Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz Review

Few established game franchises seem so perfectly suited to the Wii's motion-sensing controller as Sega's Super Monkey Ball series of platformers. Some of the only platforming-focused 3D platformers being made these days--as opposed to third person action games with jumping--the series' basic gameplay mechanic of tilting the actual game world to control the monkey in a ball protagonist makes an obvious transition over to a system whose controller senses real-world tilting. Super Monkey Ball levels consist of a starting point and an end point, separated by platforms, obstacles, and hair-pulling difficulty. The games are legendary for their level of challenge, which only increases as the game progresses. In many ways, Super Monkey Ball games draw from the classic Marble Madness games and their many descendants, though the indirect manipulation of the ball by way of manipulating the world (and thus the direction of gravity) sets this series apart from many of the others.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, developed by original Super Monkey Ball designer Toshihiro Nagoshi and his team, fulfils the potential it has in the Wii controller. Beginning the main campaign--of which there are eight worlds (plus two unlockable worlds) each consisting of eight levels, a bonus level, and a boss fight--is slightly worrying at first. For one thing, the controls will make you feel like an uncoordinated oaf, and beyond that, the first few levels are so simplistic, with guard rails and easy paths, that there is a slight fear that the series' legendary difficulty has been severely toned down in order to compromise with an inadequate control scheme.

Fortunately, this is not the case at all. The controls indeed have something of a learning curve, but it is not long before the game's difficulty starts to kick in--and with it, your skill will ramp up as well. Super Monkey Ball newcomers who play Banana Blitz--as well, as perhaps, some skeptical veterans--will quickly find that, despite its colorful visuals and goofy music, Banana Blitz is a true gamer's game. The single-player campaign makes no concessions to the Wii's "gaming for the masses" angle; it delivers an increasingly brutally challenging platforming experience that is rare in modern platforming. There will be moments when, despite this game using the one-handed remote controller configuration, you will find yourself gripping the controller in both white-knuckled hands, in part to remain as steady as possible and in part to keep yourself from chucking the thing across the room, as you fail the same level in the same place again, and again, and again. But when you clear the stage, and it is due to perserverence and intense concentration, you will be supremely vindicated. Even the moments when your success is all a fluke that resulted by striking a corner at a fortuitous angle and sailing into the end goal are satisfying.

As in the game's precursors, levels frequently contain shortcuts--some obvious, some not so obvious--that can chop many seconds off of your level completion time if you have the finesse to pull them off. These too are satisfying, particularly if you manage to find a way to completely bypass a part of a level that has been giving you constant strife.

One of the game's great strengths conferred to it by the Wii remote is its extremely tactile sense of control. While the learning curve in this game is steeper than it is with the analog stick control in the previous games, the pure enjoyment you derive from your constant improvement surpasses that of learning to better manipulate a stick, because you truly feel that you are controlling this world. The control is shockingly responsive and capable of pulling off feats that, early in the game, you would swear could only be done with traditional control.

Super Monkey Ball 2 took some flak from fans of the first game for what is frequently seen as a decline in level design quality, with some levels whose difficulty was exploitative, causing frustration from a rather contrived bit of chicanery rather than from skill-based platforming challenge. Veterans will be pleased to know that these methods are largely reduced in Banana Blitz, which as a hardcore platformer of course isn't completely free of what one might call, in a moment of rage, "unfair" moments, but which relies on such artifice much less than its predecessor.

New to Banana Blitz is the ability to jump, the news of which has been oddly offensive to some fans. Fundamentally, it really doesn't radically alter the feel of the game, it merely gives the designers another tool in their level design toolbox. It also expands the options for taking shortcuts through levels, for obvious reasons, but it would be insane to say it actually makes the game any less challenging.

One element Banana Blitz inherits from Super Monkey Ball 2 is its themed world design. Each world has a visual style that is consistent from stage to stage, with the disparate environments ranging from ancient Egypt-esque pyramids, to jungles, to outer space. This game also noticeably refines its general aesthetic, tying all the worlds together with a soft and pleasing color palette and characteristic, less generic texture work that is a big improvement over the previous games. There is a depth of field blur affect applied to distant objects and environments that combines with the game's color design to give everything a somewhat dreamlike quality. Banana Blitz's soundtrack is typical happy Japanese puzzle game fare, which will be grating to some and enjoyable to others; personally, with the exception of the music in the game's pirate-themed world, I could do without it, but this is purely down to taste.

It must be some sort of perverse pleasure for Japanese designers to create games this deviously difficult with such bright and inviting exteriors; I suspect that, had Super Monkey Ball come out of a Western studio, you would be navigating a damned soul trapped in a spiked iron ball through the fiery bowels of hell. Maybe with a shotgun or something. Different strokes, eh?

Despite all of these positives, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz is not without its flaws. The series' annoying camera quirks continue to pop up here, and though it never proves to be too much of a burden, it is a part of the game that should really be improved. As before, it mainly crops up when turning very slowly or standing still, as the game tries--sometimes unsuccessfully--to determine your intended direction.

While that camera issue is fairly minor throughout most of the game, it rears a much uglier head during the game's boss battles, which comprise the least enjoyable parts of Banana Blitz's campaign. The basic gameplay of Monkey Ball is designed around constantly moving forward and overcoming obstacles, but boss battles frequently require you to maneuver within a very small space--often one from which you can easily plunge to your death. Generally, a boss will have a weak spot into which you must hurl your monkey in a ball until the enemy's life meter is depleted. It's pretty standard boss battle material, but it never really works because Monkey Ball's tight camera and relative difficulty to stop on a dime make them far too obnoxious. There are a couple battles that are more enjoyable than others, particular when they are structured at least somewhat more similarly to a regular level, but for the most part you'll just want to get past them as quickly as possible.

Single- and multiplayer mini-games, a staple of the series, have always been Monkey Ball's conceit to casual gamers. Here, the included mini-games are an unfortunately extremely mixed bag. While Banana Blitz boasts 50 different mini-games, some of them are embarrasingly broken or simply not particularly fun. Of course, with 50 games, there are inevitably quite a few that are enjoyable and worth playing with friends. Monkey Target, an old standby, returns in good form, and if you have the patience to slog through the doznes of other games you'll surely find several that you and your gaming group (or potential gaming converts) enjoy enough to revisit. One appealing aspect of the mini-games is that they were clearly designed with the intent to think of as many different uses of the Wii remote, either alone or with the Nunchuk added, as possible. This type of exercise is no doubt hugely beneficial to designers, and many of the concepts explored in these minigames have the potential to become built up into fuller game ideas, but it would have been nice if the designers had culled some of the weaker executed ones and kept them for their own internal experiments.

All in all, despite a few relatively minor flaws and what appears to be a lack of sufficient QA on the mini-games, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz is a hugely effective demonstration of the capabilities of the Wii, something that is all the more impressive in a launch title. Previous fans of the series, as well as gamers confident in their platforming abilities, should find plenty to love here.

Sega Entertainment R&D1's Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz launched alongside Wii on November 19, 2006.