I enjoyed Super Monkey Ball back in 2001 when it was one of the early games released for the brand new Nintendo Gamecube. It had well designed stages and a set of minigames and party games that were very fun to play, though the later stages did get pretty difficult. Its 2002 sequel was much the same, and both games landed in the high 80s on Metacritic! I remember spending countless hours of my college years having a great time playing the minigames. Super Monkey Ball 2 was as much a part of the party rotation as Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Pokemon Puzzle League. So what happened with Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz on the Wii back in 2006? Why did it only earn a 74 average from 53 reviewers and completely go under my radar? And why was this the game Sega chose to rerelease on the Switch in 2019? Let’s find out.
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD is an HD remaster of the Wii game from 2006. The biggest difference from the original is that it no longer relies on motion controls. Instead, the classic control scheme is back, where you tilt the analog stick to tilt the entire level that the monkeys are rolling around on, and press a button to jump. It really is that simple; you can’t even independently control the camera! The right stick does nothing!
This represents both the core mechanic of the Super Monkey Ball series and perhaps its greatest weakness in 2019. While a bit gimmicky, tilting the entire stage was a fairly novel idea in 2001. But in 2019, most gamers have mastered controlling a camera in a 3D space using the right analog stick. Playing a game from a 3rd person perspective where the player cannot immediately control the camera without simultaneously moving the character is limiting and frustrating. This frustration multiples as the main game mode demands more and more precise control in the later levels.
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD is at its most fun in the early stages, where the tracks have fences preventing the monkey from falling out of bounds, but the difficulty ramps up quickly… perhaps too quickly. Each world is comprised of 10 stages, and the first world can easily be cleared in a few short minutes. The second world already introduces gaps in the fencing and moving platforms and by world three, safety nets are rare, and things start to really speed up. In less than 30 minutes of gameplay, all novice content can be easily cleared, and frankly, there isn’t enough of it.
This is a game that would definitely appeal to younger gamers and novices, and there simply isn’t enough content of a difficulty level appropriate for such a player. The entire game has 100 stages, and only the first 10 are described as Casual in Time Attack mode, in which you race to the top of the leaderboards. The next 40 levels are Standard and the last 50 are Expert. I feel like there should be 100 stages just for beginners, with perhaps 100 more for intermediate and expert players. It would make more sense if the easy stages outnumbered the tough ones, because a single difficult stage can take more time to clear than the first 30 stages combined, as so much of the experience is learning from failure and trying over and over again.
That was my experience as I started playing through stages beyond the 5th world. Room for error becomes miniscule, and stages become longer (or at least feel longer). Level design choices also start to become questionable at best, and flat out bad at worst. There are stages with relatively tight time limits and slow moving platforms that the player has to wait for. The lack of a controllable camera independent of player movement becomes more and more debilitating as the need for precision control increases, and the useless “view stage” screen where the camera locks on the middle of the stage, barely zooms at all, and can’t pan around, really doesn’t help at all. The platforms become more and more narrow. There are gaps and holes to fall through everywhere. And over and over again, high speed sections are followed up with blind jumps, or sudden banks that send the monkey flying out of bounds.
It was around this time I realized that any fun that I had been having in the early stages had evaporated and been replaced by sheer frustration and rage. I almost quit at the first stage of World 7, Volcanic Pools, in which the elements lined up so poorly that I couldn’t believe the game was even made by a team of professional developers. I thought of the amateurs making levels in Super Mario Maker 2, who obviously had better design sense! At the end of the stage there is a funnel element that you have to roll through, and at the end of a completely enclosed tube it spits you out into a blind jump that is supposed to lead directly to the goal ring, but it almost never lines up, and the monkey bounces off or totally misses and falls out of bounds. After running out of lives and continuing two or three times, I did eventually clear it, but I didn’t think, “Wow, that was fun.” I thought, “Thank goodness I never have to do that again.” And that was my exact thought for so many of the stages in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD. I certainly am not motivated to try these stages again in Time Attack mode, that’s for sure. That mode is for a different player than me.
The next stage of World 7 dealt with such insane levels of precision that I had no interest whatsoever in continuing further into the main game. I even tried setting the camera to its least sensitive setting, which helped a little, but not enough. I tried disregarding the narrow and precise turns, instead opting to bounce in a straight line and hope for the best. I actually did manage to bypass some of the precision turning in the stage by doing that, but was never able to make it to the goal without losing control and falling out of bounds.
That was as far as I got in the main game, and once again I wished that there had been ten times as many novice stages. The difficulty curve should be smooth instead of a series of spikes. And there are even fewer novice stages than it sounds, because in every world of 10 stages, one of them is a bonus stage, and another is a boss level.
The bonus stages are small arenas where you make yourself dizzy rolling around trying to collect all the bananas for extra lives, and the boss stages… well… they’re just awful. Literally some of the worst and most frustrating boss fights I’ve ever experienced in over 35 years of playing video games, and I can’t even imagine why the developers thought they were necessary in a game like Super Monkey Ball, which at its core, is a marble rolling game.
