The game owes much of its attraction to fiendishly clever level design that manages to condense Rube Goldberg complexity into areas rarely spanning more than two screens. Keeping track of minis is seldom an issue (it helps that you can pause and look around when laying a girder or conveyor belts) so it never feels as if the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing.
There's a decent amount of variety, too. While most stages are simply about guiding mini-Marios, there are offshoots where you have to guide toy versions of characters like Peach and Toad to their own colour-coded doors. Some unlockable stages alter their rule sets by activating all the minis at the off, or tasking you with guiding various characters to the same door in a specific order. It never strays far from its premise, but evolves enough to stay interesting.
The exceptions are the boss fights against Donkey Kong. These all involve building a way for minis to hit three switches on a construction site. While fun in moderation, these sequences look and play too similar with too great a random element, making it a chore to achieve high scores.
This is too bad, as the incentive for replaying stages is high. Each level contains a hard-to-reach badge and trophy associated with a high score. Collecting these unlocks special and expert stages respectively, adding a lot of value to the package. It may seem like you're making swift progress... until the credits roll and you realise you've still got approximately two-thirds of the game to go, and it only gets harder. Rounding out the game is a level editor.
If there's one thing holding Mini-Land Mayhem back, it's that, compared to other recent puzzlers like World of Goo and P. B. Winterbottom, it lacks personality. The Mushroom Kingdom has a rich ancestry that the best Mario games have cultivated for clever satire or winking fan service. But aside from Pauline's presence and some lovely nods to early NES Mario soundtracks, there's nothing particularly fresh about Mini-Land Mayhem's trappings. The mechanics may be polished, but the tone is sterile.
However, it's expertly paced, with bite-sized levels that walk a tightrope between pull-your-hair-out maddening and knowingly easy – and while it can be overwhelming and cause you to doubt yourself, it's always worth it for that moment of relief where it all slots into place. There's no one thing Mini-Land Mayhem does that's particularly new or innovative, but it borrows the best elements of games like Lemmings, The Lost Vikings, and traditional Donkey Kong platformers to form an extremely refined puzzling adventure.
Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! is out now in North America. It will be released in Europe in the first quarter of 2011. It's region-free and import-friendly.