Version tested: 3DS
Nintendo doesn't understand online. That's been the mantra ever since the Wii launched with its unwieldy Friend Codes and compromised shopping channels. The right games at the wrong price. The wrong games in the wrong place. Every great game that managed to find success amid Nintendo's often incoherent and contradictory digital strategies seemed to do so by accident rather than design. As PSN and Xbox Live went from strength to strength, Nintendo floundered.
With Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move comes a hint that Japan's oldest gaming company might finally have found the pulse of the download marketplace. The Mario and Donkey Kong sub-series has always been a curious one, but this is not only the right game, it's in the right place and the right time.
Unlike previous Mario and Donkey Kong titles, which still retained traces of classic platforming along with puzzle elements, Minis on the Move is a pure puzzler. You don't even control Mario directly, as he's been removed from the scene entirely. Everything now revolves around the Minis - tiny clockwork versions of popular series characters.
You must guide these Minis through each stage to the exit star, collecting up to the three Mario coins along the way. From this simple and intuitive starting point, the game begins to come up with interesting new twists.
There are four distinct modes, totalling over 180 stages, with a new mode unlocked every time you beat ten stages. The first, Mario's Main Event, sets the scene with gameplay that blends PipeMania with Tetris. The goal is to complete the path that will guide your Mini to safety, while hopefully hitting the three coins needed for a perfect score. Path tiles - bends and straights of various configurations - fall into a tube to the right of the screen, and can be dragged and placed using the stylus. It's simple enough, and the game gives you a run of introductory levels to get used to it.
Then it starts to introduce complications. Bombs can be used to eliminate placed tiles, but this is for more than correcting mistakes. Levels often require you to create and remake your path as you go. Unwanted tiles can be fed to a trash compactor, with three devoured tiles rewarded with a magic tile that automatically connects to whatever you place it up against.
At all times, that wonderfully precise Nintendo balancing is in evidence. The difficulty rises gently but noticeably, and soon enough perfect completion is far from guaranteed. You'll limp to the finish line with only one or two stars, able to progress but nagged by the knowledge that you should retry until you get it exactly right.
That delicious push and pull recurs in the other modes. Puzzle Palace is the best, and also the most cerebral, swapping the frantic pace of the Main Event for a more measured challenge. This time you're given only a specific set of tiles with which to work, and must use them to plot the best course to the exit. Again, beating the level isn't always hard, but beating it properly is something that will take patience and practice.
Many Mini Mayhem looks instead to Lemmings for its inspiration, ditching the idea of tile-placing altogether and restricting the player to rotating fixed tile junctions to guide multiple Minis through each stage. This is by far the hardest mode, requiring a combination of the fast reactions needed in Main Event and the forward planning of Puzzle Palace. Allow just one Mini to fall off the edge, get trapped in a dead end or bump into a Shy Guy and you'll have to restart.
The final mode to unlock is Giant Jungle, and as the name suggests it abandons the single screen headscratchers in favour of sprawling puzzle layouts that demand all the skills learned across the other three modes.
That in itself is a generous spread of content, with four distinctive ways to play and almost 200 levels in which to enjoy them. The game can't resist adding a little extra, though. There are some simple unlockable mini-games to try, such as Mini Target Smash in which you catapult Minis at targets using the touchscreen. Fly Guy Grab finds you reeling in enemies as you chase a minimum score to proceed to the next wave. Elevation Station has you turning a crank to raise and lower a Mario Mini, avoiding Bullet Bills and collecting coins. The best of these is Cube Crash, in which you launch Minis to demolish a rotating 3D cube. Aiming is a little twitchy, but it can't help remind you of Curiosity only with, you know, gameplay and entertainment.
All of these show that Nintendo finally gets the mobile gaming mentality, as any one of these mini-games wouldn't look out of place on a phone or tablet screen. They're simple, escalate beautifully and are incredibly moreish.
Not so long ago, a package like Minis on the Move would have been published as a full-priced boxed product - and, to be fair, it has the content to back that up. Nintendo's decision to launch it instead as an £8.99 download shows that the company has wised up to the changing marketplace and finally gets what is needed to retain its throne as the king of pocket gaming.
Yet still there's more. There's a level editor where you can create and share your own puzzles, or download those designed by others. There are already hundreds to choose from, and while the search tool is limited to finding the most popular or most recent, it's reliable enough to ensure a steady stream of free bonus content in the future.
It's all served up with the expected Nintendo whimsy, of course, a cheery grin of a game that would be cloying if it weren't so impeccably structured and designed. Few games companies understand the tempo of challenge and reward as well as Nintendo, and Minis on the Move has the same alluring progression as any core Mario title: Stars are earned for everything, and everything is earned with stars. No matter what you do, the elation of finally cracking some devilish stage is massaged even higher by the knowledge that you're always unlocking new things, be it more mini-game stages or pointless but charming collectable toys.
There aren't many criticisms that really stick to Minis on the Move. As with so many of Nintendo's strongest titles, it gets so much right in the heart of the gameplay that finding things to complain about feels like nitpicking. The Mario and Donkey Kong theme is certainly surplus to requirements, used only as a marketing hook, but so much of the game's charm comes from its branding it's hard to begrudge Nintendo dusting off its mascot yet again.
It also wears its influences a little too brazenly, with features from several high profile classic puzzlers nakedly visible. Not since Dr Mario has Nintendo so obviously drawn inspiration from outside its own borders.
Those are minor niggles, however. Minis on the Move is a thoughtfully constructed puzzle game, built around an appealingly simple premise that then gets reexamined and evolved in multiple ingenious ways. More than that, it shows Nintendo adapting to changes in the online and mobile market that suggest the best is yet to come.
8 / 10