The boss fights usually involve waiting for the boss to expose and move its weak point within range of the monkey. The player has to dodge around in the meantime, but it’s very easy to get knocked out of bounds without even fathoming what happened or why. Another boss battle involved just trying to cross a stage to reach its weak point and hit it only once, but the obstacle course to get there was guarded by flying projectiles that might as well have been sniper rifles for their accuracy and ability to one-hit kill the poor, defenseless monkey. The rage was worse than in Dark Souls, I swear.
And speaking of players that enjoy ridiculously difficult games, I know there is a hardcore fan base for the Super Monkey Ball series. I’ve seen the speedruns of players taking advantage of brilliant shortcuts and zipping through the most precise levels in seconds. I acknowledge that I am, in fact, just bad. But in my just bad opinion, there isn’t much room for this kind of gameplay in 2019.
The camera at the very least needs to be modernized and I can’t help but to think of both camera modes from Rocket League: one, which locks onto the ball regardless of the position of the car the player is controlling, and the other which locks directly behind the car. The player gets to switch between these cameras at their contextual discretion, and such flexibility would lend itself well to Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD. I also wouldn’t mind an overhead camera, which would feel similar to real life marble rolling games, where you use knobs on the sides of the board to adjust how it tilts. But the bottom line for me is that the camera options in the game are inadequate for the types of challenges the player has to deal with.
Outside of the main mode, there is a collection of minigames to play. For some reason, this is one part of the HD remaster that is clearly a downgrade. While the original game had 50, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD only has 10 minigames, and the “new” decathlon mode is just a back to back playthrough of all 10 minigames. A friend of mine spent some time playing the 10 games with me, and there were a couple standouts.
Monkey Target is one of the classic minigames from the Gamecube era, and it’s still a lot of fun to hang-glide to a target, collecting bananas and bouncing off balloons along the way. Dangerous Route is another fun game, where players race to a goal at the end of a punishingly difficult course, with a timer ticking down that can be increased by picking up bananas. This game is played from an overhead perspective, changing things up drastically from the main game.
All of the minigames are quite different from the main game actually, even though you still control a monkey in a ball. Space Monkey Attack is a shoot ’em up, Hurdle Race and Hammer Throw are track and field events, Seesaw Ball involves dropping the monkey ball down a series of see-saws to a target at the end, and Whack-a-Mole is exactly what it sounds like.
The minigames also share a few things in common. Their controls are always simple, with most involving movement with the analog stick(s), and maybe some kind of function being placed on the A button. This simplicity makes it very easy to introduce the games to a new player, even a non-gamer. Unfortunately, the difficulty of these games cannot be overstated. They are hard, and brutally punishing to new players, which really does a lot to undo the positive experience created by the simple controls.
The only game with complicated controls is Hovercraft Race, which uses a Katamari Damacy style control scheme, where pushing both sticks forward or backwards creates momentum, and pushing them in opposite directions turns the craft left or right. This would be difficult enough to deal with on its own, but the stage the game is played on is the slipperiest ice level I’ve ever played in a video game! It takes extreme finesse to move the craft in the player’s intended direction and is ultimately more frustrating than fun as a result.
The frustration can be compounded by some occasional bad design. For example, in Monkey Snowboard there are giant snowmen that act as obstacles, and they make the spikes in Super Mario Maker 2 look friendly by comparison. You can be visibly clearing the snowman, but still crash right into its hitbox, and be paralyzed for about 5 seconds in a useless animation, only to be set back on course right in front of the snowman. It is less punishing to fly completely out of bounds, as it sets you back on track nearly instantly. It honestly ruins an otherwise fun minigame.
Still, there is fun to be had in the multiplayer of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD, as the difficulty of the minigames can narrow the skill gap between novice and skilled players. I was pleasantly surprised to lose a couple of times to a friend of mine, who isn’t much of a gamer. But it is also obvious that something is missing here. With only 20% of the minigames of the original release, I was able to play each game once with my friend in less than 25 minutes. For a remake that should have improved the game and been the most complete version of it that could exist, this is disappointing.
I hate to say it, but the Super Monkey Ball series didn’t need a remake of its weakest offering, it needed a reinvention; a brand new game with hundreds of stages, a modern camera and control scheme, a full suite of party games playable online, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Instead we got a remake that took away more than it added. Perhaps if this HD rerelease had been combined with Super Monkey Ball 1 & 2, and included all 50 minigames from the original Banana Blitz, this would be worth the asking price. But as it is, I can only assume Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD is destined for the bargain bin, right there next to the overripe bananas.
Ari played over 70% of the Main Mode stages and all of the Party Games before writing this review. He received a copy of the game for free from SEGA of America.
+Solid frame rate, sharp visuals
+Monkey Target is still a really fun Party Game
-Main Game is difficult to control precisely, with limited control and camera options
-Not enough easy stages and overly punishing difficult stages
-Collection of minigames was drastically reduced from the original
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (Steam)
Version Reviewed: Nintendo Switch