Version tested: Wii
Just how did those monkeys get trapped inside those balls anyway? How do they eat/sleep/go to the toilet? Aren't they annoyed at their captors for holding them hostage for the past five years? How is it they've suddenly developed the ability to jump? Why do I get to review the duff Monkey Ball? Questions questions.
Banana Blitz - in many ways - neatly distils everything that's good and bad about the Nintendo Wii at the present time. It shoehorns an interesting tilt control system onto a game that, well, already had a perfect control system, and then throws 50 dreadful multiplayer mini-games at you - almost none of which provide a solid case that the experience is in any way improved by the use of the Wii remote.
When Super Monkey Ball first graced the GameCube five years ago, those mini-games were the perfect reward for chipping your way through all those fiendish stages where you rolled your Monkey with precision towards the goal. For many, multiplayer sessions on Monkey Bowling, Monkey Golf and the like were the best thing about it.
Party fears too
But now, you get all 50 multiplayer party games right from the beginning - some playable in split-screen, others set on one screen - and the order in which you play through them is left entirely up to you. While this sounds like a good idea for those of us that only held onto our copies of SMB for the party games, the process of wading through the vast number included here feels suspiciously like hard work for the most part.
In terms of the 'good' ones we came across, there were precious few that we felt compelled to play repeatedly (and when we say 'good', we generally mean 'the ones we could control'). The most playable games seemed to be the ones that didn't overcomplicate matters with bizarre, counter-intuitive control schemes, but then also suffered from their total lack of depth.
For example, the games where you simply had to aim at the screen and react quickest, like Bug Balance, Keepy Up, Number Ball and the 3D Space Invader clone Space Monkey Attack were all immediately playable, but about as interesting as a throwaway Flash game. Pointing and selecting the pool ball numbers in order in Number Ball feels simple and intuitive enough, but did it warrant inclusion? Similarly, Bug Balance's pile-the-ladybirds-on-the-stick premise sets the tone for a lot of the throwaway crap you have to plough through.
Mostly, the games included are just concept efforts that demonstrate tiny elements of what you can do with the Wii remote - such as Fruit Basket (deflect the fruit into the right basket by tilting forward, left or right), Jump Rope (move the remote up as the skipping rope swings around), and Whack-A-Mole (errr, whack moles by pointing the twitchy cursor at the right hole and strike). Individually not terrifyingly awful, but collectively it's mystifying why SEGA felt the need to throw so many undercooked games into the pot.
Sooner or later you hope for better things, but it's a long wait. The promise of Wii versions of Monkey Bowling, Target and Golf seemed destined to be great, but within seconds you'll just want to go back to playing the originals. Bowling, for example, has none of the finesse or fluid interpretation of your movements like Wii Sports, while Golf and Target instantly rile with their inexplicably terrible control systems that make simple actions complex and unwieldy. You'll repeatedly refer back to the 'how to play' instructions, and still be utterly rubbish at them. So you move on in the hope of better things.
Newcomers like Monkey Darts sound fantastic, but sadly confirm the suspicions at E3 that the execution is so far away from being playable that, frankly, you'd be better off trying something that doesn't make you feel like you're mentally impaired. Monkey Boxer, again, isn't even in the same league as Wii Sports, while Monkey Fencing just has you prodding haplessly at your opponent in the vague hope of being first to parry. Monkey Squash isn't too bad; it's controllable enough and easy to pick up but there's no real speed or feeling of connection with the ball. Likewise, Monkey Race's sideways control system makes it easy to take corners with precision, but the tracks are just too simple to be interesting. Home Run Derby is just a simple timing exercise and requires little actual motion sensing skill. It's all a bit depressing, really.
Some though are just irredeemably awful thanks to control systems so far away from being usable that you'll want to stab yourself in the eye with the Wii remote after a couple of goes. It's hard to know even where to start. Trombone seems simple in that it requires you to move over the colour-coordinated note as it appears, but doing so is hilariously hit and miss, Scoop the Goldfish ought to be easy enough but actually breaks your net the second you plunge your net into the water and is just plain fiddly and annoying, while the simple target games like Free Throw, Sling Shot and Ring Toss never seem calibrated to measure the force of your throw like the Wii Play or Wii Sports games do.
Some of the games here even require you to rotate by pulling the nunchuk back while pushing the remote forward (and vice-versa to rotate the opposite way), but it feels like the most unnatural thing in the world to have to do. Games such as Alien Attack, Hovercraft Battle and Hovercraft Race are instantly rendered unplayable as a result, or even with some dogged persistence not-as-playable-as-with-a-joypad. And I haven't even mentioned some of my least favourites yet, like Rock-Paper-Scissors Attack, Racing Birds, Yacht Sailing, or the entirely pointless and fiddly Jigsaw Puzzle.
