The Decline of Super Monkey Ball

November 25th, 2016

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“Because you’re asking ‘Why? Why are they in the balls?’ With this story, you’re going to find out why they’re in the balls.”

—Marty Caplan, Producer of Super Monkey Ball Adventure

Back in 2006 fans and critics universally panned Super Monkey Ball Adventure labelling the game as the first misfire in the series. Given quotes like the one above, it’s not hard to understand why. In hindsight, Super Monkey Ball Adventure‘s failure signalled the series’s decline over subsequent games. Yet for all its flaws, Adventure was a spin-off from the main series developed by an external studio trying their hand at a new concept. The game is far removed from the main line Monkey Ball games and their developers in Japan.

Rather I would argue that Super Monkey Ball‘s decline began from the second game in the series. Super Monkey Ball 2 added fast-moving objects, big drops, and mazes to the pool of precision-based challenges. Dr Bad Boon and songs about poo aside, the game’s new-fangled story mode defocused the gameplay through its do-what-you-want organisation of level challenges. Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, a greatest hits spin on the first two titles, only added to the bloat with 43 new levels—a middling compilation defined by expansive mazes, flat gimmicks, and few fresh ideas. Not helping matters the lack of the Gamecube’s octagonal grooves in the PS2 and Xbox analogue sticks diminished the series’s iconic precision input. Super Monkey Ball Adventure may have been the punching bag, but the series’s real decline started three years earlier.

Chaotic Approach to Levels

Super Monkey Ball Deluxe consists of two types of levels: tight navigational challenges which test the player’s ability to finely manoeuvre their monkey ball to the goal and ineffective gimmick levels which hinge on risk or chance. The latter group tend to feature the following elements:

Sporadic jumping challenges and fast-moving objects which can knock the player off stage with little notice. The combination of the default behind-the-monkey camera angle, slow camera tracking, and fast movement speed inhibit the game’s ability to frame the action when the player quickly turns, falls, or makes a sporadic action. Unfortunately, some levels are constructed so as to elicit such perilous manoeuvrs.

Mazes and dull switch puzzles. Given the default camera position, the player cannot easily see above walled areas. Thus without the information necessary to make informed decisions, most mazes boil down to guesswork. Some mazes spread themselves out for no apparent reason other than to force the player to move through a highly scaffolded environment.

Random stage conceptions (for example, a giant wall textured in the Monkey Ball website address or an insect walking along a cylinder) instead of challenges designed around the navigational nuances of the game system.

To substantiate my argument, I’ve compiled a list of the worst offending levels from Super Monkey Ball Deluxe. Most examples have a video link, so you can click through to see the level played out in full.

Levels with Fast-moving Objects

Levels with Bad Puzzles

Levels with Big Jumps and Falls

Levels with Poorly-implemented Gimmicks

In challenge mode the player cannot filter between the navigational challenges and ineffective gimmick levels, rather the two types are mixed in together. As a result, the effort you invest in manoeuvring through the obstacle courses can easily be undermined by the chance involved in many of the gimmicky stages. Furthermore, the luck involved in these levels also promotes a more reckless style of play which the player may transfer over to the dexterity-focused navigational challenges. These non-serious challenges can therefore have a potentially negative impact on player motivation and concentration.

Organisation of Level Challenges

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Super Monkey Ball 2‘s story mode defocuses the gameplay by giving the player too much control over their progression. For each world the player must complete ten out of a pool of twenty levels of varying difficulty. The selection screen includes difficulty rankings for each level and players can choose to complete whichever levels they like in whichever order they like. The player therefore has an unprecedented degree of freedom over the experience, being able to scale the difficulty as they see fit. The extra freedom sounds good on paper, but in reality the average player lacks the aptitude and strategies to successfully regulate their own learning.

Regardless of one’s experience with a particular series or genre, players simply don’t know what the next set of challenges will look like, let alone what conceptual understandings or skills they’ll need going forward. If I were to trust someone to teach me a game, I would probably trust the people who made the game over myself, the novice. And so it is that the freedom to play whichever level one wishes should actually read as “the freedom to drive the difficulty curve off a cliff”.

If there’s one consolation, the level select does allow players to skip past the problematic levels discussed above. So in the end I personally didn’t mind the extra leeway.

Camera Design

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Super Monkey Ball Deluxe‘s camera is perfectly functional for most stages, but can prove troublesome for particular types of challenges. The camera sits behind the monkey ball and doesn’t like to move from its default position. If the ball turns, the camera will maintain its original reference point. This behaviour keeps the camera work clean and non-intrusive. Once the player releases the stick, though, the camera will swivel around the monkey ball until it arrives back in its default position. The rotation begins at a reasonable pace and then slows to a crawl as it comes in for landing behind the monkey ball. The player therefore controls the camera through intentional releases of the analogue stick following a turn.

The camera—privileging the default position—will sometimes end its rotation before it arrives behind the monkey ball, leaving the player to contend with a slightly skewed perspective. I’m not exactly sure if this issue is related to the release, the turn, or something else—but it exists nonetheless. The speed and responsiveness of the camera’s tracking exert an “invisible” but powerful influence on Super Monkey Ball‘s gameplay.

The camera’s behaviour is crucial in 3D navigational games like Super Monkey as the camera establishes the nature of space. Super Monkey Ball employs a tracking camera (as opposed to say a series of specifically programmed cameras as in, say, Super Mario 3D Land), and so a significant element of play involves aligning the camera, monkey ball, and path ahead. By triangulating these elements, the player can simplify a game challenge.

The video above demonstrates what triangulation looks like in action. The player moves the monkey ball directly in front of the tightrope. They then attempt to cross the narrow bridge as the camera is arriving in behind the monkey ball. This is a brazen move. Although the monkey ball is dead ahead of the tightrope, the camera is skewed at an angle making the challenge harder to read cognitively. The camera then arrives and the player fails to recalibrate causing them to slip and fail the challenge. The player messes up the second go. But for the third attempt, they wait for the camera to move into alignment. Then all they need to do is push the analogue stick forward and keep a steady hand. As this example illustrates, the camera defines the nature of space and by extension the difficulty of the challenge.

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In levels where the player must turn 90 degrees or more, the camera becomes a source of great frustration. 90 degree turns require a significant realignment of the camera and the player often cannot afford to have the perspective off at an angle. As the topmost animated gif so neatly demonstrates, the player makes an input and then waits 5 seconds or more for the game to provide feedback—all the while the timer continues to count down overhead. If the camera then decides not to arrive directly behind the monkey ball, the player must re-attempt the turn (tilting away from and then towards the tightrope) as they wrestle the camera into place. Something as simple as lining up the camera can feel like you’re fighting your way out of a perpetual state of flux.

Additional Comments

[Originally written in 2014]

Additional Reading

Super Monkey Ball – Leading into a Banana Blitz

Super Monkey Ball – Leading into a Banana Blitz

December 26th, 2009

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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.

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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.

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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)