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Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Review: Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania (Nintendo Switch)

Review by Matt S.

When you have a moment spare, go and look at a picture of the Gamecube controller. Take a close look at the analogue sticks. Notice something? If your response was "the case around the stick has eight little ridges", then you're looking at the biggest problem that Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania faces. And, unfortunately, that tiny feature in the Gamecube controller makes all the difference.

Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania is a remake of the original two titles, as they were released on Gamecube. It's a loving remake, to be sure, and the developers have added a massive amount of stuff that makes this, in terms of raw content, the definitive Monkey Ball experience. There are all kinds of guest characters (from Sonic, to Yakuza's Kiryu, to... Hello Kitty), and there are all kinds of alternative ways to play. The option that challenges you to complete levels without picking up the bananas strewn around the level is a particularly compelling twist on the formula, given how desperately we've been trying to pick them up for 20 years now. There are also leaderboards, which reminds us all that it was Monkey Ball was always designed as an arcade experience. The fact you can play the bulk of this game without ever touching the story stuff, which has always a superflous waste of development resources, is a good thing indeed. In short, so much of Banana Mania is the Monkey Ball experience... at least, that's how it initially appears.

The first problem is that as comprehensive as the remake is, the hardware is simply not built for this experience. In handheld mode, the Switch's relatively small and sensitive analogue sticks make the precise movements of the ball - something that is absolutely essential for Monkey Ball - more trouble than it's worth. In fact, even heading forward in a properly straight line is difficult. With the Gamecube controller, you'd just push the stick into the neat nook forwards and it would basically lock that movement angle (or lack thereof) in place for you. With the Switch, however, the ball would always deviate from a straight line by a degree or two. It doesn't sound like much, but in a game in which success is often measured in virtual millimetres, that can make all the difference. The experience is marginally better with the Pro controller, as the control sticks are larger and somewhat easier to direct with precision, but it still lacks the eight-directional "lock-in" from that Gamecube controller that was so important to the playability of these original titles

SEGA does seem to have acknowledged this, and have made some changes to the way that the game plays to compensate. The problem is, this decision rips the entire heart and soul out of the thing. This is an arcade game, where there are no more lives. The original game, being the arcade experience that it was, could be cruel in the way it handed out those game overs. It also made collecting the bananas strewn around the level practically important too, since 100 bananas would mean another life, and another chance at the more difficult stages. This really worked to the game's favour for a couple of reasons: Firstly, if you got stuck in a level, you'd get the game over screen sooner rather than later, and as disappointing as game overs can be, they actually give you a much-needed breather, because, in needing to replay all the previous levels again to get back up to the point that you got stuck at, you were getting variety and honing your mastery of monkey and ball. I would often find that I would get a game over on Monkey Ball, only to cruise through the level I got stuck at on the first attempt during my next run.

Now that lives are unlimited, persistence will eventually get you through, but now being stuck on a level and having to replay it level dozens and dozens of times, back-to-back, can be infuriating in a way that doesn't reflect well on Monkey Ball. Secondly, some of the competitive spirit is gone from the multiplayer because of this decision. My friends and I used to love playing the higher difficulty courses to see who would get through the most levels before running out of lives. Banana Mania isn't tuned that way any longer. And, finally, bananas are so much less important here. You used to take real risks to try and get a big bunch of bananas, because it could be the difference between a bonus life and crashing out early. Now, however, there's a marginal points benefit, but unless you really care about your leaderboard position, it's a less tangible reason to take the risks for the harder bananas. In fact, many of the level elements in Monkey Ball on the Gamecube were specifically designed with the risk of lives lost set against the promise of better progress - risky jumps, short cuts, and even warp exits that allow you to jump forward a few levels in exchange for pulling off a particularly challenging stunt. All of that is gone, now. For the bananas the best strategy is to just grab the ones that are convenient along the way. For the shortcuts and warps, you may as well just keep taking the risk, since there's very little consequence to making a mistake.

The loss of the arcade lives system has gutted much of the value out of Monkey Ball, and really ruined the experience of those levels. Yes, I understand why the developers did that, since it does make it possible for everyone to finish what is a genuinely challenging game. I also understand that, in lacking the precision of the Gamecube controller, I would have been throwing my Switch across the room in frustration when I got Game Over-ed in the process of wrestling with the controls. However, removing lives from an arcade game is like taking the narrative out of a visual novel, and that doesn't leave you much of a game at the other end.

On the positive side, the minigames that have always been such a joy in Monkey Ball have returned. Unfortunately, there are often some odd quirks with them, too. I had a devil of a time figuring out when to time the "parachute open" in Monkey Jump, for example, and Monkey Jump was the default way to play Monkey Ball socially. Giving that a learning curve that is obnoxious to overcome is a good way to kill enthusiasm for what was meant to be pick-up-and-play fun. The rest of the minigames all follow suit. They're the Monkey Ball minigames I loved, don't get me wrong. It's just that they're... just slightly off.

Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania is the kind of tragedy that Shakespeare himself would have written about. There is so much energy and passion that has gone into the game, and it is massive. We're talking dozens upon dozens of hours worth of raw content in there. The presentation is gorgeous too, and for the first hour or so I was hit by the most wonderful rush of nostalgia, reliving levels that had been etched into muscle memory from so many hours of play, back on the Gamecube. But then the more difficult levels hit and the controller hardware just wasn't up to the task like the Gamecube controller was. That was one thing. Worse, though, was that SEGA took these wonderful arcade experiences and made them... not arcade games anymore. 

I'm all for retro compilations giving players the option of making games more accessible, so players can set their own experience. Rewind features in old arcade shooters and platformers are great. But imagine if a retro re-release of Castlevania (or whatever) made it impossible to fall down a gap or get killed by a boss by automatically rewinding the mistake. Now imagine they gave players no way of turning that off? To deny people an inherent, defining quality of a game in favour of something that fundamentally changes the experience, without completely redesigning the game so that the new experience makes sense... Nah, it hurts this to say because I love Monkey Ball, but this is all terribe decision-making by everyone involved.

Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

Review: Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania (Nintendo Switch)
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