Before I begin, an apology is in order.
Iím aware that, over the years, your kind has had it rough. In any given moment of rage, youíve been punted, thrown around like an unopened coconut, tossed into oncoming traffic, and in some rare cases, dissembled and fed to canaries. But Iíve never treated you this way-- we form a symbiotic relationship, you and I. You give me hours upon hours of gaming entertainment, and I treat you as a deity; a god. As a gaming controller, I give you only respect, and would never dream of harming your smooth, plastic shell.
Until now. Damn Sega, and their monkeys... simply monkeys, rolling around, gleefully, inside a little, transparent ball. Thatís all they do-- thereís no sword fighting, undercover espionage, or turn-based battles. Just rolling. And more rolling. Off cliffs. Why must that happen, so near the goal? Iím sorry, my beloved, purple controller, for spiking you into the hardwood floor. It was bound to happen. Someone had to pay.
Oh sure, it looks innocent enough-- to the untrained eye, Super Monkey Ball is merely a quirky, brightly-colored, family-friendly launch title for the Nintendo Gamecube. On the back of the box, it claims to be a "party" game-- but honestly, the only parties Iíve ever seen that are this stress-inducing are political.
Not that Iím complaining. If Sega set out to construct a unique, general audience, old-school styled experience with lovably frustrating gameplay, then theyíve succeeded on all fronts. And for this, I am happy. Really, really happy.
True, the models are rather simple; Monkey Ball doesnít make any advances in the field of character design. But simple monkeys are not necessarily ugly monkeys-- all four of them are very crisp, clean, and colorful, with cutesy animations and facial expressions. Your girlfriend, and the more secure males among us, will say tilt their heads sideways and say, "Awww."
The monkeys are enclosed within the clear confines of a plastic ball-- donít worry, they donít seem to mind all that much. While it would be pretty hard to mess up the design of a simple ball, one can rest easy in knowing that Sega didnít accidentally make it shaped like a baked potato, or something equally disturbing. Whilst the ball rolls, the little monkey feet pitter and patter back and forth, faster and faster, desperately trying to keep balance, until they inevitably lose control and begin spinning chaotically, helpless to resist, as the ball hurdles onward, usually towards their doom. Sparks fly everywhere. Words cannot express the perverse amusement gained from witnessing such event.
Many of the levels, especially the more difficult ones, are breathtaking-- not for their graphical prowess (as with the character models, the actual graphics are very simple), but for their creative structure. Iíll delve into this more when discussing gameplay, but I guarantee a few gasps and dumbfounded guffaws will be heard upon viewing the later levels.
The background scenery, however, is actually very pretty. Thereís admittedly only a few environments, but the ones here are more than adequate. Be it a pink sky with stony pillars, or a nighttime environment centered around buildings resembling a 50ís diner, one is often tempted to gaze lifelessly into the great beyond. Try to avoid this, though, as sightseeing is definitely not a good idea when your monkey is teetering on the brink of certain demise.
The monkeys emit noises one would expect from video-game monkeys: namely various shrieks, growls, ooh-oohs and ahh-ahhs. Some of the mumbles and victorious cheers sound similar to actual human English, especially from the infant monkey, who seems dangerously close to breaking the evolutionary barrier of speech, at times. Either way, the sound effects are adequate-- when the monkeys are happy, they make happy noises, and youíll be happy too. Itís cute.
Technically, you donít even control the monkey. Itís the tilt of the level at your command. And you must maneuver the level, any which way you can, to roll the monkey-ball along the path, to its destination. All with the control stick, and the control stick alone.
Stop-- donít let the thought cross your mind, because youíre wrong. True, the play mechanics are simple. But this game is not, by any stretch of the imagination, easy. After completing the first round of beginner levels, Super Monkey Ball morphs into one of the most hair-pulling, sweat-inducing, blood-pumping experiences ever created.
The mad-scientists at Sega devised a seemingly unlimited amount of ways to make you fall-- some of them are combined with one another, and many of them are undeniably clever. The path to the goal is littered with everything from small bumps, ramps, pinball-styled stoppers, unfortunately placed pitfalls, moving platforms and winding roads that get smaller, and smaller, until the route is nearly impassable. If thereís an enemy here, itís gravity. Many, many lives will be lost until you finally get it right.
Some of these levels are works of art. Those of us who enjoy a good challenge will become downright giddy upon viewing what is expected to be done. Every once in a while, usually in the Expert bracket, youíll come upon a level that looks to be impossible-- thatís because it is, almost. Sheer luck is a requirement at times.
The act of navigating levels is a mix between puzzle solving and sleight-of-hand skill. Sometimes, you merely need to figure out what needs to be done, and after that, it can be done every time, without fail. But on some instances, only a steady hand, Zen-like concentration, and Jedi reflexes will do. Itís at those times when you may be considering homicide as an acceptable human behavior.
Monkey Race boasts six courses; up to four players speed, uncontrollably at times, around zany, colorful tracks. If you feel displeased with the individual in front of you, a bevy of projectile weaponry will remedy the situation. Likewise, be wary of the other racers-- being temporarily transformed into a Super Monkey Cube will undoubtedly hamper your intended speed. Both Monkey Race and Monkey Fight (think of Mario Party's "Bumper Balls" with boxing gloves) are fun for a little while, but unless you consistently rotate new human players into the mix, things get repetitive quickly.
The remaining four games are very well done, and can be enjoyed even when alone. Monkey Target sees players launching the much-abused animals into the stratosphere and trying to land on platform targets in an ocean. Itís leisurely paced, but the tried-and-tested goal of getting more points keeps even the most impatient among us fairly interested. Monkey Golf, Monkey Billiards, and Monkey Bowling are exactly how theyíre described in the title-- the ball for each game contains a monkey, of course. Either way, the sheer selection of quality multiplayer zaniness provides an above-average, party-styled experience that should keep the masses coming back for more.
Give Super Monkey Ball a chance. And donít let my earlier ramblings frighten you-- yes, itís a frustrating game, to be sure. But itís the warm, fuzzy kind of frustrating. The kind where after you obliterate your controller into smithereens and finish plucking small plastic shards out of your torso, you smile, and realize, as a gamer, you crave these sorts of challenges.
But donít crave them too much. Controllers arenít cheap, you know.