Super Monkey Ball – Leading into a Banana Blitz

December 26th, 2009

super-monkey-ball-banana-bl

Super Monkey Ball was the best Gamecube launch title nobody bought. Imperative to Monkey Ball‘s premise of rolling a caged primate through levels of mid-air platforms is player skill and coordination. Sega’s arcade port requires a steady thumb to beat and Nintendo’s latest home console of the time offered the perfect companion: A sturdy analog stick second to none. The software and hardware combination was a perfect match, the first fruit to fall from Sega’s shift into 3rd party development. Having originated from the arcades, Monkey Ball encapsulated all that was great about Sega’s arcade philosophy; a glorified skill tester of the truly excellent kind.

As the series slowly built a name for itself within the gaming community, Super Monkey Ball 2 effectively split the game into two schools of level design: the precision-demanding tightropes of the original and over-the-top gimmick levels that require more luck than actual skill. The latter seems to have been derived from the few, less serious levels of the original game that, while still very much skill-based, were akin to that of amusement park rides; twisty pathways, cylindric cones etc. With the sequel, the developers became a little too ambitious in this regard, incorporating too many gimmicks, in turn subverting the very foundation that the series was created on: precision, skill and tightly measured challenge.

super-monkey-ball-cast

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, the 3rd installment which incidentally released along with the Wii 3 years ago, is actually the first Monkey Ball game I’ve ever owned. The previous games were almost impossible to find on store shelves, so up to that point most of my experience with the series had been relegated to the good 4-5 times the original was rented and played to excess in the way it should be played: With good company and many a Gamecube pad.

With a good word put out prior to release by IGN, I was certain that Banana Blitz would be my first proper foray into the series (nevermind the fact that I’d basically completed the original game and thoroughly fleshed out all of the great multiplayer modes). That was the last time I ever trusted IGN. Not long after buying my Wii on release did I realise that Banana Blitz only continued on the sequel’s downward spiral into the depths of silliness, and then some. I recently returned to Banana Blitz to wipe it clear off my current playlist, here are some of my main criticisms with this iteration.

Orientation of Wii-mote

Contrary to common sense, Banana Blitz can only be played with the Wii-mote held vertically (pointing towards the screen). As such, the player rotates their arm to turn the level, putting a lot of strain on the wrist. Playing Banana Blitz is therefore a physically uncomfortable experience. The smart alternative to this would be to hold the remote horizontally as in Excitetruck and other racing titles, therefore relieving pressure from the wrists.

Skill-Gimmick Ratio

My brief overview of the franchise alludes to the fact that Banana Blitz features more gimmicks than it does skill-based gameplay, uhhh…yeah, that’s unfortunately the case. The majority of levels in Banana Blitz are actually pretty comical for the first few tries, until you quickly realise that failing due to downright chance isn’t very amusing at all. Most of the levels, even the partly sensible ones, incorporate some form of gimmickry or bad design which soon becomes the bane of the experience.

Take for example a level which consists of a tower with a rotating runway leading to the goal at the very top. The player must turn their wrist unnaturally back and forth to the left in order to fight the momentum of the spiraling treadmill. Twisting the remote in such a way causes the camera angle to curl around to your left, putting the platform’s guard rail out of the player’s view. Once the player reaches the top, the revolving staircase tapers off, unbeknown to the player who is busy grappling against the backwards-pushing momentum and awkward camera. As a result the player cannot anticipate that the staircase will fall from beneath them and can very easily roll over the end of the staircase, fall and bounce their way off stage instead of rolling onto the central platform. It’s a common occurrence throughout Banana Blitz; a small oversight which causes unnecessary difficulty and drags out the play time.

