Within the first few minutes of the Super Monkey Ball: Step and Roll presentation at SEGA's latest press event, we learn three disappointing facts. Firstly, it turns out the subtitle on the press release is easily misread and you don't get to play as H, Claire, Lisa, Faye or the other one after all. Secondly, the game does not feature Bubbles as an unlockable character, despite the fact he must be free to make his own career choices now. Thirdly, SEGA isn't going to let us play Step and Roll today. Instead we'll be given a short demo by a man from the marketing department.
You can tell he's from the marketing department because when you say things like, "So this is a follow-up to Banana Blitz," he says things like: "It's not exactly a follow-up, it's more an evolution of where Banana Blitz was going." You could point out Banana Blitz was the first Super Monkey Ball game for the Wii, and Step and Roll is the second, and they are both about a monkey in a ball who is super, and these facts alone would suggest it is the very definition of a follow-up. But the marketing man is only doing his job, and you'd only sound like a tosser.
On with the demo, then. The big new twist with Super Monkey Ball: Step and Roll is that you can play it using the Wii balance board. As you'd expect, the board detects which direction you're leaning in and the ball on the screen moves around accordingly. Tilt forwards and the ball will speed up, lean backwards and it will slow down. There's a balance board symbol in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen with a pink dot indicating your centre of gravity, just like in Wii Fit.
"Once you're on the balance board and tilting using your whole body, it really gives a whole new sense of immersion," says the marketing man. "This experience is about putting you inside the ball itself. It really does feel like that." We'll have to take his word for it, because from where we're sitting it looks as if it feels like standing on a set of bathroom scales while doing some leaning.
Balance board aside, the single-player mode looks familiar. The visuals are as crisp and cheerful as ever, all blue skies and bright yellow bananas and monkeys cuter than a baby kissing a puppy. As in previous SMB games, your mission is to roll around chequered landscapes collecting bananas and trying not to fall off the edge. "As you progress through the levels they get considerably more difficult," says the marketing man, for the benefit of the lifestyle journalists in the audience.
So far, so Super Monkey Ball - so what's new? "The main essence of the game is very similar, but some of the features that weren't quite received well in the previous games have been removed," says Mr Marketing. Like what? "I can't really say too much, but I will say jumping has been removed. I know a lot of people didn't like that feature."
He's not wrong. Eurogamer's Kristan Reed described the addition of jumping in Banana Blitz as "questionable", and this probably contributed to him only giving the game 6/10. But it was the multiplayer mini-games which really grated - Kristan felt they were "a total waste of effort", throwing in words like "pointless", "overcomplicated" and "maddeningly unplayable" to boot. Boom.
Kristan probably won't be pleased to hear, then, that mini-games are back in Step and Roll. We're only being shown a couple of these today, and one of them featured in Banana Blitz - Monkey Racing. The marketing man is playing as AiAi, racing some other monkeys round an oval circuit for five laps. The track is littered with turbo pads and a wide variety of power-ups, which seems to keep the positions of the racers changing fluidly - always important in a karting-style game.
You can use the balance board to control your monkey while racing, just as you would use it for the single-player game. However, only one balance board can be synced up to the Wii at a time, so other players will need to use remotes. The control system appears to be the same as that in Banana Blitz - you tilt the remote to move your monkey. Nunchuks are also required for some mini-games, but not all.
Take Red Light, Green Light, for example. It's based on classic playground game What's the Time Mr Wolf? (For younger readers: in the olden days, before DS, we had to make our own fun. What's the Time Mr Wolf? was just one of many examples of how we failed at this.) A CPU monkey stands at the end of a playing field, facing a tree. The other players start out at the opposite end.
When the monkey's back is turned they creep across the field - either by waggling the Wii remote or jiggling their legs on the balance board. The moment the monkey turns round, they must keep still, and if he catches a player moving they're out. The winner is the first player to make it across the field, or otherwise the last one standing. It looks like there's potential for multiplayer hilarity here, and it's nice to see a Wii mini-game which doesn't just involve tilting the remote or shaking it as fast as you can.
As for the rest of the mini-games, we'll just have to wait and see. SEGA isn't showing us any more today, and the marketing man won't even tell us how many there will be in the finished product. It's difficult to tell whether Step and Roll is being designed with an emphasis on the single-player balance board experience, or with the party aspect of Wii gaming in mind. So which is it, Mr Marketing? "Both, really. I can't go into too much detail, but pretty much both." That's really no detail at all, but thanks anyway.
For the most part, Step and Roll looks pretty similar to previous Super Monkey Ball games. That's no real surprise though (did anyone really expect a radical overhaul? Ultra Orang Utan Shuttlecock, perhaps?) and it's not necessarily a bad thing. When SMB games work, as anyone who played the GameCube titles knows, they're fantastic fun. The previous Wii game might not have been up to scratch but SEGA's clearly taken the criticisms on board, if the removal of the jump mechanic is anything to go by.
The big question is whether being able to control your monkey with the balance board adds much to the experience. Without having had the chance to try this for ourselves it's impossible to say, but the idea certainly makes conceptually. If it's implemented well enough, Super Monkey Ball: Step and Roll could turn out to be a great follow-up to Banana Blitz. Or rather, a great evolution of where it was going, obviously.
Super Monkey Ball: Step and Roll is due out for Wii in early 2010.