By now, you'd think Super Mario would know better. Like Captain Kirk and Mitch Buchanan before him, any woman he romances is destined for danger. A kinder man would quit the dating scene altogether, maybe take up a hobby, and take comfort in knowing that he has spared some beautiful stranger the peril of knowing him. Not this guy. It's like he's got a hero complex or something.
And so, in Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem!, there's Mario taking Pauline out of hiding for a romantic day at the Mini-Land amusement park, and there's Donkey Kong, right on schedule, snatching her away. Even though "mayhem" is not exactly the right word for the low-key puzzle game that ensues (and the exclamation point is just gratuitous), Mario's latest handheld adventure is nevertheless an appealing, though minor, entry in his canon.
In the newest Mario vs. Donkey Kong, Mario has once again subcontracted his search-and-rescue duties to miniaturized, wind-up versions of himself. Once the Mini Marios get going, they won't stop until they exit the level – or, you know, die. Mario's task, and yours, is to guide the Minis safely through each map by manipulating their environment. Each of the game's eight worlds introduces a new mechanic. You start by moving around girders – which can serve as bridges, ramps, and walls – that will shape the path of your Minis. Later, you graduate to more advanced conveyor belts, springs, and Donkey Kong Country-style cannons.
Finding the correct path from start to finish, with detours to pick up bonus cards and coins, isn't a big challenge, even when you reach the more difficult plus game. In most cases, the complexity comes from managing your finite resources. You have to remove an element from one spot on the map in order to place it in another. Because all of the Minis have to reach the exit point at the same time for you to advance, there's a sense of urgency to it: can you build this bridge before your lead Mini topples into a pit of spikes?Befitting the platform, Mario vs. Donkey Kong's interface is simple and intuitive. A tap of the stylus performs most actions. In cases where you have to draw a line connecting one node to another, the game does a good job of correctly interpreting your intentions, without punishing you for being a few pixels off. And while the primary action happens on the lower screen, a zoomed-out map view on the upper screen helps you navigate easily to where your Minis will be heading next.
The controls only falter when, late in the game, the Mini Marios encounter cylindrical surfaces. Theoretically, you can spin the tubes by swiping either end of them with the stylus, but the hit box is small and detection is finicky. As often than not, it doesn't work. It's either the sole flaw in the game's interaction design, or Nintendo's not-so-subtle way of suggesting to longtime DS Lite owners that it's time to upgrade to the XL.
The true appeal of Mario vs. Donkey Kong is its robust level editor, dubbed the Construction Zone. Players can design and upload their own maps to Nintendo's servers, and download and rate other users' maps. With a handful of pre-loaded templates and a user-friendly drag-and-drop interface, it is shockingly easy to get started making competent levels. Within an hour, you can build something that, start to finish, compares favorably with the earlier stages of the single-player game.
Of the handful of user-created content that was available prior to launch, much was garbage, as was to be expected, but much also displayed flashes of wit missing from the professionally designed levels. One map I downloaded, called "friendship," was an elaborately detailed, Viking-style sailing ship. There wasn't much of a puzzle to it; it essentially played itself. That wasn't the point. Here was something brand new for the game world, which the designers surely never had in mind when they first assembled their virtual toolkit. LittleBigPlanet it ain't, but the Construction Zone adds unexpected depth to what seems, at first, like a slight product.
The Construction Zone is hampered by one weird restriction: you're only allowed to use items in the level editor that you've unlocked by playing through the single-player mode. After completing the first world, for example, your only option when designing a level is to place nodes for girders. Later additions, like warp pipes or magnetized walls, are temporarily out of your reach. Never mind how easy it is to play through the campaign and unlock these things. It's an arbitrary constraint. If I want to make a level entirely out of magnets, then, damn it, I should be able to make a level entirely out of magnets. I shouldn't have to beat world 7 for the privilege.
Although the bite-sized puzzle play of Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! initially seems no more enthralling than what you could find on a free Flash game site, it takes only a few minutes for the game's quality to shine through. Add the endless possibilities of the Construction Zone, and it's the complete package. Sorry, Pauline: Mario's loss is our gain.
This review is based on the DS of Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem, provided by Nintendo. Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston, MA. His work has appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Paste magazine, Slate.com, and Kill Screen, as well as in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. He scribbles occasionally at his blog, Insult Swordfighting.