Version tested: Wii
You can tell a videogame is good when you find yourself playing it in bed. Not on a handheld, but in your head. When you close your eyes at night and all you can see is falling blocks or twinkling jewels, you know you're on to a winner.
Super Monkey Ball: Step & Roll is not much good at all. It's barely playable, in some regards. In others it's moderately entertaining, but it never reaches the heights of the classic Monkey Balls - the ones which were all about precision control, fiendish level design and funky mini-games. So how come I see it in my head at night?
Because what I see isn't endless ramps and big bananas and sweeping blue skies. I see a nightmarish vision of Aiai, dancing. Instead of a t-shirt he sports a stained velvet waistcoat. His trademark quiff is trapped beneath a brocade pillbox hat. His fur is matted and patchy, his eyes glazed and soulless. And yet he keeps on dancing, while a giant blue hedgehog with a razor-sharp grip turns the handle on the organ.
This new instalment in the Super Monkey Ball series is the worst yet. Some achievement considering the previous Wii outing, Banana Blitz, was a bit 6/10. As explained in his review, Kristan found the remote worked well for controlling Aiai in the single-player game. But he was unimpressed by the introduction of a jump move and boss battles, and driven to the point of self-harm by mini-games.
So how does Step & Roll compare? Well, once again the single-player game sees you guiding a monkey in a ball around a series of increasingly difficult courses. There are bananas to collect along the way, and picking up 20 of these earns you an extra life. Fail to reach the goal before the time is up, or fall off the edge of the course, and you must start again from the beginning.
Once again the Wii remote works well. Angling it to tilt the gameworld feels natural and intuitive. This control system doesn't have quite the same degree of precision as those in the old Monkey Balls, but it's responsive and fun. The jump move introduced in Banana Blitz, which never felt quite right, has been taken out, along with the tedious old boss battles.
The good news, then, is that the remote-based control system has been maintained and refined for Step & Roll. The bad news is that SEGA has seen fit to introduce a second control system, one which has not only constrained the imaginations and creative scope of the level designers by forcing them to consider a new set of variables, but which is rubbish.
The logo on the front of the box says Step & Roll is "compatible with" the Wii balance board. It does not say "playable with"; this is because that statement would represent a violation of the Trade Descriptions Act. Yes, you can stand on your board and lean in different directions to make Aiai move around. But it's impossible to exact any degree of precision control - the tiniest shift sends him swerving around wildly, veering off course and often over the edge. Just trying to keep Aiai on the map is a frustrating struggle - never mind collecting every last banana, or even making it to the end of the course.
Perhaps I just don't have the grace and skill to play Super Monkey Ball with the balance board. Or perhaps even the designers themselves know what I'm talking about, as suggested by a statement in the manual: "Since it is easier to control with a Wii remote, the playfield contains extra obstacles to make it more challenging."
In practice, this means that when playing with the remote the courses feature more boulders, statues, barriers and so on. They disappear from the same courses when you're playing with the balance board, the designers having realised that it's enough of a challenge to make Aiai go in a straight bloody line.
The obvious solution is to forget the balance board and just play with the remote. But because levels have been designed with the board's limitations in mind, they're nowhere near as inventive, challenging or rewarding as the courses of old. Those tension headache-inducing tightrope sections have been replaced by wide, sweeping pathways, and there are barriers and grooves everywhere to keep you on track.