There are less offensive party games to be found - like Dangerous Routes or Banana Thief - that neither inspire annoyance or pleasure, but the net result is you won't particularly want to play any of them more than a couple of times. The general quality of party games came as a major shock to a long-term Monkey Ball fan such as myself, and also as someone who has been hugely entertained by Wii Sports. Even next to the lightweight Wii Play, the party games on this collection rate very poorly indeed.
It's truly remarkable that anyone thought these games would be a fun way to show off the Wii remote, as at least half the party games on this collection would baffle hardcore gamers into submission, never mind casual gamers looking for some pick up and play fun. In multiplayer, any issues you may have with the controls extend to having to deal with exasperated friends as they too have to try and suss out the new and interesting ways they are being punished. If anything, it makes you long for the simple pleasures of a joypad, and will add weight to the argument that we're very much in novelty territory with the early Wii games - and dangerous territory at that if these are people's first impressions of what the Wii's about.
Given the genuinely appalling state of the party games, it's just as well that the single-player mode holds up as well as expected. Structured over eight worlds of six levels each (plus a bonus level after the fourth stage and a boss fight at the end), you get the usual devious array of twisty ramps and ledges to negotiate within a time limit, with the option of picking up bananas along the way - no change there, then.
The ability to control the tilt of the landscape with the Wii remote is perhaps the most fundamental alteration to the gameplay, and one that is - at least in theory - something of a perfect fit for a game that relies solely on subtle, ultra responsive movements. Adapted exactly as you'd expect, every slight movement applied to the Wii remote causes the landscape to respond accordingly. So, it goes without saying that small downward motion with the remote causes the world to tilt with precision in that direction, making the gameplay feel enormously intuitive and satisfying. No longer are you restricted by the limitations and variations in control pads - only the steadiness of your own hand.
For the high jump
But rather than just design a SMB game around that solid principle, the ability to jump has also been added (either by simply pressing A or swinging the remote up at the same time as pressing B), which has a fairly dramatic impact on the level design. With more obvious static and moving obstacles to hurdle and ramps to get the required speed up on, the game's now as much about timing your jumps as it is about charting a precise path to the goal. The levels now appear to be a little longer than in previous games, and while this makes it a wee bit more challenging in itself, the early worlds are nowhere near as demanding as previous SMBs. If you settle into the control system early on, you can expect to clear most of the early portion of the game in your first or second attempt.
Bonus levels work exactly as they did in the past, while the new boss encounters require studious use of the jump mechanic to target their weak spots with precision. It's all fairly standard stuff, with a health bar to whittle down and predictable attack patterns not making it too tough to figure out. As much as boss encounters aren't really required in a game like this, we didn't mind their presence.
What does feel a bit of an oversight, though, is the inability to wrestle camera control back from the game at crucial times. As with all SMB games, Banana Blitz makes odd camera shifts at the most inappropriate times, such as when you've been forced to hastily backtrack to avoid spilling into the abyss. With the viewpoint often looking entirely the opposite way that you need it to, you have to make tiny tweaks to your movement to encourage it to rotate around the right way again - something that could have so easily been assigned to the nunchuk's analog stick. While we realise that at least some of the purpose of the automatic camera is to convey the tilting of the level, it would benefit the playability like most third person games.
Last gen first gen
Technically speaking, Banana Blitz could easily pass as a standard GameCube title. That's not to say it's by any means a bad looking game but the simple level designs and cutesy graphics have never been the most system intensive in any case, and so it's hardly a shock to come away from this with the same feeling as five years ago. Even so, it's a style that we've long held dear to our hearts, and as a result it looks great, with character bursting out of every screen. The silly noises, dumb little ditties and the arrival of two new characters (Doctor and Yan Yan) only makes it more appealing in that respect.
Overall, though, the use of the Wii remote feels like a logical and well-implemented decision that gives the single-player portion of Super Monkey Ball the degree of novelty it badly needed at this stage. Adding jumping and boss monsters, though, is questionable, and it's arguable that Sega should have included the old 'classic' levels in there to appease the old school fans who might fancy seeing how they fared with the new control system. The multiplayer party games, though, are a total waste of effort, and justify the docking of at least two points off the final score. With only a couple of exceptions, the games either under-utilise the Wii remote and feel pointless, or overcomplicate inherently simple actions to the point of being maddeningly unplayable. As much as novelty value can be a good thing during the launch of a new console, the unavoidable conclusion is that Super Monkey Ball is more fun on a joypad on the GameCube than in this flawed experiment. If you're a die-hard single-player fan, by all means give it a try, but for the party game fan, avoid this at all costs.
6 / 10