Review by Mariner

Reviewed: 12/07/03 | Updated: 02/15/04

And now for something completely different...

Do you have fond memories of Marble Madness? Well, I don't. The concept was cool enough, but trying to make a game like that with the limited resources of the 80s was just a bad idea. What that game needed was some advanced technology. So here it is, and Sega reinvented the classic with its sleeper hit Super Monkey Ball - same basic idea, just done correctly this time. Oh, it has its problems, of course. But this is still one of the most unique, refreshing, and pleasant games I've played in a long time.

The object of the game is nice and simple - roll a ball (with a super monkey inside it, obviously) into a goal. You do this by tipping the playing field and letting physics take its course. Death comes not from enemies, but from falling off the floor and into the abyss below. And that's all there is to it - just fiddle with the control stick to move your monkey from the starting spot to the goal. Obstacles range from slopes (forcing you to either go too fast or require a running start to climb up a hill), holes in the floor, thin catwalks, sharp turns, jumps, time limits, tiny platforms, moving platforms, and some truly vicious contraptions. Choose to take the 10 floor beginner course, the 30 floor advanced, or the mind boggling 50 floor expert. And you only get a whopping 3 lives to do this, although a number of continues (ranging from 5 to infinite, depending on what you've unlocked) will help you out.

Now, I'm going to focus on something seemingly irrelevant here (but absolutely vital to understanding the overall design), simply because it was the thing that struck me the most. When I was contemplating buying this game, the save feature, or lack thereof, turned me off initially. That's right, you have to make it all the way through one of those courses without stopping, and you start on floor 1 every single time you boot up the game. How ridiculous, I thought at first. But the truth is entirely opposite - the lack of saves absolutely makes the game. See, I was coming at this from the perspective that this would be a puzzle game, as many have claimed it to be. But it isn't; there's no thinking or strategy or problem solving to be found anywhere in here. Instead, it is a straight up action game. And although I hate the phrase and think it's overused and often used incorrectly, it's old school.

See, it's a very short game; a master could finish the expert mode in less than an hour. Thus, the longevity comes from the challenge, as there's no way you'll be making it that far your first or second time playing. You must practice almost every level, dying multiple times before you get it right. It requires a level of precision unneeded in modern games, and knowing just how far to press that analog stick is vital. Eventually, this will become natural to you, and you will glide past obstacles and narrow passageways with ease. But that comes through repetition, and hence we find the game lasts far more than an hour or two. Like all those short action games on the NES that we love, you must play over and over, day after day, to beat it. It must become automatic, it must become a reflex.

Which is why I love the fact that there's no save point. The game forces you to play through the game over and over, rather than just one level at a time. If you could save after every floor, the game would become uncohesive, merely a string of obstacles to be conquered once and only once. And if you were to play through with that in mind, it'd be a waste of time. You should embrace the repetition, allowing yourself to not only beat the floor, but master it. Playing through multiple times lets you see your progress, lets you realize just how much you've improved over the countless hours. Remember that floor you were stuck on for days? Imagine how good it will feel knowing that you can blow past it with ease now, winning not by the skin of your teeth like the first time but playing through like a pro. Because the levels are so short, replaying them even after they were conquered is never a chore, but merely a pleasant experience. The idea of forced replay is nonexistent these days, and seeing it again was an excellent change of pace.

Fortunately, it's not just the challenging setup that works well. Level designs are amazing, with plenty of unique and interesting challenges to deal with. On one floor, you must weave back and forth while carefully controlling your momentum, as both sides slope downward into the abyss. Or consider the ''slalom'' levels, where you are forced downhill in an uncontrolled frenzy while maneuvering around various obstacles. Other levels have giant pistons that can punch you into oblivion, or bumpers that throw you when hit. Some levels require slowing down for careful maneuvering around a marathon of obstacles, others entail you bursting forward at full speed. One of my favorites consists of a spiral moving ever closer to the goal (remember those old donation gizmos where you put a coin in and it spins round and round and faster and faster until the end? Yeah it's like that). You must take into account all those silly physics equations you ignored in school, making sure you stay at just the right speed and just the right angle. Or you can just skip it by falling off the track and angling toward the goal, bursting through on the way down! So many of the levels are memorable and will require you to approach them in an entirely new way and accomplish tasks you never thought possible. This type of game would be doomed with repetitive or unimaginative levels, but fortunately Sega gave us something to look forward to whenever we advance.

