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Mario Marches To His Own Drummer

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Too many games have genre envy.

One game wants to be the next first-person shooter like "Doom," while another one hopes to reinvent the real-time strategy game like "Command and Conquer." Another title plans to follow the role-playing success of the "Final Fantasy" series, and everyone wants to launch the next massively multiplayer online game like "World of Warcraft."

Then along comes a goofy little title for the Nintendo DS which shows that a little genre-bending can be good for the soul.

If you tortured out a specific genre, "Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: The March of the Minis" might get labeled as a real-time, constructible-puzzle, action platformer. But that's only because this game's designers have so willfully disregarded genre conventions in an effort to put together a charming bit of entertainment that they've ended up coloring a bit outside the lines.

This innovative fiddling takes place in a cozy and familiar framework inside the Nintendo universe. Once again, Mario races through level after level to stop a menacing Donkey Kong from taking things that don't happen to belong to him. Only this time, Mario doesn't get his hands dirty. Instead, he delegates the chore of chasing down DK to a set of tiny Mario toys - the Mario Minis.

These windup dolls march mindlessly when the player flicks the DS stylus across the touch screen, and continue to waddle robotically until they're redirected by an obstacle or a new player command.

The levels hearken back to the classic 2-D Mario games, and many familiar foes return to harass the Minis. A deft move of the stylus here, and a Mini will hop on top of an enemy for a ride; a tap there, and the Mini will lurch to a halt. Without constant attention and direction, Mindless Minis will march to certain doom. With multiple Minis on the screen at any one time, coordinating your windup core of heroes adds strategic planning to the arcade fun. As the levels get harder, the play mixes the thoughtful reflection of a crossword puzzle with the thrill-a-minute antics of attending to toddlers in a china shop.

Just as charming and challenging as the main game, "March of the Minis" also provides a level-contraction set. Simple to use and powerful enough to build just about anything you've seen in the game, players can expect to spend half their time inventing and testing out their own brand of "Mini" mayhem. Using the DS' built-in WiFi capabilities, "Mini" level maestros can share their designs with friends.

A sequel that invents beyond its original and an innovative game that pays respect to the classic games that have inspired it, "March of the Minis" leads the parade of game development in the right direction.

Who's It For: Although the challenge ramps up pretty quickly, a forgiving scoring system lets players advance without turning in a high score. Because of this, "March of the Minis" keeps moving whether or not you've got mad gamer skills.

If You Like This, Try That: You can't play "March of the Minis" without thinking of "Lemmings." This PC classic has you assigning orders to simple-minded packs of lemmings in an effort to save them all. A new version for the Sony PSP gives new life to this gaming chestnut.

Best Part: With a powerful and easy-to-use level creator, making game levels is as much fun as playing them.

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