Of all the N-Gage launch titles, Super Monkey Ball was the first to find its way into my 'game deck' when it turned up last week. It's hardly surprising when you think about it - everyone loves Monkey Ball, a game which combined a Marble Madness-esque single-player game, where players are tasked with rolling a little monkey-in-a-ball around various mazes, avoiding obstacles and eventually busting through a finishing tape, with some addictive multiplayer 'mini-games' that even dragged non-gamers kicking, screaming and eventually laughing manically into the fray. And I certainly bloody love it.
On other platforms, Tomb Raider may be a modern classic, Tony Hawk may be an exhibitionist's proverbial wet dream and Puyo Pop may be evidence of a higher being, but after UK developer Realism proved that you didn't need oodles of polygons and an analogue control stick to do Sega's classic justice with Super Monkey Ball Jr. on the Game Boy Advance, the prospect of portable, polygon-packed simians back in the hands of Amusement Vision proved the most alluring of all the delights lurking in Nokia's gigantic jiffy bag this week.
Monkey in the system
Frustratingly then, it took just ten seconds of actual gameplay to shed its appeal. Having scrambled madly through the menus for the volume control to silence the wall-thumping antics of my elderly next-door neighbour (a common occurrence when I fire up N-Gage games, it seems), I immediately set out to trundle through the Beginner section of the single-player game. Familiar sights and sounds flooded the screen. All four characters were intact, albeit sprite-based this time in balls with rotating exteriors, yelping and chirping their lines as they rolled around sharply detailed chequered levels scooping up spinning polygon bananas, eventually breaking the tape between the finishing posts and having a disco ball spit confetti and fireworks all over their shiny plastic hamster-like enclosures. It looked great; very high-resolution for a handheld, with sharp lines, spinning bananas and even background detail.
But it all unfolded at between 15 and 30 frames per second, max. Amazingly, the game is actually choppier than SMB Jr. on the GBA, a game which was clearly stripped thoroughly of its graphical shine in order to keep up a respectable frame rate. N-Gage Monkey Ball, on the other hand, is shiny, sharp, highly detailed... and choppier than a tidal wave. When you consider the sort of precision control required to overcome some of the levels in Monkey Ball, and the way the camera has this aggravating knack of never quite showing you exactly what you need to see - preferring instead to follow the last D-pad direction you happened to prod - the lousy frame rate takes on an even greater significance. And it's there on any level complicated enough to present a challenge. It makes the controls feel sluggish (and all the controls are is the D-pad for heaven's sake!), and it means the developer has had to sacrifice some of the tougher levels for the sake of our sanity.
To make up for the increased difficulty in manoeuvring your monkeys around, Amusement Vision has made the single-player side of the game shockingly easy. Having finished Beginner mode's 10 levels in one go (which was hardly much of a triumph in previous games either, admittedly), I was alarmed to watch Advanced mode skate beneath my monkey like butter under a hot knife. Of the 15 levels in Advanced, few if any presented a challenge, and some of the latter ones could actually be completed just by holding forward on the D-pad and the '5' key, which has been set to increase the tilt of the board when you move. '7', meanwhile, is a minor tilt, although you won't have to call upon either key terribly often, because most levels are almost frightened of booting you out - on several occasions I managed to overhang nothingness far more than I was allowed in any previous Monkey Ball game and still haul myself back in time to stay in play.
Sadly, Expert mode's 20 levels don't pose much more of a challenge. Of the levels that did present a problem, the difficulty was usually in overcoming ludicrous camera angles. On one level, made up of platforms spinning round like the sails of a windmill, the camera would actually hide below the platforms, making it utterly impossible to see where to go next. Throw in (or throw out) lost frames and it became impossible to judge distances, angles or anything. Completing this one was as much down to blind luck as anything else.
In the end, the single-player "Normal" mode was rather depressing overall, like an old girlfriend who seems to have lost her motivation, sense of humour, good looks and charm in the space of a year, despite numerous visits to the cosmetic surgeon and some swanky new clothes. After a while, all my sweat and toil was geared towards just one thing: accumulating the 7,500 play points required to unlock all three of the N-Gage version's mini-games, something I did in the space of about two hours. Thanks to the camera and frame rate issues, I have no plans to go back to the other side of the game. And I still don't understand why such a choppy game needs show-off spinny bananas.
Fortunately though, N-Gage Monkey Ball's selection of mini-games is pretty good, with Monkey Race, Monkey Fight and Monkey Target making it in. However particularly disappointing here and the lowlight of the entire package - choppy main game included - has to be the total lack of multiplayer options. Now, given that the oft-lampooned TV adverts for N-Gage ("This is where I dropped the battery while changing the game") focus almost exclusively on its Bluetooth multiplayer capability, and given that just one other N-Gage launch title shipped without multiplayer functionality (the decidedly single-player Sonic N, also from Sega), you have to ask why this - arguably the game with the most potential to be a multiplayer success - has ended up with nothing, not even the facility to upload your high scores.
A Mini Adventure
Back to the mini-games though, and they do go a little way to rescuing the package. Monkey Target is perhaps the oddest conclusion - you'd hardly think the Pilotwings-like mini-game would suit the hardware, and you'd be right. There's no real vertical axis here, so you just have to kind of guess when best to open your ball and start fluttering around, paying a bit of attention to the wind speed and, if you turned it on, trying to get the best wind conditions or landing speed out of the roulette wheel at the start. You can tilt your monkey to speed up or slow down using the 7 key, but it's not much help. And it's certainly no fun.
In the end you just resort to trying to land as close to the near edge of a platform as possible and then waiting for the ball to stop rolling. To be honest, Monkey Target doesn't really work that well as a single-player game even on the GameCube, and the N-Gage's limited version is very disappointing. It was the first mini-game I chose to unlock, and also the first I abandoned, sick of the bizarre distances the monkeys roll once they land, and bored of trying to gage how high up in the seemingly one-dimensional sky I'd actually managed to get.
Monkey Fight and Monkey Race, meanwhile, are a slightly different story. Both are quite pacey, despite what I was expecting, but, like Target, both have only short term appeal thanks to the lack of multiplayer opposition. And neither was ever likely to prop N-Gage Monkey Ball up to a respectable height given the vast flaws elsewhere.
When I first came to think about it, it struck me as difficult to rate Super Monkey Ball, or any N-Gage game at the moment, because it's difficult to say whether they should be expected to sell the system, whether I should offer a simple £35 yes or no answer for N-Gage owners, and whether other versions of the games should be taken into consideration. Then I realised that none of the above really matters when a once good game simply isn't fun any more due to an overzealous developer setting the bar too high.
The N-Gage simply can't handle the game Amusement Vision has built, and it almost makes you wonder whether they had any idea how it would run on the final hardware when they signed off on it. As a single-player game it will probably offer a few hours of gameplay, but fun is relatively thin on the ground, and the absence of multiplayer and some of the other versions' better mini-games (Bowling, for example) merely serves to ram the point home. The fact that you can get a GBA SP and the infinitely superior Super Monkey Ball Jr. for less than half the price of an N-Gage and Monkey Ball just makes things worse. In fact, you can get a GameCube, a copy of Super Monkey Ball 2 and a small portable TV for what Nokia wants for their 'game deck'. A poor first taste of N-Gage gaming.