YouTube Preview Image

Another example of ill consideration of the player is the notorious octopus boss battle at the end of the 5th world (Super Monkey Ball 2 introduced boss battles, these also tend to deviate too). The battle takes place on a small circular platform surrounded by water. Land in the water, ie. ring out, and you lose. A giant octopus leaps from the water at frequent intervals, assuming about 75% of the platform. If the octopus or his tentacles land in your nearby vicinity then you have, roughly, a 60% chance of rebounding and landing in the water. Once he’s landed, sometimes even just touching him will also send you straight towards a ring out, so caution is a must. The way to defeat the octopus is to dong him on the back of the head. This can be achieved by keeping your distance and using the 25% of available space to move around his body. Alternatively you can snuggle up to the beast and clumsily jump over his tentacles to maneuver your way around. Either choice often results in an unintended ring out. After he’s taken 3 hits, he’ll crawl back into the ocean (highly problematic considering once you’ve hit him he drags you backwards into the water) and then send mini-octopus goons to make the confrontation even more bothersome. It was at this point in the game that my patience ran out, somehow on my return I managed to defeat the vile beast, but not after much struggle. Having struggled through this, I’m doubtful that Sega ever playtested this game as surely this mammoth spike in difficulty should have set off some alarms. To put it into perspective I completed the boss of the following world in about 15 seconds flat, easy.

Launching off huge ramps onto tiny islands (whereby the short, 2 second window just before the jump determines your success), zooming down a gated highway while trying to keep the sporadic bounces out of control and spinning around a giant cone make up the typical slew of gimmick designs, among others.

Jump Button and Bouncing

All of this could be forgiven as severe nitpicking if it wasn’t for the fact that Amusement Vision made additions and modifications to the core mechanics which indiscriminately favour luck over skill. The primary culprit here is the inclusion of a jump button. Jumping is an integral part of Banana Blitz‘s level design. However, maneuvering the 3D playing field with the Wii-mote and jumping is an inherently precision lacking task. It lack precisions as judging the distance of a jump by the tilt of the remote (and the backdrift from tilting the stage the opposing way whilst in mid-air) is a rather vague and tricky exercise. Particularly with the delay in the Wii-more’s reception.

Jumping also makes it considerably more possible for players to jump (or even bounce) their way past some of Banana Blitz‘s more challenging sections, circumventing the very point of the game. Ironically, in several of the levels such an approach is required to meet the goal. Sure, the original game had similar secrets, but they were just that; secrets. Banana Blitz makes the whole deal overt and teaches players early on to cut corners. Because the game set the precedence, the player follows suit, and I’d consider the type of play being supposed here as a bad practice to hand down to players.

Jumping, and the two examples highlighted in the earlier paragraphs, are compounded by the succeeding bounces follow a landing. The player doesn’t just jump and land safely, they bounce out of control for a few seconds. Judging the bounce is just as much of an issue as the jumping itself and only exacerbates the whole issue.

There’s simply a design clash between the chaotic jumping and bouncing and the narrow pathways and tight platforms of the earlier titles. In this regard, the levels have been adjusted to suit jumping, abandoning what was the essence of the series.

Slash in Difficulty and Content

It’s probably worth mentioning that Banana Blitz is significantly more easy than the previous games and features much less content. I tended not to notice this respective of the other bullet points.

50 Mini Games!!

Super Monkey Ball had only a handful of mini games which were all as refined as the core game itself. Each of them individually fantastic, even if Monkey Flight didn’t reveal itself as well as the others on first play. Banana Blitz has 50 predominately rubbish mini games. To be fair, some of these are okay, but on the other hand some of them fail to operate as games and the rest are largely unengaging. If you need to blame a game for crisis of bloated, poor quality mini-game compilations on the Wii, point your fingers here. The bloated number of mini-games is the truest indication of the series’ downward spiral.

Conclusion

I’m not really sure what Amusement Vision were hoping to achieve with Banana Blitz. If we use the new graphical style as a guide, one could assume that Sega were looking to create a more kid friendly game to boost sales and therefore sought to tone down the difficulty. Lowering the difficulty isn’t a ridiculous idea at all, considering the nail-biting difficulty the series is known for. Yet watering the experience down to a serving of ill-conceived gimmicks isn’t faithful to series roots nor does it serve the intended market. I only hope that Sega reassess the past few iterations of Monkey Ball and come to their senses.

Lastly, can anyone explain why Baby is wearing a space visor? Did Dr Bad Boon severally blind her at the end of Super Monkey Ball 2 or something?

Additional Readings

Game Critics Review of Banana Blitz (similar vein to my own)

Interview with Toshihiro Nagoshi on Banana Blitz (pre-release)