But still, 50 levels? Isn't that a bit much to expect someone to try to master, playing all the way through, without continuing? Honestly, I thought so at first, even after falling in love with this system. I thought my skills would never mature enough to make it past all those scary levels. But I didn't give the game enough credit, because I did do it. Perseverance is key, and making the task seem so daunting at first did not hinder me a bit. Fortunately, the game gives you the option of practicing any floor you want at any time, which removes a lot of the frustration that could have manifested itself in this game. And every time you play, you just think to yourself, ''one more level.'' Just get one level further than last time, and within no time you'll find yourself in the 30s or 40s, nearing the end. How many other games can claim such a thing?

Of course, the game is not without its problems. The camera, for instance, could use some work. It's not really that bad; in fact it attempts to always point in the best direction. However, it just slowly ambles its way to the correct point, occasionally making you wait precious seconds before you can accurately move again. It isn't a problem 99% of the time, but I have been annoyed occasionally. I also think a better progression of difficulty could have been in order. I find it odd when most of the challenge in the Advanced Course comes from one frustrating level, which is actually harder than many (if not most) of the Expert floors. It just seems jarring when one level suddenly appears that is so much harder (or easier) than the last few that preceded it. Just wait until you see Expert 7 - a bloody annoying floor placed right at the beginning of the course! It gets a bit annoying to be stuck awhile and then fast forward through the next few levels. Oh well, nobody's perfect.

Some people may also include the technical and aesthetic aspects as problems, but they really aren't. The game is certainly not a technical marvel, but it doesn't need to be. All that is important is that the game runs smoothly and that you can clearly see all the obstacles in front of you. And that works perfectly - you will never complain about a stuttering framerate or distracting visuals. Everything is subdued, with the background objects (ranging from trees to cafes to yellow submarines) never getting in the way. You won't be (and don't want to be) worrying about the background when you're trying to maneuver on a tiny catwalk. Likewise, music is subdued and unnoticeable, which is definitely a good thing. The only possible complaint is the sound effects, as the monkey's squealing while on the verge of tipping over can get rather annoying. But still, it's not that big of a deal.

Oh yes, there is also the multiplayer aspect, which so many people seem to think is the best part of the game. Well, personally, I don't care too much for it. Monkey race is nothing more than a poor man's Mario Kart, and golf and billiards are nothing more than average representations of their respective games. Bowling is actually pretty good, but certainly nothing to get excited over. There is a fair amount of depth to the Monkey Target game (a blatant Pilotwings ripoff), but it takes too much time and effort to really be a ''party game.'' Personally, that's not something I want to do when I'm with my friends. This leaves Monkey Fight, which is quite fun in a chaotic, frantic, bizarre sort of way. This makes it good for a while, but there's really not much more to it than that. Perhaps you might care more, but to me these were unnecessary extras that did not detract nor add to the game, and thus really aren't important at all.

What is important, though, is that this game is a massive breath of fresh air. Thanks to the lack of saving your progress, this is the most ''old-school'' action game out there. Not that there's anything wrong with the current style of gaming, but the different setup, different mindset, and different objectives makes this a refreshing experience. Sega should be commended for reviving the old Marble Madness idea, and doing such a wonderful job on it. We can forgive the lack of perfection or the pointless multiplayer options, for the idea is worthwhile in itself. You're not going to find another game like this anywhere else, so you owe it to yourself to look into it.

Final Score - 8.5

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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