Donkey Kong ’94
Unlike All-Stars, this game is more than just a necessary polishing. You believe you’re playing a remake of the arcade classic, but once you topple the big ol’ ape at the top of the construction site at the end of the four levels of the arcade game you find yourself as Mario in a big city – the first world of the next additional whopping 97 varied stages beyond the arcade game. In essence, it’s both a remake and a sequel all in one!
Why this game made my list is because of the newfound abilities Mario has in this game. No longer just running and jumping, Mario is nearly an Olympic quality gymnast here. He can handstand, high jump, and back flip. He demonstrates fine mastery of the high horizontal bar. Like in Super Mario Bros. 2, he can pick up and throw objects. The combination of these moves at your disposal makes for pure platforming bliss.
You play with momentum and height, to achieve perfect jumps and prevent yourself from falling too far and stunning yourself when you hit the ground. Timing is important, as is observing patterns; for as much as this is a platforming game, it is also a puzzle game. Beyond the arcade remake levels, the remaining levels are puzzle-heavy, consisting of building platforms, flipping switches, climbing ladders, and utilizing conveyor belts to collect a key and bring it to the correct door by the end of a time limit.
The balance between platforming and puzzling is practically perfect.
If Donkey Kong ’94 was practically perfect, then Yoshi’s Island is the definition of perfect. It is an absolute masterpiece.
Sure, you could argue that this isn’t a true Mario game, what with playing as Yoshi and all, but the core Mario elements are there. It’s a side-scrolling run and jump with power-ups, there are traditional Mario enemies – even Shy Guys – there are coins, athletic levels, falling donut lifts, etc. But on top of this is the addition of unique gameplay mechanics – make eggs and throw eggs. There are collectibles and a life meter, which would later transfer to Super Mario 64. There are so many simple changes that modify the formula just enough to make it feel completely new.
It also expands the Mario universe a fair bit. Acting as a prequel to the entire series, we see enemies that Mario would later dream about in Super Mario Bros. 2 USA. We encounter a young baby Bowser. We get a glimpse into the Koopa Troop and how they serve the prince Bowser. We see Kamek’s loyalty and ambition. We rescue Luigi. Yoshi meets Mario. It’s the first adventure. If this isn’t a Mario game, then I don’t know what is.
The game plays like Super Mario World meets Metroid. The levels are sprawling, you backtrack, you navigate in multiple directions, there are mazes, there are puzzles even. The bosses are grand. Knocking over the giant Koopa Troopa onto its back by shooting it in the face is hilarious.
The game is beautiful, with a colouring book inspired façade that draws you in and invites you to explore the levels. Through some technological innovations, the game also pulls off some visual trickery. Sprites resize and rotate; everything feels alive.The music complements this with a music box style and a kickass theme for Bowser.
It is daring, challenging, visually stunning, immensely fun, creative, and memorable.