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.
As you'd expect, courses do get trickier as the game progresses, and there are some real toughies in here. But even the best levels seem to be missing something - they just aren't fresh or cohesive enough. It feels as if they were slapped together from bits of old ideas according to a predetermined set of rules, rather than built from the ground up with care and imagination.
The courses are no more enjoyable to play through in co-op mode. Here one of you controls Aiai while the other player uses a remote like a light gun to zap obstacles. (Player 1 can use either the balance board or the remote, and in co-op mode the same obstacles appear regardless.) This experience is particularly boring for the shooter, who can only fire at what's on-screen, which is dependent on the direction Aiai is facing.
Since there are few obstacles Aiai can't navigate around, the shooter is largely redundant anyway. Sometimes there might be, say, a big boulder blocking the way, in which case the player controlling Aiai must wait until the other player has fired enough shots to make it disappear. If you think shooting inanimate objects sounds dull, try sitting there while watching someone else do it.
At least the mini-games are excellent hahaha of course not. Banana Blitz was criticised for featuring 50 mini-games which were almost all tedious, tricky to play, lacking in depth and not worth looking at twice. SEGA has seen fit to address this problem in Step & Roll by cutting the number of mini-games by more than half, and making the 21 which do feature tedious, tricky to play, lacking in depth and not worth looking at twice. To top it all off, almost a quarter of them (Fruit Basket, Jump Rope, Hurdle Race, Hovercraft Battle and Hovercraft Race) previously appeared in Banana Blitz.
The new additions range in quality from piss-poor to passable if you're extremely drunk. The controls in many of the mini-games simply don't work properly - it's impossible to consistently deflect projectiles in Ninja Stomp, for example, or control your Spinning Top Attack craft with any degree of accuracy.
There are a few rip-offs of games like Mario Kart and Pilotwings. They serve only to remind you how good those games were, and how rubbish this one is, and make you wonder why you're still playing it. There's also a 3D homage to Lunar Lander, which entirely misses the point of Lunar Lander by being 3D.
The few highlights include Monkey Luge, a WipEout-inspired effort where you use the remote to guide your monkey down a tunnel on a sledge, and make tasteless jokes about recent events in the news. It's turn-based, though, so you can't all play at once, and you can't select the number of rounds, so you have to go through the boring menus every time you want another go.
Sumo Smash sees two monkeys trying to knock each other off a podium by bashing each other with their bottoms. This is quite funny, once. Starlight Swing involves hanging from the moon attached to a rope, swinging around to collect twinkly stars. This is quite charming, featuring as it does swinging monkeys and twinkly stars and nice music, but it's not exactly Monkey Bowling. Which isn't included here, obviously.
So what are you left with? A single-player game which echoes former glories but fails to replicate them. A bundle of pointless, boring mini-games, some of which are barely playable. A new control system which not only makes the game harder to play, but has negatively affected the level design. Step & Roll is only worth a look for the hardcoriest of hardcore Super Monkey Ball fans. And only then if you're only interested in the single-player mode and don't mind playing with a remote.
Otherwise, forget it. The transition to a remote-based control system in Banana Blitz just about worked but this is a step and roll too far. The original Super Monkey Ball wasn't designed with a balance board in mind, any more than monkeys are meant to wear waistcoats, and the end result is just as odd and incongruous. It might well be time to stop grinding that organ.
4 / 10