Review by Kane

"Humiliation"

A monkey in a ball, a more or less complex board and lots of bananas.

That’s all.

Yes, this simplistic premise was all Sega needed to create a puzzle game that’s not only light years ahead of anything released on Gamecube so far, but also much more interesting that their own recent productions. Indeed, sleeper hit Super Monkey Ball truly is a masterpiece.

The fact that monkeys make great videogame protagonists seems to be widely accepted nowadays. This game’s characters are stereotypical and cute –but they’re no Donkey Kongs. Their charisma matters very little here, because the emphasis is obviously on gameplay and Super Monkey Ball’s gameplay easily stands on its own. Your goal is just to push the (monkey) ball from point A to point B without falling off the board.

Easier said than done.

Surprisingly enough, the player doesn’t take control of the animal but of its environment, by simply tilting the surface of the platforms. In other words, this title is highly reminiscent of Marble Madness -from the absolute bliss generated by the simplicity of the concept to the feeling of frustration one feels when he finally manages to pass a seemingly insuperable obstacle only to fall victim to another evil trick just before the finish line.

But how did the monkey get inside the ball? And more importantly, why is this game so fun? Those two puzzling questions seem impossible to answer.

Super Monkey Ball has that special touch that makes Sega’s old-school games so addictive even today. Execution is minimalist but diabolically precise: the analog joystick is the only tool needed. Shallow? Absolutely not.

Super Monkey Ball could have been considered repetitive if its levels weren’t so varied. Holes, bumpers, slopes, spikes and various punishment methods ensure that no matter how primitive the gameplay is, two games of SMB will never be the same. Much like the legendary Tetris, this game requires a great amount of strategy and practice.

Perhaps what makes this game so enjoyable is its very steep learning curve? Progress is rapidly made through the game after the first couple of hours but mastering the last levels literally takes months. For some reason, the challenge constituted by more than ninety levels never seems to diminish the players’ dedication: once you start playing, it’s like you must go as far as possible. The paradox doesn’t end here –you don’t have to collect all the bananas to complete a level, yet you always try to grab them all.

In fact, it’s probably a combination of elements that makes Super Monkey Ball so great: the joy of rediscovering such a simple and effective concept, the overall speed of the gameplay, the variety of the levels and the great number of multiplayer modes.

The first mode, rightly named Monkey Race, is a bobsleigh-type race similar to the bonus stages featured in the earlier Sonic games. Much like in Mario Kart, it’s possible to collect various bonuses and use them to finish in pole position. While not particularly outstanding, this game reaches full potential when four players join the fun.

Such is also the case for the second mini-game, a kind of dumbed-down Super Smash Bros. in which your objective is to push your opponents off the board as many times and as fast as possible. However, this ‘Monkey Fight’ is way too basic (there’s only one kind of attack) to hold the player’s interest and gets old rather fast, even against more than two human opponents.

On the other hand, the bowling game is an excellent representation of its real-life counterpart thanks to a brilliant drift system. Similarly, Monkey Target is a real Pilotwings rip-off but it doesn’t really matter because shooting monkeys in the air and land on strangely shaped targets is so fun. Oh yeah.

Still, the golf and pool bonus games, while interesting, seem extremely short-lived and repetitive. Nevertheless, all those extras bring so much variety to Super Monkey Ball that it eventually becomes a first-grade party game after all the extras are unlocked.

Although they’re not exactly impressive, Super Monkey Ball’s graphics are decent and have an interesting cartoonish feel. Such a profusion of colors perfectly suits the joyful mood of the game and it’s easy to spot some neat graphical patterns in the backgrounds such as water effects or distortions. The monkeys’ animations are simplistic but extremely humorous, while the environments are very beautiful and inventive –the game contains a plethora of mystical temples, edenic jungles and giant spaceships. Sega’s choice of plain visuals is utterly surprising, but it works very well.

Super Monkey Ball’s groovy tunes are good and greatly contribute to its unique atmosphere. Almost as hypnotic as the gameplay itself, they sound like your usual old-school platformer’s music, just catchier. The sound effects however are nothing special –except for the both the monkeys’ and the speaker’s voices. Admittedly, this title doesn’t claim to take full advantage of the Gamecube’s capacities.

Although Sega has a history of making innovative games, this time their genius was to bring back forgotten concepts under the spotlight. Is it really new? No. Is it really good? Hell yeah!

In short, Super Monkey Ball is an excellent puzzle title and a dream party game at the same time. How ironic it is to see Sega steal Nintendo’s spotlight at the release of their so-called “ultimate” system. Haha.

But I still don’t know how the monkey got inside the ball!


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 06/12/02, Updated 02/02/03


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