In hindsight, we all should have known Sega was evil. The evidence? Well, everyone knows the direness of just about every Sonic game since Sonic 3 (But Sonic CD and Sonic R’s credibility amongst the sonic fans is debateable) and the fact that in 2001 (2002 for Brits like me) after jumping ship on the console front following the sosupergiganticthatthereissnotawordtodescribeit flop of the Dreamcast and siding with Nintendo, one of the first games we got wasn’t even a new (then anticipated) Sonic game.
When Nintendo launched its GameCube in Japan in 2001, it launched with 3 games. Luigi’s Mansion, Wave Race: Blue Storm and a bizarre quintessentially Japanese puzzle game called Super Monkey Ball. Luigi’s Mansion and Wave Race sold moderately well, whilst Super Monkey Ball didn’t sell as much, both in Japan and in most other territories, despite being the most critically acclaimed launch title, according to the Japanese reviews in UK publication NGC Magazine. Bizarrely, it gained a cult western fanbase in the way that Kirby did and later games like Katamari also gained. This has since warranted it several sequels, most of which have coincided with console launches and several ports. But what of the game that started it all? Should it be more than a cult classic, or should it drink some special Kool-Aid and disappear?
These are your playable characters, 95% of the time, you’ll send them to their death, so was a baby really a good choice???
Super Monkey Ball is split into 3 modes. Main Game, Party Game and Mini-Game, so let’s look at those one at a time, starting with the one most of you are going to play first, the main game. Just to clear this up early. There’s no plot. It’s just 4 monkeys decide they want bananas (and not just any, it has to be Dole, product placement at its best…or worst) and so travel through levels trapped in a big airtight ball to get them. In short, The Coen Brothers have nothing on Sega. The game is essentially a puzzle game in the vein of Marble Madness where you have to get your chosen Monkey to the goal in the time limit.
This is basically the plot in a screen shot, wheres GonGon? Who cares.
Obviously, we all know because we’ve all played games for more than 5 minutes that it’s not that simple. Throughout the levels are various traps. Rotating platforms, dips, holes in the ground, pinball bumpers, spikes, ridiculously thin platforms and other hazardous pitfalls that would make Dick Dastardly proud. Obviously, if you fall off, you lose a life. Which you will do a lot. Super Monkey Ball tacks on the most insane difficulty I’ve seen in a game since Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (Normal is impossible, your characters are crap and permanently underleveled and enemies are super strong, but that’s another story for another day) I played through Beginner and Advanced and managed to get through both fairly quickly, but stage 30 of Advanced and the subsequent expert mode were just…dear god. The worst thing about it isn’t dying every 4 seconds, it’s when you get game over, you can’t skip the replay, leaving you constantly watching how you failed and hearing your monkey scream and he falls thousands of miles towards his death. Another thing is that Super Monkey Ball is pitched that you’re moving the stage, not the character, but it never feels that way and often feels like you’re doing both, It does feel natural and kind of works though, which is fantastic until you start dying and you realise that you can’t blame it on anything else. You died because you screwed up. YOU SCREWED UP. YOU.
Yeah, so you’re pretty much fucked.
But it’s quite a fun single player mode and fiendishly addictive, I couldn’t count the hours I’d spent trying to get through Expert level 15, but the plus side is that because the game pretty much only uses the control stick, I can play it whilst drinking a cup of tea and subsequently spitting it out and cursing at the screen for dying so many times.
Another great thing about the main game is that they’ve got multiplayer options. You can get 4 people attempting to see who can beat the main game first, unfortunately it’s a player 1 does level, dies, player 2 does level and so on, which isn’t as fun as it could be. However, I think AV and Sega knew this and put in competition mode, which is a race to the finish and is blisteringly good fun and almost reaches Mario Kart style franticness.
On that subject, Super Monkey Balls’ main multiplayer modes are an utter delight, Monkey Race is a bit like Mario Kart with J-Pop style music (come on, it’s Sega) and less memorable power-ups. Actually, scratch that, I’d compare it more to F Zero X, it’s more speed based and the levels have similar types of tracks where falling off is harder to avoid. It’s also been well put together, you get the bonus options of Grand Prix, one course and Time Trial and it’s fiendishly difficult in true fashion to the single player. The downside is the levels are very generic and are just recycled backgrounds.
Don’t know why they never picked up Monkey Chess as a playable game…
Monkey Fight on the other hand…well…I had to play it about 3 times to make sure someone hadn’t spiked my drink. Basically, your monkeys get comedy boxing gloves and senselessly beat the crap out of each other, not dis-similar to an average night out in Sheffield. You get points for knocking the others out the arena and the one with the most points when time’s up wins. There’s also powerups, such as BIG, Loooooong and windmill (or something spinney) that actually makes me think the boxing gloves are phallic allegories and they’re just cockslapping each other, although someone’s probably written some disturbing furry slash fiction about that. Moving swiftly on, because I feel really dirty typing that.
I imagine Green COM think’s he’s the Brad Pitt of Monkey Fight Club.
Monkey Target is probably the most different of all the games. As the name suggests, you have to hit a target after flying through the air and it’s immensely satisfying and a lovely change of pace to the rest of the game. I think this might be my favourite, mostly because it is so different. There are also 3 unlockable games in the form of Bowling, Golf and Billiards, which are exactly as you expect. They’re fun on multiplayer, but unless you feel determined to bowl a perfect game, which is made nearly impossible due to the “bowl-o-meter” that determines which direction you’ll “throw” (more often than not, you’ll bowl straight off into the city below…it makes sense if you play it), you’ll tire of them quickly, it’s a shame they feel like an afterthought.
So that’s Super Monkey Ball, worth buying? Yes, it’s a challenging game, which loses it marks for just being Satan in video game form, but its fiendishly addictive and a lot of fun with some surprisingly good multiplayer modes. If you’ve been looking for a party game, you really could do a lot worse.