Super Monkey Ball - Review
Back in elementary school, I once bit into a piece of fried okra thinking it was a Tater Tot. What should have been a delicious, tiny hash brown actually tasted like green death, forever ruining okra for me.
Super Monkey Ball on Windows Phone is a lot like that. On the outside, it has all the makings of a quality game – cute characters, a fun premise, fairly good graphics, and catchy music. I was really looking forward to it before it came out. Beneath Super Monkey Ball’s tasty exterior, however, lies an unpleasant surprise: utterly abhorrent tilt controls.
The Super Monkey Ball series has made quite a name for itself since its debut in Japanese arcades and subsequent release as a GameCube launch title. Players guide one of four monkeys (each inside of a clear ball) across one or more floating platforms and through a goal, avoiding hazards and collecting bananas along the way. The only significant difference between the monkeys is the annoyingness of their voices – I found GonGon to be the most tolerable. Anyway, instead of directly controlling the monkey, you tilt the maze itself and try to steer the monkey where it needs to go. It’s a fun and unique concept.
Roll past the break for our full review.
Super Monkey Ball has three modes to play: Main Game, Instant Play, and Practice. The series is famous for its creative mini-games, but this version doesn’t have any.
- Main Game: The game is divided up into five worlds: Monkey Island, Smooth Sherbert, Detritus Desert, Volcanic Pools, and Space Case. Each world contains two sets of 10 levels, for a total of 100 total levels. Actually, clearing all 10 levels in a set while collecting every single banana and without dying unlocks a secret level for that set. So technically there are 110 levels. However, it’s extremely unlikely if not impossible to meet the conditions for getting to the secret levels in anything but the first world, so just about nobody will ever see most of the secret levels. They might as well not even exist.
- Instant Play: Throws the player into a random level with a random monkey. Completely pointless.
- Practice: Here any level you’ve reached can be replayed. It’s a decent way to learn how to navigate troublesome levels. I just wish succeeding in Practice actually counted toward progress in the main game and thus, Achievements.
Tilt to live… just kidding. You’re going to die.
The only control input players have in the Super Monkey Ball games is tilting the maze. There are no buttons or camera controls to worry about. Console versions, including the recent 3DS sequel, use an analog stick to control the tilt. The Windows Phone version relies exclusively on tilting the phone itself. In theory it should be a decent way to play the game, but it doesn’t work well in practice.
The first problem is the neutral position of the phone. To avoid making the ball roll, you have to hold the device at an odd angle that can’t be reconfigured. Thus when I started playing, the monkey often rolled forward and off the stage to its death. After a few minutes of playing, I usually became accustomed to the way the game wanted me to hold the phone, but it never became natural.
Super Monkey Ball’s tilt sensitivity is also troublesome. Sometimes moving the phone just a millimeter or two causes the monkey to accelerate uncontrollably. Once it gets going, there’s basically no stopping it, so death is almost assured. The absence of a sensitivity slider or alternate control options like a virtual analog stick is really unforgivable. Challenge should come from the levels themselves, not fighting awful controls.
100+ levels of hatred
Oh, but the levels will challenge players too. Despite Super Monkey Ball’s casual, inviting appearance, the stage design is super hardcore. Platforms seldom have safety barriers to keep the monkey from falling off the edge, so any little mistake guarantees death. Hazards like moving platforms, annoying rotating platforms, and super-annoying pinball bumpers create tons of tension without much fun.
Ramps are often angled, requiring a certain amount of momentum to scale. But once the monkey gets up there (assuming you even make it that far), you have to quickly adjust your momentum in order to avoid falling right off. Later levels often contain long, thin pathways that angle and fork frequently. Staying on the path and turning is stressful since it’s hard to accurately turn on a dime.
As if all that wasn’t enough, every level also has a time limit. They can get quite strict. You want to take things slowly and carefully to avoid falling off and dying, but that frequently leads to death from the timer. Basically, everything is meant to kill the player, who lacks the proper tools (good control) to do much about it. Super Monkey Ball’s stage design shows an incredible amount of animosity towards gamers.
Super Monkey Ball only has 8 Achievements (worth 25 points each) – pretty stingy considering Windows Phone games can have up to 20. Conquering each of the game’s five worlds is worth an Achievement. Practically nobody will see the one for beating Space World though; the final level of the final world is just about impossible due to some truly evil design. This is the first time I’ve had to review a game without beating it. Many gamers won’t be earning the Crowned Champion Achievement either. Its requirement – earning a Crown on every stage of a world (thus unlocking a secret level) is the opposite of easy. But in reality, you must earn a Crown on every level of every world, a Herculean task given the poor controls and stage design. At least it's somewhat attainable now, as the Achievement was originally glitched.
Playing through Super Monkey Ball was a traumatic experience when it should have been fun. Apparently the iPhone version’s controls were bad too and the sequel greatly improved on them. Sega should have done the smart thing and skipped straight to porting Super Monkey Ball 2 to Windows Phone, or at least fixed up this one’s controls into something less insidious. It’s no surprise that the game’s price dropped less than 6 weeks after release – who would buy this after playing the demo? Unless a patch ever comes along to address its issues (update: the glitched Achievement at leasf got sort of fixed), beware this version of Super Monkey Ball for any price.
Super Monkey Ball costs $2.99 and there is a free trial, thank goodness. Masochistic gamers can get it here on the Marketplace. Update: the game has dropped to 99 cents, making its drawbacks a bit more forgivable.