Have you ever played one of those wooden maze puzzles, where you’re trying to keep a marble going through the maze by tilting the board to avoid the holes in the marble’s path? Super Monkey Ball is heavily inspired by these puzzles. As the title suggests, you are guiding a monkey in a ball, but instead of controlling the ball, you tilt the level. Rather than having holes in the board, the “floors” have no real walls, and you can fall into a forever pit of doom, with the result that you need to restart the level. Conceptually, this sounds interesting, but in practice, you are wrestling with the laws of physics and gravity to get the monkey to the little ribbon at the end of every level. It’s far too easy in the beginning and far too hard at the end.
The reason this is Super Monkey Ball and not just Super Ball is beyond me. It’s coming after the 90s, when we had series like Monkey Island. The only reason Monkey Island is called that is because “Ha ha, monkeys are funny, right?” You collect bananas in Super Monkey Ball, which are “Dole ” branded, because everything had to be sponsored in the aughts. 100 bananas net you an extra life, but they do nothing to increase your total score. If you really want to rack up a lot of points, just clear the ribbon (as in, the end of the level) as quickly as possible. There are a number of shortcuts in the game, and it’s a bit questionable whether they are supposed to be there. You can skip large chunks of certain floors by tilting the level rather abruptly.
The Beginner Mode consists of nine very easy levels and one moderately difficult final level where you navigate narrower platforms. There are also bonus levels, where you collect every banana within the time limit. The Advanced Mode has 30 stages, which are more difficult than the Beginner Mode but never overwhelming. They generally throw some combination of the following four level tropes your way: very narrow passageways, very curved floors, very long levels that need to be finished in a time limit, or some simple obstacles scattered about that you must avoid. The Expert Mode seems to be designed for masochists. I didn’t ever make it past the third level, but you can watch on YouTube as someone plays through all fifty main stages, ten Bonus Stages, and ten Master Stages. The challenge is there if you’re into that sort of thing, but the core game just isn’t enjoyable enough for me to sink the time in.
The graphics are pretty darn simple. The floors are mostly flat and geometrically uninteresting. The ball your monkey rides around in shows polygonal edges upon close inspection. Last, background art is downright scarce. The music isn’t good and isn’t something you’d want to listen to on your drive to work, in the shower, or anywhere really. I have picked up on some gaming lingo since I started this blog, and some bonus levels seem to have very low resolution “screen space reflections.” Not bad considering the era. The one technological thing this game does well is physics, which (for better or worse) are mostly true to real life. But if you compare this game’s graphics to the best on the GameCube – like Metroid Prime or Wind Waker – it can’t compete … can’t even hold a candle.
There are some mini-games that are simply so unremarkable that I’m not going to mention them. At the time Super Monkey Ball was released, I remember it getting some fairly positive reviews. But it was not a good game then, and it is not now. You’re lucky to get two hours of playtime without repeating any levels, and they charged $60 for a boxed copy when it was new. The idea of a platform game where you move the level and not the character sounds like it has a lot of potential, but these challenges would have been better off as a mini-game to a more competent platformer than as a full-priced product. It appears there’s a mobile version that’s free to download with in-app purchases, but that’s normally a red flag that they’re trying to take all your money. I’m going to give this one star above the lowest possible rating for originality, but really, don’t waste your time.
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