When I first heard about Super Monkey Ball, I was looking forward to a couple of other high-profile GameCube titles, like Star Wars: Rogue Leader and Super Smash Bros. Melee. Super Monkey Ball had nearly slipped under my radar screen since the arcade game from which this game is ported never saw the light of day outside of Japan, and I knew very little about it. However, once the game came out here, Super Monkey Ball had garnered praise from more than a few GameCube owners. What was the big deal? Are monkeys cool enough to sell games all by themselves? Well, the monkeys are cool, I'll admit thatbut thats not what makes Super Monkey Ball so appealing. It is one of those games thats easy to learn, but mastering all that it has to offer is another story entirely.
Super Monkey Ball's objective sounds simple enough: Guide a simian-filled sphere from its starting point to the goal within the time allotted without falling off of the edge of the stage which, by the way, is thousands of feet above ground. The catch here is that players must manipulate the stage layout (via the analog stick) to make the monkey ball move in any direction and speed, a la Labyrinth, the classic board game. There are three levels of difficulty, and each has its own preset number of stages to clear. As players progress through each stage, bananas are collected for points. Besides earning points for each banana, players can earn an extra life if they collect 100 and believe me when I state that for some of the later stages, most players will need every extra life that they can get their hands on.
There are obstacles of all kinds that can stand between the monkey ball and the goal, and it seems obvious that Amusement Vision had fun with some of the stage designs. There are inclines that can affect your speed and send you rolling right off of the edge of a stage. Other times, there are bumpers through which players must skillfully navigate in order to avoid being bounced around like a pinball. Other stages have moving parts that will test any players timing. Still others include jumps and lifts. There are also parts of some stages featuring narrow pathways in which even the slightest margin of error can send the cute little monkey spiraling downwards to its untimely demise.
While Super Monkey Ball is far from taxing on the GameCube hardware, it sports some fairly eye-catching graphics. There are varying backgrounds including lush jungles, underwater stages, frozen worlds, and even areas in outer space. Since the monkey balls are transparent, you can see your monkey doing its thing on the inside to make the ball move. The game animates at a silky-smooth frame-rate with no slowdown at all. There are also some nice lighting effects and other fine additions to detail. This game may not sport as much eye candy as other GameCube releases, but the graphics really take a back seat to the fun gameplay.
Super Monkey Ball's sound fits right in with the overall look of the game, complete with bouncy tunes and an assortment of cute monkey sounds. There really isn't anything catchy about the games music, and some players may not care for it at all. I'm a little disappointed that the soundtrack isn't all that special, mainly because game music really adds to the overall experience for me, but its really an individual decision. I can almost guarantee that the monkey samples will quickly get on the nerves of some players, especially after hearing the monkey repeatedly scream all the way down to his death should you have repeated troubles on a particular stage. It's funny at first, but believe me, it's a sound you won't want to hear too much after a while.
The controls in Super Monkey Ball are simple and pleasingly responsive. It will take a few play sessions to really get used to the sensitivity of the analog stick, especially when negotiating narrow stretches or grades. Even a slight overreaction on a narrow surface is lethal. The games "Beginner Mode" really helps ease players into the more challenging areas, and Amusement Vision has implemented a very useful "Practice Mode" in which players can familiarize themselves with particularly taxing stages. There are more than several times during the more difficult levels where nearly perfect precision is needed with the analog stick, and many players may find themselves ready to lash out in frustration should they have neglected to practice. I thought that the difficulty curveespecially on the Expert level from about the third stage on was a bit too steep. Rather than a fairly smooth increase in difficulty, things just become too difficult, too fast. Make no mistake about iteven with spot-on controls, some of Super Monkey Ball's level designs are brutally challenging.
One of Super Monkey Balls biggest assets lies in its other options. Generally, when a game gets ported from the arcade to a console, additional modes are more of an afterthought; however, Super Monkey Ball breaks this stereotype. There are three "Party Games" in which one to four players can engage, including Monkey Fight, Monkey Race, and Monkey Target. Monkey Fight puts four players (any combination of humans and computer opponents) on one of three different stages, arming each monkey ball with a spring-loaded boxing glove that players use to punch each other and knock each other off of the stage. Monkey Race is a well-executed game similar Nintendo's classic Super Mario Kart, in which players race around a track while competing for power-ups. Monkey Target is a lot like hang gliding, where players control their monkeys speed, direction, and rate of descent, but with a big twistthe "Wheel of Danger" can complicate flight or landings with bombs, which can drop a players monkey into the bottom of the ocean.
Aside from the "Party Games", there are three "Mini-Games" that can be unlocked by accumulating play points. These play points are given after each single-player session of Super Monkey Ball's main game. These games are little gems unto themselves. Monkey Golf is an 18-hole, par three mini-golf course. Monkey Golf has some interesting (for lack of a better term) course layouts. When I played it, my first goal was to break par. That goal quickly faded to just trying to stay under 100. Let's just say that I didn't achieve either of those goals, but I had fun while not achieving them. Monkey Billiards plays a mean game of nine-ball, complete with kiss shots, combinations, and a computer opponent that can play as tough as you can handle. Lastly, Monkey Bowling is at least as fun as Namco's "Tekken Bowl" was in Tekken Tag Tournament for the PlayStation 2. Its not as in-depth as, say, Brunswick Circuit Pro Bowling, but its not supposed to be, either.
Super Monkey Ball will hook many gamers with just the main game, but there's a lot more than just navigating a ball through a maze here. There is a fair amount of strategy involved, along with the need for some sharp reflexes. The main game is certainly fun to play on its own, but there are seven other games that will undoubtedly vie for players attention. Aside from the relatively weak music and the near-brutal difficulty on many of the harder stages, Super Monkey Ball executes well and is simply fun to play on all counts. I hate to close with a cliché, but I must: Super Monkey Ball really is more fun than, well, a barrel of monkeys. I'm looking forward to seeing what else Amusement Vision will bring in months to come.