- Developer: SEGA
- Publisher: SEGA
- Release date: 29 October 2019
- Genre: Platformer
- Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Steam for PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox One X
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Super Monkey Ball has been around for years now, but it’s only recently that it’s become available for dedicated games consoles again. It’s a shame that rather than create a bespoke new title, they have chosen to remaster the Wii’s Banana Blitz title. A personal favourite and the one that made me so excited for this game was Super Monkey Ball Deluxe on the PS2, which compiled all the levels from Super Monkey Ball and Super Monkey Ball 2 plus a few additional levels created especially for that game.
Super Monkey Ball Deluxe would have been the best game for the remaster treatment, as not only was it designed from the ground up for controllers, it also featured arguably the best level design in the Monkey Ball series. Their choice, instead, of a Wii title for the remaster, that was designed around motion controls, has unfortunately led to concessions being made which negatively affect gameplay.
If you’ve never experienced a Super Monkey Ball game before, the premise is simple. Your character is a monkey, who is inside a ball. Your goal is to roll your monkey through the level, collecting bananas as you go until you reach the exit portal, with a timer to spur you on, and a limited number of lives to avoid losing as you navigate the ramps, narrow beams, gaps and obstacles between you and your goal. Rather than control your monkey-ball directly, you tilt the game world around, which despite being a little disconcerting at times, is a surprisingly fun method of control and it adds to the tension during the trickier obstacles.
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD now also adds a jump manoeuvre to your simian repertoire, and while it may take a while for Monkey Ball purists to adapt to this new move, it’s used to good effect and has allowed them to create some obstacles that weren’t possible with the old system.
Starting off with the Main Game, you select your favourite monkey. The difference is more than cosmetic: Baby, for example, has a very small monkey ball which can make it tricky to collect bananas and negotiate some obstacles but benefits from high speed and jump stats, whilst GonGon has a huge Monkey Ball but very low speed. They each have their uses, so play around to find one that suits your playstyle.
The main bulk of the game follows a classic setup, with the 100 stages on offer being divided up into worlds, each containing ten stages (including a bonus stage and a boss battle), with a different theme for each world ranging from jungles and tropical paradises to icy landscapes and pyramid laden desert stages. The levels increase in difficulty as you progress, but it’s here that the first major flaw becomes apparent. As the first game was designed for motion controls, the first few worlds are too simple when played with a controller. As you get further, however, the difficulty level becomes more challenging making it a lot more entertaining and it starts to show the magic that made Super Monkey Ball so popular.
Where this all begins to fall apart is in the latter stages: On the Wii version, they had made certain obstacles a bit easier to navigate because they were trying to accommodate the somewhat temperamental motion controls. In order to make it challenging with the improved finesse offered by a controller, they have gone too far the other direction, and some sections feel difficult to the point where it borders on unfair. It’s a shame, as the levels where they get it right are brilliant, and you will be navigating giant rolling hoops, moving platforms and boosted ramps with glee.
Another factor that can cause endless failed jumps is the camera. The movement of the camera is tied to the movement of your Monkey Ball, which makes jumps to anywhere but directly in front of you a lucky dip. Simply allowing the user to rotate the camera with the right analogue stick would save so much frustration further into the game, but the absence of it leads to frustration.
Boss battles are new to Banana Blitz, and you could well argue that they have no place in a Super Monkey Ball game. If the execution of these boss battles was better, you likely wouldn’t mind their addition, but they lack imagination and boil down to identifying the (glaringly obvious) weak point and jumping into it repeatedly, with very little variation throughout each of the bosses.
Progress is marked by the completion of each level, and also with the awarding of champions medals, earned by completing each run of ten levels in one run, without running out of lives and having to continue. It’s easy enough to do on the first five worlds or so, but after this point, you’ll need to collect as many bananas as you can to stockpile the extra lives you will likely need to successfully finish that world. For completionists, it adds an extra layer of challenge, but the aforementioned problems with the difficulty curve mean it ends up more frustrating than satisfying, though finally completing the champion medals instils a good feeling of accomplishment.
The spark that keeps you wanting to play just isn’t as pronounced in this iteration of the game as it was in the past. It’s bright and colourful, easy to pick up and play, and rewarding when the difficulty balance is right, but that sweet spot of difficulty only really manifests for a short number of levels with those preceding being too easy, and those following being too hard. There’s a bit of replayability on offer though if you fancy challenging yourself to complete the levels while collecting all of the bananas or earning champion medals. There are personal leaderboards for each level so you can try to beat your own PB, but the lack of online leaderboards is disappointing.
In addition to the main story mode, there are three time-attack levels, a selection of ten party games (narrowed down from the original fifty on the Wii) and Decathlon, which has you complete all 10 minigames trying to earn the best overall score.
Time attack has 3 difficulties, with Casual Course being just the first world, Normal Course covers worlds one to five, and the Expert Course has you complete all of the courses in the game. You only get the lives you start with, along with any bonus lives you earn from collecting bananas, so you must weigh up whether it’s worth flying through the easy stages or losing some time to stock up on lives for the later stages. We made the mistake of not banking extra lives and failed our thirty minutes run of the Normal Course right at the last boss. Heartbreaking doesn’t come close.
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD’s party games are a mixed bag. They offer a brief overview of the controls before you begin, but offer little in the way of explanation of how to play each game. If you have the perseverance to stick with each one until you become proficient, some of them are an entertaining aside to the main game, but it’s likely that most will play them a few times and then leave them largely untouched. Indeed, if I were having a party, I wouldn’t subject my friends to having to play them, as they aren’t as instantly accessible as party games should be. Whack-a-mole was fun to play with my children but the finicky controls meant they soon tired of it.
Now, what I discovered during my playthrough is that choosing the correct target audience makes all the difference. Whereas the initial levels were boring for an adult gamer such as myself, when the controller was put into the hands of my children those simple early levels served as a perfect introduction to the mechanics and controls of the game. They had competitions between themselves to see who could get the fastest time, they went out of their way to collect every banana, they each had a favourite character, and they were loving every minute. They became frustrated at the levels they found hard, but then went back to the easier ones.
Whether you will get much longevity from it all depends on how much perseverance you have. It’s all too easy to spend fifteen minutes trying to make the same awkward jump, only to finally pass it and fail at the next obstacle. With a game like Trials, for example, you feel like your skills are improving, and when you fail, you know it’s your fault and with a bit of practice, you’ll get there. With Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD, you are fighting the camera as much as you are the level, and it quickly becomes too repetitive to enjoy.
It’s a pretty enough looking game, with bright, colourful levels and in-game HUD elements that are reminiscent of classic SEGA, and everything ticks along at a solid 60fps on both Xbox One and One X. The textures do look a little dated though, and after seeing the great things Activision did with Crash Team Racing, it would have been nice to see a bit more effort here.
The sound is solid enough too. While you may not like the music, it’s produced well, and the bumps and crashes sound fine, but the cries of the monkeys can become a little jarring. I can attest that (my) children really enjoy the music and cute monkey sounds, however, personally it was all a bit too much for me.
Yes, this is a remaster of a Wii game, but even accounting for that, this simplistic approach to game design feels archaic. If you have children, there’s every chance they are going to adore this game and have a lot of fun with it, but as an older gamer looking for a nostalgic return to the beautifully balanced platforming of previous Super Monkey Ball games, it falls short of greatness. Despite this, I hope it does well enough that they remake Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, but I find it hard to recommend this outing for the ball-bound simians.