It’s remarkable how, with the simple addition of a furry animal or two, a potentially dry videogame can be transformed into one loaded with personality. Transforming a series of geometric shapes into sparrows and pigs did wonders for Angry Birds, while the addition of wide-eyed rodents had a similarly engaging effect on indie puzzler Gerbil Physics.
With Super Monkey Ball, which began life as an arcade machine way back in 2000, Sega took the premise of Atari’s 1984 coin-op, Marble Madness, and with the application of a monkey or two, created one of the most memorable platform games of the decade.
Like Marble Madness, the objective of Super Monkey Ball and its numerous sequels is to coax a sphere (this one containing a cartoon chimp) from one end of an assault course to the other, collecting bananas and reaching the exit before the time limit expires.
In Super Monkey Ball, gravity has always been the player’s most fierce opponent; the player has no direct control over the ball or the monkey within, and must shepherd them through each course by tilting the entire game map. It’s like a digital version of one of those handheld Tomy Pocketeer games where you have to guide a ball bearing into a hole.
Super Monkey Ball has appeared in various guises on numerous consoles over the past decade, most memorably on the GameCube, but its simple concept makes Monkey Ball absolutely perfect for handheld gaming, and it’s little surprise that the series has been a familiar sight on systems such as the Nokia N-Gage, iPhone and Nintendo DS.
Now making an appearance as one of the very first titles on the 3DS, Super Monkey Ball sounds, at least in theory, like another happy home for its tilt-and-roll gameplay, with the handheld’s stereoscopic display adding a valuable sense of depth.
In reality, however, the console’s 3D display doesn’t work especially well with the game’s gyroscope-driven gameplay – given that the 3DS’ screen has to be viewed dead-on to get the full stereoscopic effect, and that Super Monkey Ball requires the system to be tilted in all directions, the flickering display that results is often nausea-inducing.
The best course of action is to play the game with the circle pad (a far more accurate option in any case) or simply turn off the 3D function, which surely defeats the point. In fairness, the sense of depth the screen provides is quite convincing, though far less dramatic than the effect achieved by Pilotwings Resort.
The graphics, too, are extremely pretty, albeit in the simple, cartoon-like way we’ve always associated with the Monkey Ball series, with fresh, primary colours and cheerfully blocky stages.
The courses themselves, however, are a little disappointing in their simplicity. Compared to the insanely intricate assault courses the latter stages of, say, the GameCube version, the ones in this 3DS edition appear to have been deliberately toned down. It’s not entirely clear why this decision has been made, but those looking for a challenge equal or greater than earlier incarnations will be a little disappointed.
It’s as though developer Dimp were worried that players would find the 3DS’ controls too unreliable, so simplified the stages to suit – in reality, the system’s circle pad is so wonderfully accurate that using it to navigate your monkey through each level is a breeze.
Even when switching to the 3DS’ tile control system, the levels are only slightly trickier – coping with the flickering 3D display provides the greatest challenge in this instance.
In fairness, there are still plenty of stages to play through, with around 70 in total, divided over ten themed worlds, so it’ll still take a few hours to complete each one – particularly if you’re dedicated enough to want to collect every item on every stage.
There are two additional modes, too, which extend the life of the game, to a certain degree at least. The first, Monkey Race, is essentially a stripped-down Mario Kart, with power-ups you can use to knock your opponents out of contention, and lively courses full of chicanes and jumps.
Monkey Fight is the second mode, and plays uncannily like Super Smash Bros – it’s a 2D brawler, in which players batter one another to a pulp.
Both modes can be played against up to four other players via wireless link-up, but there’s little here to justify more than a few minutes’ play, with neither game measuring up to the titles from which they’ve freely borrowed their ideas.
The extra features are welcome enough, but I’d have happily exchanged them for a few more, better-designed stages in the main event. By world seven, Super Monkey Ball’s difficulty level has begun to hot up, only for the credits to start rolling just when things get interesting.
The inclusion of a versus mode is a welcome one, but the absence of any kind of online leaderboard is mystifying, and severely diminishes any desire to return to earlier levels to improve your score.
Like Pilotwings Resort, Super Monkey Ball 3D is another potentially superb launch title that, while entertaining enough in the short term, fails to offer enough long-term challenge to justify a full-price purchase.
Super Monkey Ball 3D is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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