Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz PS Vita Review

After the brilliance of Super Monkey Ball and its fantastic sequel, it seems Sega cannot hit the right note with the series any more, especially on the handheld, where the franchise has yet to supply a good enough game worthy of the Super Monkey Ball label. The last release, which was on the 3DS, was an extremely dumbed-down version, with challenging levels completely out of the equation because of the inclusion of safety barriers. The design seemed to be implemented this way to support gyro controls, stopping inexperienced players rolling off the side of the stages, but in fact, it broke the game’s challenging appeal. You know what? Let’s just forget about the 3DS title. It never happened, OK? Good. With Sega going back to the roots of the franchise for Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz, let’s see if this Vita title brings the series back on track.

Monkey Ball is the main single-player content. This is the standard Super Monkey Ball gameplay that has been in the series from the very beginning. The controls are incredibly simplistic, as it is just you, a control stick, and a monkey in a ball that needs your help to move to the finish line before the timer runs out, done by tilting the stage with the analogue stick to use gravity to roll the ball around. As you try to get to the finish area, you can pick up bananas on the way – collecting 30 during a session will give you an extra life. The levels start off easy, with beginner and normal not providing much of a challenge. Most people will find it no problem navigating the gaps, jumps, bumps, ramps and rolls to get to the end of normal mode. It is not until advanced mode that the challenging gameplay of Super Monkey Ball returns, and in doing so, manages to capture what made the original a joy to play, without resorting to gimmick gameplay mechanics, such as jumping – ugh, that brings back bad memories.

Level design is what makes or breaks this game series and Marvelous has calculated some very clever and tricky levels that will test even the experienced Super Monkey Ball fan. Each stage is set around one of five themes and can incorporate elements of the backgrounds into the stages. For example, one stage in advanced mode has pterodactyls that act as lifts for the monkey ball. The player must carefully balance as the pterodactyl rides upwards, causing the platform to wobble ever so slightly, disrupting the stability as the player tries to keep on the small area of the dinosaur’s wings. The game is full of moments like these, testing your nerve with the analogue stick, as you do your best to avoid tipping over the edge, while blasting down at high speeds on a half-pipe. In single-player, the franchise is ever so close to being back at its best in Banana Splitz. Sadly, not all the levels are here from the Japanese version – the pre-order exclusive that involved a sexy Japanese woman having stages based on her is not featured in this UK version. I guess it was to be expected when a monkey ball is rolling on top of a woman’s breasts.

Gyroscope controls are optional and do work rather well in the game’s first half. Problems arise when you hit the harder stages that require precise movement. Using the gyroscope to respond to a sharp corner after a fast rolling drop often ends up in an uncontrollable mess. For me, it meant my poor monkey getting tossed into the depths of the abyss. Gyroscope controls just cannot cope with the more challenging levels. There is a reason why the analogue stick is the preferred method in Banana Splitz and you will come to realise that when you experience the hardship that comes with trying to beat the game using motion controls. You do not understand how much praise I have for Sega for sticking with the original level designs and not modifying them with barriers to support gyro users.

It is established, then, that the single-player is great, and is the best you are going to find on a handheld at the moment, but Super Monkey Ball is not just about the puzzle stages, but also the party games. Banana Splitz features eight party games, including returning favourites Monkey Bowling and (you can guess…) Monkey Target, a mode where the monkey ball is launched off a ramp and the player must open the ball to allow it to glide to the bull eyes target placed in the sea. The closer you get to the centre, the more points you receive. Monkey Ball is still the best in this collection, even if it is not quite as good as the GameCube classic. On top of Monkey Target and Bowling, you also have a mixture of good and bad party games that use some of the Vita’s unique capabilities.

On the bad list, we have games like Monkey Rodeo, which requires players to tap the rear touch pad to bounce the monkey around the stage. The longer you hold it, the further the monkey jumps. This party game would have been better if you were pushing using the rear touch pad because tapping the back to jump for two minutes is a serious chore to do. I am not fond of Pixie Hunt either, a mode where you need to take pictures, using the Vita camera, of real-world colours that match the required colour on screen. The closer the picture matches the colour, the more orbs are released, which must then be linked together by sliding fingers on the screen. Pixie Hunt feels uninspiring and is nothing more than filler.

A good party game is Love Maze, a smart game mode that requires you to control two monkeys in balls (one on each stick) from a top-down viewpoint. Each monkey has its own route to navigate, but you must keep them close together as they are linked by a pink line that cannot be snapped. Just like the main game, these start simple but get bigger and crazier as you progress through each chapter.

Banana Splitz finally allows people to create their own levels. Actually, it’s not as good as it sounds, as there is a catch. What you have to do is take a picture of anything with the Vita camera, then shake the Vita, which will then randomly create a level for you. I am not sure what variables are used for the level to be created (maybe colour?), but you cannot change the outcome, so it’s down to luck if you get a good level or not. It would have been so much better if people could create their own stages, since you can download these random levels from people on your friends list.

For the first time in Super Monkey Ball history, gamers can now play the game over the Internet. Online is limited to party games, same as the one-system sharing feature, where players take turns in playing the mini-game and then pass it to the friend whose turn it is next. It never catches the hectic fun that came with the original titles on the GameCube, which was helped by four players sitting in front of a big screen, so you probably will not touch the party games after a few sessions.

Presentation is good, colourful and clear, and looks great on the Vita screen. Its graphic style is a bit on the plain side, but the sharp visuals and 60FPS gameplay make the sacrifice worthwhile. It is charming and cute to look at, what more do you need from a Super Monkey Ball game?

I am not a fan of the menu system, because all the menus are touch-based only. It can be fiddly on some of the smaller menus that require you to slide icons to pick. The saving system is a pain as well. Every time you finish playing it will ask you if you want to overwrite the existing save, and then you have to accept that. What happened to auto saving without the need of asking? I never found a point where I would pick no, because it’s not going to overwrite any scores if I do worse the next time round, so I find it a bit strange that it asks the user every time, which is super annoying on the short party games.

I can proudly say that this is the best Super Monkey Ball experience since the brilliant Super Monkey Ball 2 arrived on the GameCube. While the party games are a mixed bag and the level creator is a disappointment, the main single-player is great. Banana Splitz throws away all the needless extras that built up over the years, turning it once again into a skilful and challenging game that makes for a good time on the go or on the loo. Super Monkey Ball fans should check this Vita exclusive out, and with Sega selling the game at a reduced price of £14.99, gamers can enjoy playing Banana Splitz without needing to splash the cash.

7 out of 10