Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem
In its youth the DS got by on novelty. It defied all those cynics by elegantly transplanting Nintendo mainstays like Mario and Pokemon onto its dual screens and touch controls. Now, six years later and with its newborn sibling glistening in an extra dimension, novelty isn't a factor.
Cynical I may be, but Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini Land Mayhem feels like it's coasting on how well it fits its console. While I enjoyed it, when I take it out of my DS I'm somehow left mildly unsatisfied.
Mini-Land Mayhem is the fourth entry in a series that began on the Game Boy Advance with Mario vs. Donkey Kong. Then there was March of the Minis, the series' transition from GBA to DS which took its predecessor's puzzle platforming and Lemmings-ed it up. Instead of playing as Mario you now controlled a group of wind-up miniature Marios. By swiping the stylus across these mock moustachioed men you sent them up ladders, down pipes, and generally along the right way.
2009's DSiWare release Minis March Again was yet more Lemmings-y. Now beyond setting your small plumbers on their way with a stylus tap, you had no control over them. The only way to ensure safe passage was by altering the level itself. That brings us to Mini Land Mayhem which features essentially the same basic play but with brand new levels and a few tweaks here and there.
In Mini Land Mayhem you're guided by touchstones like screws to drag a bridge across or a cylindrical outline to place a pipe in. You're in dynamic control of the level and it's up to you to lead your Minis away from fire and spikes and into shelter. To the wee Italian automatons, you are God.
Yet even as God you must play by the rules. Each world introduces a new facet to the play: the first is the basic bridge, while later on you get conveyer belts you can change the direction of while the Marios move across it. The difficulty slowly ramps from level to level and world to world, as does the number of Minis you're guiding. By the final world you're multitasking like a secretary after too many espressos. You're speed-dragging and tapping, all while keeping one eye on the Minis going up the ladder and the other on the other Minis to ensure they go into the right pipe. And breathe.
This guided progression gives Mini-Land Mayhem a comfortable rhythm: learn new facet, use facet with other facet, use facet with lots of Minis, boss level, and bingo - new world. Meanwhile, careful engineering and time efficiency are rewarded with bonus levels; these again ramp up the difficulty.
Yet, even with its careful layout, enjoyable puzzles, and easy drag-and-drop controls - in truth, failure to do anything that's obviously poor - the game doesn't quite feel like it's reaching its potential.
Even in its later levels, Mini-Land Mayhem feels unimaginative with its puzzles. Some of it is the confinement inherent to a 2D puzzle game across the DS. Small maps lend themselves to short bursts of play, which is great on a handheld, but it also compromises how much can be placed within a level, and therefore how taxing a puzzle can be.
This is underlined by the formulaic nature of the game. As much as there is a strong rhythm to Mini-Land Mayhem, the evolution of a puzzle facet throughout a world is a little too predictable.
That somewhat comes from how most of the puzzles, even at the top levels of difficulty, can be completed on the fly rather than by any extensive solving. It's very rare that a puzzle, even with all the multitasking you may have to do, requires you to sit back and plan or to apply some kind of lateral thinking. More often than not you can just tap off your Minis in the direction you want and work through obstacles as you come across them. Again, this plays well enough into short burst handheld gaming, but to avid puzzle-goers the game will feel like going through the motions. The charm of a game like Lemmings was how one puzzle might leave you stumped for days, maybe weeks, but Mini-Land Mayhem is unlikely to have you scratch your head for more than minutes.
As unsatisfying as I found Mini-Land Mayhem, it's difficult to disparage it too heavily. The game offers plenty of content with a full campaign and a New Plus mode, online levels made by other plays to be downloaded, and a neat construction mode to create your own levels. As a game to stick into your DS and play from time to time, Mini-Land Mayhem will not disappoint. It really does the basics right - very right in fact. Keen puzzle-goers, though, may feel that if it had the charm of Mario and the simple touch controls stripped away, then the game would be a bit too forgettable.