Super Monkey Ball Adventure
E3: On the ball. And the story. And the mini-games.
Had, a few months ago, we all enjoyed the benefit of foresight, time machines or some other manner of time-bending machinery (perhaps some sort of Casio wristwatch that can go underwater and form a handheld singularity), we might well have compared the news of Traveller's Tales handling Super Monkey Ball Adventure to the appointment of Steve McClaren as England manager: a solid choice, but hardly exciting. Lego Star Wars is their version of Middlesbrough's UEFA Cup quarter-final, really - you never expected it to be so exciting, but it didn't erase the memory of all the other dull things they'd been responsible for.
So, yearly football metaphor almost out of the way, Super Monkey Ball Adventure wants to be the second half of that Bucharest game the other week.
Imagine a regular 3d platform game, but using elements of Monkey Ball. In other words, a free-roaming environment that you roll around collecting bananas, while trying not to fall off things and accepting fetch-quests from various monkeys dotted around your island home, jumping off flower-petal bounce-pads and putting familiar abilities like the Monkey Fight boxing glove to use in a different context.
The SMBA Story Mode works that way, and knows not to simply recycle elements from other Monkey Balls too, since there's nothing sillier than a new version of an old game trotting out its familiars at intervals under a shower of undeserved confetti. There's the boxing glove, and there's the glider from Monkey Target, which you'll need to obtain in order to reach the game's second island, but there are also the not-so-enigmatically named sticky, bounce, speed, hover, wood, tether, scalar and invisible abilities, and each is activated by performing certain motions with the d-pad - a bit like the way you can apply Zelda: Wind Waker's tunes to puzzles. You gain them as you go.
The tasks you're given to complete in Story Mode vary, but during an hour with the game we've seen AiAi having to collect bees for someone's bee-hive by bouncing around flower-petals, and there are other things to figure out - like the way you earn bonuses for taking out top-hat-wearing monkeys before they can spot you - along with plenty of banana bunches to find in secluded or hard-to-reach areas.
The plot (well, there had to be one) concerns the plight of a pair of monkeys from rival kingdoms who fell in love and then, as far as I could make out, accidentally flew a plane into a mountain. Idiots. You're on a quest to find them, navigating the perils of the world and helping people out along the way. You've also got enemies to worry about; as well as the whole Romeo & Juliet motif (or so it was sold - they're hardly going to die in the end though, right?), there's the need to take out Naysayers - nasty sods who've robbed the monkeys of their joy. It's all very saccharine and suitably silly, although the Naysayers themselves have a nice effect of draining the colour from the screen as you approach them.
But, and this is where Traveller's Tales demonstrates plenty of sense, the Story Mode is just part of the offering. Woven into it at intervals are traditional Challenge mode levels - the little mazes and tricky-to-navigate platform sequences suspended in the air - and to open certain doorways, you're tasked with completing three of the four that stand in your way. Monkey Ball purists, then, can switch to doing what they're probably obsessed with - playing with the physics in a separate Challenge mode. Here you can play all the traditional-style levels in sequence, with a set number of lives to complete them in, high scores to strive for and so on. I didn't get terribly far during my test, but there were some tricky hops, jumps and areas where momentum had to be kept up with a bit of thought.
Graphically, Traveller's Tales has been given freedom to update things - adding the odd bit of foliage to puzzle levels, updating the textures (to, you know, include textures), and even renovating the old movement animations for each of the characters. AiAi runs properly now, his whole body moving, and looks like he's doing a crazy drunken dance when you wiggle on the spot; when he comes to a halt, he puts his foot out to slide to a stop.
Interestingly, the Story Mode also adds a free-roaming camera. "HERESY!" you might shout (followed by "You did this joke last week!") but in actual fact it's not really - the ability to move the camera independently of the ball with the right-stick is much-needed in the single-player game which, lest we forget, asks different things of you than the traditional speed, time and poise of the Challenge levels. Elsewhere in Story Mode, the camera dynamically shifts to an aerial third-person view where it's pertinent (for doing bounce-pad sequences, and so on). And, for the purists, all the Challenge levels use the traditional camera type, which, though some still complain about it, is arguably an integral part of the attraction and difficulty.
The mini-games also return in their own separate Party area, and some feature a twist. Now, we've been down the "twist" road before with Monkey Ball, and when Amusement Vision did it in SMB2 it was more of a twist of the scrotum than anything pleasurable. Fortunately, early signs are that SMBA's mini-games have done a better job.
For example, Monkey Target now benefits from more level furniture - trees and rocky arches to swoop through collecting things - with the same precipices to try and land on at the end. And the old techniques work - concentrate on managing your speed to a steady decline just above a stall and you can land on a sixpence. Or, in my case, the 1000-point area. Ha. You go together with the other players, as in SMB2, and on the whole it looked and felt good. Meanwhile, the other returnees are Monkey Fight (new levels, new power-ups) and Monkey Race, which is just as fast but a bit more intricate now with new power-ups and loopier tracks.
There are also three new mini-games - Cannon, Tag and Bounce - and, surprisingly, each is quite welcome. Cannon's a bit odd - you sit in the centre of a group of islands, each hosting a different-coloured tower of blocks with a flag on top, and the idea is to pelt the ones that aren't yours using a cannon. It works quite well - like turret Jenga - and in latter levels you can arrange defences around your island to prevent things hitting. Tag, meanwhile, is played on a large spherical world that scrolls around you - kind of like the moon levels in Ratchet & Clank 2 - and the idea is collect balloons that bounce around, while firing off power-ups and trying to avoid bombs that rob you of points.
Lastly there's Bounce, where you bounce across a noughts-and-crosses style arrangement of, er, smaller noughts-and-crosses style grids of tiles. As you bounce, you convert each tile you strike to your colour. By bouncing on each corner you can automatically annex the tiles in between, and the camera angle means there's a real knack to it. It's easy to grasp, straightforward to play and enjoyable.
Finally, although we didn't get to see it, we were also told about the PSP version - featuring game sharing that allows you to play with PS2 owners, as well as a PSP-exclusive card-training game that will reveal a few things about the Monkey Ball back-story - including - gasp - why they're in balls at all. Perhaps they're not and it's all a giant metaphor.
Speaking of giant (and indeed rubbish) metaphors, then, preview decorum requires me to revisit the tenuous introduction for a final remark. And it's this: Super Monkey Ball Adventure is trying to do something new while providing new Challenge levels and a mixture of old and new mini-games in a manner that, on first impression, appears to be bearing the right sort of fruit. Bananas.
Super Monkey Ball Adventure is due out on PS2, Cube and PSP at the end of June.