, Mario must scale ladders and platforms to reach the very top. Donkey Kong opposes him, rolling barrels down the platforms to impede his progress. 

Donkey Kong was one of Nintendo’s first big hits, selling over 60,000 arcade cabinets according to IGN. Its success spawned various ports and sequels, including Donkey Kong Jr. in 1982 and Donkey Kong 3 in 1983. 

The first game to use the “Mario vs. Donkey Kong” label was in 2004 with Mario vs. Donkey Kong for the Game Boy Advance. A spiritual successor to the arcade game, the title stars Mario as the head of his own toy company. He’s created a brand of wind-up toys called Mini-Marios, but Donkey Kong has swiped them all. To get them back, Mario must jump across platforms, ropes and spike pits in a style similar to the original Donkey Kong. 

According to VGChartz, the game sold well, amassing around 1.37 million copies worldwide. Critics praised the game for its variety in play style and level design. 

Two years later, a sequel was released. Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis was launched in 2006 for the Nintendo DS. Pauline, the damsel-in-distress from the first Donkey Kong, returns for this title. Donkey Kong has fallen in love with her, but her only interest is Mario’s Mini-Mario toys. Enraged, Donkey Kong kidnaps Pauline, leaving Mario to rescue her. This is the first game in the series to deviate from the Donkey Kong formula. Rather than traverse the levels himself, Mario must guide a series of Mini-Mario toys through puzzles and obstacles. 

The title received sales akin to its predecessor, selling 1.52 million copies worldwide. The game’s standout features were its puzzle elements and its unique secondary mode: a level creator, where players could create and share their own puzzles for others to enjoy.

Within the same year, Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again! was released for the Nintendo DSi. Mario is hosting a ceremony for his amusement park, Super Mini Mario World. However, Donkey Kong swoops in and kidnaps Pauline! Like March of the Minis, Mario must control the Mini-Marios to travel through stages and rescue her. The title retains the level creator from the previous entry, and introduces a boss fight system where a cannon shoots Mini-Marios at Donkey Kong. 

Because Minis March Again! was exclusive to the DSi Shop, its sales numbers are unknown. However, its reception was positive. According to Metacritic, while the game is similar in style to March of the Minis, it is rich in content with hundreds of levels. 

The Nintendo DS received another series title in 2010 with Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem. Mario is opening his theme park, Mini Land. The first 100 visitors get a free Mini-Pauline toy. Donkey Kong arrives, but he’s one visitor too late, and there’s no more Mini-Paulines left to give away. Furious, Donkey Kong decides to take the real Pauline with him instead! Though Mini-Land Mayhem inherits the level creator from previous titles, it also introduces a rebuilding system. Players can edit levels on the fly, adding girders, warp pipes and springs to guide the Mini-Marios through puzzles. 

Mini-Land Mayhem sold a total of 2.98 million copies worldwide. With this entry, some critics worried that the franchise was beginning to stagnate. Players agreed that the game’s design was very similar to the entries before it. However, the gameplay and puzzle design was strong enough to keep the title fresh.

The next mainline entry was Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move, released in 2013 for the Nintendo 3DS. Note the and in place of versus; Donkey Kong is not this game’s antagonist! Rather, he works alongside Pauline in the Mini Toy Carnival’s “mini arcade”. The game is similar to previous entries, with the player guiding Mini-Marios and collecting tokens. One major difference is the time limit added to each stage, contributing to a more frantic experience. Additionally, as the game is made for the Nintendo 3DS, everything is rendered in a 3D environment unique to the system. 

Because Minis on the Move was a Nintendo eShop exclusive, its sales numbers are unknown. According to Metacritic, the game continued the franchise trend of entertaining puzzles. Players also noted that the game was surprisingly brutal thanks to its challenging levels and stressful time limit. 

Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars is the latest entry in the series, released in 2015 for the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. The story is simplified this time around: Donkey Kong has kidnapped Pauline, and Mario must rescue her with the Mini-Mario toys. The game returns to a 2D environment with the traditional gameplay of guiding Mini-Marios and solving puzzles. However, stars are awarded based on the player’s performance. Stars can be used to unlock new items in the game’s level creator. 

Tipping Stars is the only game in the franchise that has received mostly mixed reviews. This makes it the lowest ranked entry in the series. Critics note that while the game is enjoyable, it lacks the length or difficulty of the other entries.

Nintendo has recently announced a new entry in the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series. Titled only Mario vs. Donkey Kong, it acts as a remake of the 2004 Game Boy Advance title. That means it’s back to platforming as Mario, with the Mini-Marios appearing as collectibles to rescue. The remake promises improved graphics and co-op play on top of the usual puzzling experience. The game is set to release on February 16, 2024 as a Nintendo Switch title.  

Ever since Donkey Kong first released in 1981, the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series has entertained players with puzzles and platforms. With the release of a new entry next year, Nintendo may give this age-old rivalry a new coat of paint.

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