"It works like clockwork," said our grandfathers. But if clockwork was so great, why are we all wearing digital watches today? Why do we own PlayStations and DSs rather than wind-up monkeys bashing cymbals together? And why aren't game designers falling over themselves to create clockwork toy simulators?
Trust Nintendo: Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis IS a clockwork game. Sort of. Happily, you don't actually have to wind the thing up. Nevertheless, clockwork is key to this bright, addictive, and thoroughly recommended puzzle game.
It's all Mario's fault. Revealing a stunning lack of modesty, he's built a theme park to celebrate all the great things he's done. To celebrate, Mario tracks down Pauline, damsel-in-distress from the original Donkey Kong games. But what's this? Adding tactlessness to his newly revealed personality flaws, Mario invites Donkey Kong along too. Upset at seeing the girl he once loved celebrating Mario's successes, Donkey Kong flies into a rage and kidnaps her.
Mario immediately realises the only way to save Pauline is to send an army of Mini Marios – tiny clockwork versions of himself – after her. Wouldn't you?
However contrived the set-up, what you, the player, face in March of the Minis is a series of puzzles, through which you have to guide a team of clockwork Marios to the exit. Each level begins with the mini Marios lying about deactivated. You set them to life, and exploit features of the game's environment – jump pads, movable walls, even the enemies – to figure out a path to the exit. There's a time limit, and obstacles and power-ups from all over the Mushroom Kingdom in your way, including fireball flowers, warp pipes and piranha plants.
Everything is controlled by the stylus – transparent control schemes have been gaming's New Black for the past 18 months or so, and March of the Minis is a tour de force for the fashion.
To make a tiny Mario march, you drag him left or right. To make him jump you push him upwards. To make him stop altogether, tap him. This straightforward, intuitive interaction even extends to the level environments, which see you hitting buttons to open timer-controlled walls, dragging lines to create bridges, and dragging pipes in quarter circles to turn them.
That said, it'd be nice if there were a panic button to stop all the Marios dead in their tracks. Too often you find yourself tapping one to stop him moving, only for one of his friends to bump into him, starting him up again, like a Mushroom Kingdom Three Stooges routine.
You'll soon realise that getting one Mario to the exit – the minimum requirement to complete a level – isn't usually too difficult. It's getting all of the Marios through the level and collecting all the coins and cards that will really stretch you and make you think. Shaving a second off your time can be the difference between a silver and gold medal and, undoubtedly, this is a game that compels you to put in the time.
Indeed, March of the Minis often leaves you longing for a longer commute as you desperately try to master a level, playing it over and over like a clockwork gamer freakishly wired up to a speeding motor.
But what about Donkey Kong? You're doubtless salivating at the prospect of a rematch with Mario's old foe?
Well, at the end of nine levels you fight the brute and, if you're successful, the next of eight worlds opens up. However these between-world boss battles are the game's worst element.
Marios are loaded into a cannon and you must fire them at the furious ape, avoiding whatever he's throwing at you. It's a frustrating add-on to the fun puzzle levels, as your control is so limited and the flying Marios so slow that scoring a hit is almost always a case of luck. The one purpose they do serve is as a reward for doing well throughout that world's levels, because every Mario you've saved becomes ammunition for the cannon; anything that makes battling Donkey Kong a little less painful is a tremendous incentive to do better.
Also disappointing is the game's construction mode, which enables you to create and share levels with friends. It's simple to use but, due to the limits imposed on the DS' wi-fi mode, you can only share levels with people whose friend codes you already have. Many will find that disappointing, though it really depends who your friends are: if you're luckily enough to have Shigeru Miyamoto's code, you've plenty to look forward to.
Assuming that's not the case though, replaying to perfection the game's 70-odd levels is where the fun really lies here. The niggles mean Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis doesn't quite run like clockwork, but as the closest thing on DS to the classic puzzler Lemmings, it sure beats a wind-up monkey.