Super Monkey Ball Adventure PS2, Cube
Some things go together so well that you should never mess with the tried and tested formula. They just work. I’m thinking bacon sandwiches and brown sauce, chips with vinegar, Morecambe with Wise, Kylie with gold hot pants. Some things are so intrinsically matched that changing the formula even a little bit can alter the whole dynamic. Imagine Kylie with longer shorts or Eric Morecambe playing the straight man….doesn’t bear thinking about really does it?
In the past, monkeys and balls have been such a pair. Such a simplistic idea: take a monkey, put it in a ball and let it roll around beautifully, ingeniously designed levels. There’s nothing complicated about it, it simply works on every level. It’s challenging enough for seasoned gamers, yet accessible enough that your gran could pick it up and be having fun within 30 seconds.
So the decision by a new developer to this series, Traveller’s Tales (developer of the acclaimed Lego Star Wars), to take the game in a completely new direction is a brave one and one they hoped would pay off handsomely. Unfortunately for them, and us as gamers, it’s more a case of shaking ketchup on the bacon. Ostensibly it’s the same mechanic, but the genius is lost somewhere along the line.
More of the same
Graphically the game hasn’t changed a bit from the earlier titles in the series. It’s all very colourful and the characters are as cute as ever. In fact, if anything, it looks just a little less sharp than the older games, but not severely enough to affect the overall look. The game also controls almost identically to the previous incarnations, although again, you just don’t feel quite as much in control of the ball in tight situations. It’s hardly noticeable most of the time, but when you are trying to navigate your monkey across a platform only inches wide any slight control issues can lead to you, and your simian alter ego, plummeting to an early grave. The sound effects used in the game could also have been directly lifted, except for the additional voice samples used by the game world’s inhabitants. Unfortunately, these aren’t very good at all, and range from slightly irritating to extremely grating. There appears to be no option to turn these off either, meaning you either have them or you mute the whole game. That’s a shame, though, as the game music is very good, with extremely catchy tunes to accompany the different areas of the game. It will be your choice whether you have the whole sound package, terrible voices and all, or mute the whole experience. I’d side (just) with leaving the sound on.
Not the same at all
The biggest change in the game is that you are no longer aiming to complete level after level of challenges. Monkey Ball has now turned into a fully-fledged platform game. The story, for what it’s worth, is that the joy has disappeared from the monkey kingdom of Monearth. Your quest, should you choose to accept it, is to restore this joy to all of the individual areas of the land. You do this by talking to the monkey citizens of Monearth and completing tasks for them. This in turn raises the level of joy within the kingdom. There are several problems with this game mechanic. First and foremost, the quests you are given just aren’t very much fun. There’s no desire to see what jobs you will be given next, as they are quite repetitive in nature. Secondly, should you fail a task, there’s no automatic retry option. This may not sound like a biggie, but it can be if you fail just before the end of a task, then have to trek all the way back to the task-giver to ask for another go. It makes the whole experience feel overly clunky, and this isn’t helped by some appalling load times. I’m talking in excess of a minute in some cases, which completely destroys even the small sense of immersion you may feel in the game.
It’s not all bad news, as you can power up your monkey through the game with power ups from previous games, like the monkey boxing glove. The power ups are actually used in some inventive ways and, at these moments, the game approaches something like the enjoyment of its predecessors. Unfortunately, all too soon you are plunged back into unimaginative quests and back to feeling like it’s a chore rather than an enjoyable game experience. The main quest will take you upwards of 10 hours to complete, so no real complaints here about the length of the game, but the quality of the adventure won’t leave you desiring more.
Old school to the rescue
Where the game does claw back some respect is in the inclusion of 50 new, traditional Monkey Ball levels and the all-important mini-games. The new levels feel very much like the older games, and that’s a very good thing. It’s not quite as smooth as before, with the frame rate feeling a little jumpy, and the camera is often unhelpful, but it’s Monkey Ball as we know it. The levels are cleverly designed, and for this, congratulations must go to the developers. It may seem an easy thing to design new levels, but it’s a tricky business to hit the right mix of challenge and fun. They’ve nailed it on these 50 levels, and this is the most fun part of the game.
The mini-games also make a comeback, some old and some new. Again, though, they’ve been tweaked too much for my liking. Monkey Target remains the pick of the bunch, but why they had to change it as much as they did is a mystery. The take off ramp is now woefully short, giving no real sensation of speed, and the targets are now much less interesting and are easier to hit. This removes the level of challenge that Monkey Target has always had, and whereas before I would return to this one mini game enough to almost be a full game in itself, I didn’t experience that same level of addiction here. The mini games are also plagued with the excessive load times and when you must wait upwards of 30 seconds between games, much of the enjoyment is lost.
Overall, then, this game is a disappointment. It’s not disastrous by any means, but for fans of the series this will be a let down. For those new to the Monkey Ball games, there’s some enjoyment to be had here, and even for series veterans it’s worth a rental for the new levels you can try, but I’m afraid this is a risk that didn’t pay off. Should Traveller’s Tales retain development of this series, they would be wise to return to the simplistic genius that they did manage to achieve on the new levels. Another couple of hundred of those, and a fixed Monkey Target, and we might see Monkey Ball at it’s best again.
A misguided effort to take the series in a new direction, SMB loses much of its appeal along the way. There’s no way your gran would play this.