Super Monkey Ball was a debut title for the Nintendo GameCube in 2001. Originally debuted in Japan in 2000 as an arcade game with a banana-shaped joystick, the main game has you guiding a monkey in a translucent ball by tilting the entire world around you, much like a marble upon a tray. The objective is to reach the goal in a strict time limit, losing a life if you fall off the game world or run out of time.
Opportunities were abound to gain further lives by collecting bananas (in singles or bunches of 10, collecting up to 100 to gain a life). This feature proved particularly important during the evenly arranged Bonus Stages: Levels in which you collect as many bananas as possible from an abundant selection until time was up or you fell off the stage, incurring no penalty for doing so.
Thus, I wish to elucidate on how one of the most amazing games I ever played was a launch title for Nintendo’s least successful games console in which the controls for the main game consisted of the analogue stick and, well, that’s almost it.
(Pretty much) the controls for the main game in Super Monkey Ball
You could say that is somewhat going against the grain for what is considered amazing in video games. Where’s the compelling narrative? Where is the gripping, weaving plot with the architecture of a theme park rollercoaster? Where are the testing moral choices? Where is the vast, stark, foreboding world? Where is the jump button?
I guess these are quite fair questions, to which I have the following response; not all video games need more than the fundamentals to be amazing. Tetris was amazing, Super Mario Bros. was amazing and Street Fighter II was amazing. These games did what Super Monkey Ball did: They took very simple principles and made them incredibly difficult, yet fantastically rewarding, to master. So what was it specifically about these sphere-encased simians that had me engrossed?
Well, as with many of the finest video games, things start off deceptively simple: You are presented with a bordered level field and a goal but a few metres away. Things do not get too much more difficult in the Beginner stages, as you warm to the incredibly finely-tuned controls and the somewhat eccentric yet insightful manner in which the camera operates ever-so-slightly less sensitively than your monkey's movement, allowing you to control your ball and camera movement independently on one stick. It soon becomes a breeze to navigate the environment and you start bombing round like you think you own the joint. Then, things get a bit tougher...
Pictured: Things getting a bit tougher
The first instinct as to get angry. Really quite fed up indeed. Curse, scream, lob the controller at a passing loved one. Once the temper dies down, you begin to focus and improve. You get closer to beating that bloody course you always get stuck on just before the final one, and you keep trying. You have another go upon another go. Some of the courses begin to flow like poetry. You start to shortcut the easier courses, or take advantage of the more taxing green and red level goals that let you skip a course or two courses respectively. You become one with the monkey, in a Zen, non-bestiality kind of way.
The physics are delightfully responsive; the ball zips along the ground and flies through the air in an energetic yet practical fashion. The roll and pitch of the ball become yours to contend with and eventually exploit. It's difficult to proselytize on just how empowered you begin to feel when you become capable of manipulating your bizarre little ape/gumball hybrid with the grace and precision of a ballet dancer, but it is unequivocally joyous.
To complement the classic arcade gameplay with a postmodern twist, the entire atmosphere of the game follows the same thesis: The levels all have a clean, sharp, hyper-real shine of the type seen in LittleBigPlanet or Wii Sports Resort, with surreal accoutrements peppering the outside of the game area such as floating diners, bubbling yellow submarines and giant fairytale vines twisting skyward. The music is all bleepy, cheery saccharine synths that perfectly accompany the crazy, vibrant geometric other-worlds, all cheerfully themed to be overloaded with variety and color.
In a time of LA Noires, Heavy Rains and Battlefield 3s, pure gameplay, or games for the sake of gameplay alone, are increasingly dirty words. The champions of this doctrine, such as Super Meat Boy and 'Splosion Man, have mainly retreated to download only titles made by effervescently imaginative independent studios.
Retail games under the same banner are a more mixed breed. In the case of Super Mario Galaxy 2, the thesis is served while introducing genuinely exciting improvements and iterations to gameplay, where nothing feels tacked on or gimmicky because everything works just so.
Other franchises, sadly, veer into the territory of the game not sure what to do with itself after it has honed the basics many years previously. It is with regret to say that Super Monkey Ball, now an established franchise in Sega's pantheon, has followed the less fortunate route.
After the solid but less spectacular and more gimmicky Super Monkey Ball 2, Sega, in their hubris, couldn't help trying to force an adventure mode into their third Super Monkey Ball title. By concentrating on shoehorning in power-ups and a ridiculous story, they forgot all too late what made the original game so magical in the first place; the pixel-perfect controls and effortlessly masterful design. It was careless for Sega to do this with their most famous game series in their collection (something fast and blue springing to mind), but it was downright foolish to make the same mistake twice.
Successive iterations thankfully removed the adventure game element, but failed to capture the magic of the original by attempting to fit the controls to less precise devices; the DS touchscreen (Super Monkey Ball Touch & Roll), the Wii remote (Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz) and the Wii balance board (Super Monkey Ball Step & Roll). By attempting to do this, the gameplay has suffered as levels are made more simplistic to try to facilitate the wooly controls and the less patient audience.
It is a shame then, that I have to say that part of what made Super Monkey Ball amazing was that it started at the top. It has since spent its time rolling all the way back down.