The game concept revolves around a combination of platform and puzzle elements, challenging Mario to find keys, reach a locked door, and rescue mini-Marios.
The game is an evolution of Donkey Kong Plus, a title on display at E3 2002. During the show, Plus had a feature that allowed players to design and save their own levels on the GameCube, then copy them to the Game Boy Advance using a link cable. It was essentially an updated version of Donkey Kong '94, but the game had disappeared by the following year. It was replaced with the pre-rendered graphics and gameplay additions of Mario vs. Donkey Kong. The Create-a-Level feature was removed from this version (but appears in its sequel). The level editor still exists within the game's programming, and can be enabled through a modification.
The game has hidden e-Reader support. Nintendo of Japan had a competition in which 1,000 people won cards. Five level cards were released by CoroCoro Comic, and another card was given away at the 20th World Hobby Fair. The game can save up to 12 extra levels.
Mario must unlock the door to progress in this screenshot taken in World 1, set at the Mario Toy Company.
In Mario vs. Donkey Kong, the player assumes the role of Mario, who is pursuing Donkey Kong through a toy factory, who has stolen several dozen Mini-Mario toys. The game plays similarly (and has a similar ending) to the Game BoyDonkey Kong game, giving Mario the ability to perform handstands and backflips. There are several different environments, ranging from a lava environment to the classic construction site, and there are four different types; in the first, and most common, Mario has to pick up a key and take it to the locked door, and then find and pick up the Mini-Mario toy at the end of the level. The second type is where Mario must guide six Mini-Mario toys to the Toy Box, while protecting them from dangerous environments. The third type is the boss level, where Mario must fight Donkey Kong in order to proceed to the next world. The fourth type is the Plus Level, where Mario must activate one Mini-Mario in the level, which is holding a key, and take it to the door. The fifth type of level is the Expert levels. In this mode, Mario must get the key and lead it to the door, much like the first type of level, but these are the hardest levels in the game. Getting through the door beats the level in Plus and Expert modes, rather than sending Mario to a 2nd part.
The game was generally well received by critics. GameSpot said it does a good job "both on its own and as a tribute to Mario's legacy".IGN praised the gameplay, calling it an evolution of the classic original style of Donkey Kong with "new levels and challenges that fit the handheld platform wonderfully." Complaints center around a lack of content, the untraditional art style and Mario's voice being heard too much throughout the game.
On July 28, 2011, Nintendo announced that Mario vs. Donkey Kong, as well as nine other Game Boy Advance games, would be available to Nintendo 3DS owners who purchased their systems before the August 11, 2011 price cut via Virtual Console as part of the ambassador program. This offer is available in all territories, and only to those who became eligible in the Ambassador program (by accessing the Nintendo eShop before the date of the price-cut). Although the game was released on December 16, 2011 to Ambassador users, Nintendo currently has no plans to release this game, or any other Game Boy Advance game, to the general public in paid form.