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Super Monkey Ball

Score: 100%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Amusement Vision
Media: GCD/1
Players: 1 - 4
Genre: Party/ Puzzle


Graphics & Sound:

The launch of a new system usually brings several hot titles from predictable genres, but this great puzzle/party game from Sega was probably a surprise to more than a few folks. For a start, the graphics really do a great job showcasing the power of the Gamecube, and if you think the idea of a monkey in a ball is too weird, wait until you see the gorgeous environments, smooth action and funny characters here. Really, Super Monkey Ball is an idea whose time has come, but that doesn't make it any less surprising to play.

The comparison to Marble Madness is a fair one, since the visual of a ball rolling through a tricky obstacle course is easy, especially for people who played Marble Madness. I remember playing it the first time on an Amiga, if that tips you off to anything... ;) But the similarity ends there, since the title might tell you this isn't just any ball. Picture a clear plastic globe with a monkey inside, running madly to keep the ball turning. This is what you're faced with, and of course you can choose different monkeys. The obstacle course theme is only one of the pieces of the game, and unlike Marble Madness, Super Monkey Ball takes you through settings and courses we could only dream about back in the day. Imagine, if you can, the beauty of Sonic on Dreamcast and you're at least approaching what Sega was able to do here. After you get into the more party oriented games, you'll see a whole different side to Super Monkey Ball but it's no less impressive visually. Now, don't take this to mean artistic blurring, fog or other out-there techniques. This is just a game that looks good and presents big eye candy all the time. The music is great, and your monkey will also make sounds to give you cues that he's excited, maybe about being too close to an edge! Very bouncy tunes and fairly ordinary music doesn't do anything to hurt the overall experience, and given the totally silly idea behind the action, how serious or deep could the music really be?!


Gameplay:

The great thing about Super Monkey Ball is how it can be many things to many people. Any good puzzle game needs to have simplicity in operation but depth in mastery. Most of the greatest puzzle and strategy games are simple to learn, and Super Monkey Ball is no exception. During the main section of the game, known as Main Game, you will be faced with a series of short courses to maneuver through in your clear ball. You'll choose a monkey and then be faced with several tough choices. You can choose a quick set, great for beginners, or go with advanced sets that include more courses. You can choose to race with or without items to pick up and if you like items, you can compete against players to see who can reach the end of a course with the most items. Reaching the end may not seem like a big deal, but since these courses are suspended miles up in the air and you're often racing across a ledge not much bigger than your ball, dropping into space and going back the beginning is a hard reality. You're free to practice on courses at any time, which makes the harder ones eventually easier to deal with in competitive modes. Even without CPU or human opponents, you'll compete against the clock. It's not enough to inch along in the hard places. You'll need to really learn the tracks well and be able to roll through them without too many breaks. This monkey doesn't fly, jump or use special tricks to get through tight spots, so your steady hand is all that stands between the monkey and the pavement.

If the Main Game mode doesn't do it for you and a friend, or if you have 3 or 4 friends who want to experience more Super Monkey Ball madness, there are six mini-games to play that feel about as deep as the main mode. This is a good thing. The first is Monkey Race, which is Mario Kart meets Rollerball. Down and dirty racing is yours, and while I can admit the physics aren't perfect, the fun of grooving over tracks in different environments, using power-ups and thumping your chest triumphantly as you stand on the winners' platform is a treat. Monkey Fight puts up to 4 monkeys in a ring, this time with boxing gloves attached, duking it out for supremacy. Powerups will do things like grow the size of your glove or extend it longer, and boy does the mayhem these monkeys go through make for great multiplayer gaming! Monkey Target is one of the weirder modes, and starts almost like a grand ski-jump competition. The little monkey hurtles down a ramp, goes flying into the air, and at the last minute breaks open his clear shell like a parachute to slow his fall and come down on a target to score points. Sound fun? Try the Wheel of Danger, which handicaps you by adding obstacles around the targets that make it more difficult to reach. Monkey Billiards, Bowling and Golf round out the mini-game roster, and all play as decent versions of their bigger cousins. It's so creative that Sega took the games like these that use balls of some kind and adapted not only the puzzle gameplay of Marble Madness by way of the monkey characters, but also threw in the part-game esthetic. There may be people who can't have fun playing this, but I wouldn't want to meet them.


Difficulty:

Working through Super Monkey Ball with all the 'extras' turned on can be a real challenge. Those Pro sets in the Main Game are really deadly, and it's frustrating to realize that your little monkey can't do much once a bad situation develops. She is in a ball, after all! But, there are plenty of lives granted and continues for those times when you can't seem to break through a certain level. What's most difficult is the demanding coordination and reflexes required to come in under the clock on harder levels. It's not something most people won't be able to learn, but after you've knocked out the competition and some of the more demanding requirements for item collection, you'll still have to learn to keep that little monkey on the track.

Game Mechanics:

This is a game that pretty much wears everything on its sleeve. The control mechanism could not be simpler. You steer the little monkey with the analog stick. It would appear that as the monkey approaches an edge, the platform associated with the edge tips, unless it's a small, single square. Too much speed is a killer, even in areas where little lips and edges seem to protect you. So, there are definitely many ways to play, but I found that developing some speed and just worrying about left-right steering got my monkey to the end on time. Uphills, depressions and changing courses throw a real...well, monkey-wrench into the gears, and there were times when I felt some kind of 'lock' feature would have been really nice. So, I could have then adjusted my monkey's left-right without making him speed up or go on a weird diagonal. In fact, the controls are very sensitive, and after learning to trust your feel of things on the stick, you'll do fine. But, don't expect to grab somebody's new third party controller, jump right in and show off your skills, because there's a very fine line between success and free fall which only comes with controller familiarity. Poor monkey!

The mini-games use a simple method for introducing control, which is to present special commands to you in the game. You'll get a short briefing, but also have a way to look at 'How to Play' at any time. None of the mini-games have tricky controls, and most add just one or two commands to make special actions possible. The manual is very thorough, and goes over control for all the stages. Super Monkey Ball is hoot and a holler for you if you just buy it to play for the challenge, but it really hits the mark when played for a big crowd. Up to 4 players can compete on any of the modes, making this a surefire party hit and a great way to show off your new Gamecube. Okay, there's no Monkey RPG yet, but I'm sure that's on the way. As my only caveat I'd say that when you look for depth or introspective gaming, you won't find it here. This is the high-tech equivalent of those little activity boxes you see hanging in baby's cribs. The idea isn't to enlighten, but mostly to captivate, entertain and challenge you. Super Monkey Ball succeeds on all counts, and makes a great first game to break in the old Gamecube.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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