Version tested: GameBoy Advance
It's always delightful to see modern games successfully converted to Nintendo's handheld format, punctuating the steady stream of forgettable 16-bit re-releases with the sort of programming that drives front room content. Although it's fair to say that most gamers can list Monkey Ball's influences off the tops of their heads, it remains one of the more exciting games to appear on GameCube, and we've been itching to try out UK-based developer Realism's "Junior" port ever since we found it tucked away on the Nintendo stand at E3 11 months ago.
What we have here is a surprisingly faithful and complete port of the original Monkey Ball, rehashing many of its levels and retaining some of its infamous party games. There are four difficulty levels (including an unlockable 'Master' option), which comprise a total of about 65 levels plus bonus stages - the latter group accessed by surpassing the summit of each without shedding a single continue. Of the party games, Monkey Fight, Bowling and Golf remain, with a Monkey Duel option for link-up. Sadly we couldn't test this last option in the absence of a second copy of the game, but we're assured it's a "multi-cart" feature, and the others are all up to their usual high standard.
As big Monkey Ball fans (and having recently polished off the Cube sequel), we've been tirelessly scouring the rest of the game with much vigour, and we hope Realism gets more projects like this, because if its brief was to emulate then it has done a sterling job. Everything is present and correct - chequered, polygonal landscapes; the individual monkeys and their respective animations; the rippling finish line tape; the aggravating pinball buffers; the floating, tilting and whirling platforms and even the jolly old soundtrack. On the party games front, each is as fully featured as its Cube predecessor, and in the case of Monkey Golf (the nine-hole 'crazy golf' variant, rather than the Links wannabe from Monkey Ball 2), it's almost more relaxing to play it this way. As for Monkey Fight, it's quite startling how true it is to its Cubey counterpart; it's fast, furious and all goes on at an impressive pace.
Of course there have been casualties of the downscaling process. For a start, we're no longer watching the game scroll past in glorious 60fps at high resolution. It varies depending on the stage, as tight and twisty levels with broadly distributed platforms do OK in most areas, but given the long, sprawling levels which rely on speed and a straight line, the framerate can slow to what feels like single figures. Then again, after about two or three hours it all feels surprisingly comfortable. It's irksome, perhaps, but hardly a major concern.
Indeed, major concerns are thin on the ground. It's all really rather good. The physics engine has suffered in places - it's true - but perhaps necessarily. As the pins in Monkey Bowling are now sprites and not polygons, you don't get those classic moments of adrenaline-fuelled joy, as the final straggler topples under the momentum of a rolling colleague to secure a vital strike, but on the other hand Realism has stuck buffers alongside the bowling lane to keep you on track. It may sound rather self-defeating to boost players' chances like this, but it's still a level playing field when you're swapping the GBA between friends on a bus, and ultimately it stops you hurling abuse at your console in public. Well, more abuse.
The only significant problem with Monkey Ball Junior, such that it is, stems from the original code - specifically Sega's obsession with a frustrating camera. We've always been torn between love and contempt for this camera. On the one hand, it's a barometer for Monkey skills, picking out those who can manage its quirks on the fly from those who can merely keep the stick pointed in the one direction for each task, but on the other it rarely faces in a useful direction and the rules it follows are a bit random. And if you hated it before, you'll hate it even more now, as the game has a propensity for agonising angles, and the GBA's directional pad is not built for absolute precision. Often controlling your monkey can be quite frustrating, even if like the framerate you gradually adapt to the differences after a few hours.
And you will continue to play it for many more after that. We'd say that Junior offers substantially more gameplay than many of its neighbours on the shelves of your local game shop. Even if you can conquer the beginner (10-stage) and advanced (20-stage) levels in an evening (as we did), there's still the brutal, 30-stage expert campaign and a master mode full of evil tricks and diabolically narrow ledges to traverse - and thousands of play points to keep on unlocking. With each session you pick up more and more, and the prizes vary from party games to begin with to extra continues (up to a maximum of 9 per session before you unlock infinite continues), the aforementioned master mode and extra courses for Monkey Golf. The reward structure will keep you coming back, as we've seen on the Cube twice now, by rewarding new approaches and better stage times, and throwing in better and better-designed and thoughtful levels like confetti. What's more, the requisite practise mode means you can keep trying to master those troublesome stages before attempting to complete them all in sequence.
Although some will find fault with it, on the whole we couldn't be more impressed with this port. It's got the looks, the sounds, the depth and the reward structure, not to mention oodles of gameplay and one of the most endearing multiplayer 'party' dynamics ever, which still works in a 'hot-seat' capacity on the GBA and particularly the go-anywhere SP.
And as we munch on our final banana of the evening, it's difficult to find some inspirational words, because all we want to do is rush off and play Junior some more. It's always great to have an excuse to play Monkey Ball, and it's a bloody mission not to push back the deadline in order to keep doing so - surely the sign of a great game, and this is one that every GBA owner devoid of motion sickness and availed of a pair of hands should own. We demand you buy it instantly.
9 / 10