It's been a long time since we've been able to play a new Monkey Ball game on console, and dipping into Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD at Gamescom has reminded me why I fell in love with the series during its GameCube heyday, when those first couple of brilliant games founded a franchise which became renowned for its tight courses, increasing difficulty and smattering of stone cold classic mini-games (Monkey Target, you absolute beauty).
But I also remember feeling this nostalgia when playing Banana Blitz the first time around, when it launched for Wii in 2006, and quickly coming to the conclusion then it simply was not as good. Banana Blitz added motion controls, which made a game series centred on pulling off precise monkey manoeuvres a bit of a mess, as well as a jump button and boss fights. And while the HD version lets you use a standard controller, those latter additions are still there.
Banana Blitz HD is a pretty faithful remaster, with its opening two worlds playing out near identically to the original. It looks nicer, sure, running at a smooth 1080p 60fps. But the real revelation here is the ripping out of motion controls on all platforms. Without them, there are glimpses of what made those original games great (although the GameCube controller's notches around the outside of the analogue stick will continue to be missed).
Without the motion controls, the jump button seems less of a leap into the unknown. It's easier to control a monkey in mid-leap when you're not flicking your Wii Remote in the air at the same time. Likewise, some of the levels' hazards, such as those asshole birds which try and blow you off the course, feel fairer to counter with a more solid grip on where you are headed. But then we get to the boss fights, an unwieldy addition which never felt necessary, and which even without motion controls still feel unwelcome.
Located elsewhere on Banana Blitz HD's redesigned menus are its mini-game collection, cut down from 50 to 10. Gone are many of the games reliant on motion controls, along with many which were outright stinkers. The 10 which remain are some of the best of the bunch, and there's a separate Decathlon mode where you play a sprinkling of each in succession. But these still pale in comparison to those original games - Monkey Target missing many of the features found in its earlier incarnations. (Weapons! Wind!) On the upside, Decathlon and the game's main mode now offer online leaderboards to show off your best times, which is a nice idea.
But it all begs the question: why did Sega chose Banana Blitz to get the HD treatment instead of one of the GameCube originals? Were they simply too old to rejig without too much work? Would the series' change in art style after those render them too difficult to up-res? Banana Blitz is a remaster rather than a full remake, which it's likely those games would have had to have been. But as it stands, this remaster still doesn't reflect the best of the banana-filled series, even if it has gotten a re-skin.