Straight up—its hard for a sequel, ANY sequel, to score as high or even higher than the original game it was spawned from. We here at hold ourselves to a higher standard than many, and "more of the same" (regardless of the quality of the original) isn't enough to justify a good score. In my view, once a game is released, the developers statement has been made. If there's nothing else to say then don't milk it, and don't even try to make me sit through the same thing again unless you've got something substantial to add. That said, its been a very interesting opportunity for myself as a critic to review both the original Super Monkey Ball and now, its sequel.

Much like the first game, Super Monkey Ball 2 is comprised of two different apes stuffed snugly in the same cage. The first half of the disc (referred to as the Main game) is a nefariously wicked 3D puzzler that stars cute-as-a-button simians placed inside of clear bubbles. The second half is a ferocious assortment of twelve multiplayer mini-games, but more on these later.

In the Main game, the point of play is to reach a goal by navigating abstract landscapes. Players are given the option between Story and Challenge modes, which both offer roughly 100 puzzles. The difference is that story mode is broken up by cutscenes that resemble nothing so much as a demented series of Power Ranger episodes. (In a good way.) Challenge skips the fruity tale of weirdness, and offers three difficulty levels: Beginner, Intermediate and Expert. Its also possible to compete with other players in this mode.

The interface for these modes is a snap since control schemes don't come any simpler. The only thing you'll use to roll over, under, and through the stages is the control stick. The feel is easy to grasp, and the physics are quite good. The downside to this minimalist setup is that there's no camera look-around function, and its desperately needed. I was more than a bit miffed to find that this was one area of the first game that did not improve.

Once you're comfy rolling the monkeys around, the new assortment of puzzles is very well done, although its questionable whether they're more challenging than the originals. The floors range from layouts as simple as smoothly curving tracks to creations as intricate as spinning, interlaced checkerboards and organic designs resembling rotating spinal columns. You'll have no problem finding ample stimulation for both brain and hands. These designs are also notable for their generous use of the third dimension. Using depth to gauge vertical overlays, drops, and the paths between areas is the key to advancing. Despite the flood of 3D games in recent years, techniques using all three dimensions equally (besides jumping platform-style) have largely been ignored.

However, despite my appreciation of the challenge presented, Super Monkey Ball 2's Main game is going to be phenomenally difficult for all but the most skilled players. It's partially due to the devious designs, but the camera has to take a large share of blame as well. In fact, I'd say that half of the games difficulty comes from not being able to see properly during high-finesse maneuvers. Whatever the reason, please make no mistake—the puzzle mode is hard. The estimated time for completion can range anywhere from as little as 5 hours to as long as "never," so take heed.

One other point I'd like to make about this mode (and its more of a gripe, really) relates to the games claim of "over 150 new levels". Its true enough, but there's a catch. In Story mode, you'll go through 100 floors and then its game over. When you go into Challenge mode, you'll have to do the same levels from Story mode AGAIN in a different order, and clear each of the three difficulty settings without continuing. Doing so unlocks the remaining 50 or so puzzles that you didn't see the first time. Some of those levels were sheer torture to complete just once, and the thought of going through them a second time left me completely cold. I would have preferred that the remaining areas be made available in a different way because I doubt many players are masochist enough to want to play through both.

Despite my seeming lack of enthusiasm, I did enjoy the puzzles greatly and clearing them gave me substantial satisfaction. However, since this was basically another helping of the first games goodies, the increase in score wasn't earned there. The real star of Super Monkey Ball 2 is the mini-game selection. By upgrading the multiplayer from a quickie diversion into something far meatier, the formula and balance of the game has been enhanced enough to bring home the big numbers. In fact, the twelve mini-games here are almost good enough to be a separate game all their own. Considering that I've already burned through half this review and there's still a dozen games left to discuss, I'll go over them in brief.

The new additions of Monkey Baseball and Monkey Soccer are both outstanding, and extremely fun. While going head to head on the diamond, the pitcher has the option to speed up, slow down or fully control the ball at any time, which makes for some very interesting and colorful expletives when striking someone out. The flow of the game has also been greatly modified to increase the simplicity of play. The footy was just as good, with everything being extremely streamlined and easy to jump into. I freely admit that I'm not a sports game fan at all, yet both of these modes had me instantly hooked.

Monkey Golf has replaced the first games putt-putt with "real" golf, and I'm quite glad to say that the club selection and power gauge systems have been completely revamped. Its a very satisfying and completely fixed set of links now, where as the first incarnation was nothing but frustration. Monkey Billiards is relatively unchanged except for a few new rule modes, but since it was one of the better minigames to begin with, Im glad they didn't fix something that wasnt broken.

Monkey Tennis suffers from brain-dead AI partners but still manages to be a solid, no-frills experience. Monkey Bowling is less satisfactory because it retains the extremely wonky metronome-type system of aiming from Super Monkey Ball. Call me crazy, but party-style mini-games should not be harder than the actual sport. Monkey Bowling wasn't fun before, and its not much better now.

The most violent offering, Monkey Shot, is a rail-based shooter similar to House Of The Dead except that it takes place in the air and underwater. It replaces the agents with monkeys in balls and there aren't any zombies… but you know what I mean. Anyway, while its quite simple and short, I found it to be strangely satisfying. There are a limited number of bullets and a gun recharge system in place after your clip runs dry, so its actually more strategic than it first appears. It also comes complete with three different stages including bosses. This was a surprise thumbs up.

Monkey Target returns for more calm, placid Pilotwings-style action. Its evil twin brother Monkey Dogfight follows the same basic formula but takes away the landings and adds armament. Target remains a winner, but Dogfight is a little lacking. It's not completely bad, but feels underdeveloped due to a nonexistent sense of speed and very little intensity. There's no bad hair metal either, which as anyone knows is a must for any true jetfighter game.

To wrap up the rest, Monkey Race, Boat and Fight are all miserable. The steering in Boat is horrible, and the kayak-style paddling leads to excessive wear on each of the GameCube pads shoulder buttons. Race lets you mindlessly roll around a track with some wacky weapons thrown in, and Fight pits up to four players in small arenas gunning for ring-outs ala Smash Bros. Melee. In my view, these three were the shallowest and least imaginative out of the overall dozen, and I'd be quite surprised if anyone came to these more than once for some Friday night fun. This trio of inanity is desperately in need of an overhaul similar to Monkey Golfs wondrous makeover.

As I said in the beginning of the review, its been a very interesting experience sitting down with Super Monkey Ball 2. It really is one of those rare games that surpasses the original to provide a substantially improved experience. There's more of what worked, almost everything that didn't is actually improved, and it feels as though the developers really put out forth honest effort rather than churning out a low-cost, low-imagination sequel. It may not be a revolutionary leap, but the overall quality and re-examination of the discs formula make it a true must-buy for every GameCube owner. Super Monkey ball 2 is currently the champ of accessible party-game fun, bar none.Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway
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