There’s always a risk with remakes, of course, especially remakes of games as cherished as the original Super Monkey Ball – it’s remarkable how strong an emotional attachment you can have to a 20-year-old game about pushing simians in hamster balls around checkerboard courses. Maybe it’s nostalgia getting the better of me, but to these tired old eyes this is a remake that looks demonstrably inferior to the originals; I miss that distinctive chunk of the Sega Naomi era, or details like how the polished sheen of shimmering bonus level floors doesn’t quite have that sparkle.
Then there’s the problem that, while it’s closer than we’ve ever got before, this simply isn’t the Monkey Target you know and love and have been pining for all these years since. That Monkey Target hasn’t gone anywhere, mind – I’ve still got a GameCube hooked up in the corner of my office where I can go and revisit it any time I want (along with Amusement Vision’s other GameCube masterpiece F-Zero GX – now when can we get a Switch port of that?). This isn’t a replacement for those games – they’re not going anywhere – and once I was at peace with the fact this isn’t just a straight port that I began to soften a little.
In fact, after that initial disappointment, and after a couple of late nights butting against the trickier levels amongst the very generous lot on offer here, I softened a lot. Some of the stylistic choices might grate a little (as does the grotty decision to make the original’s soundtrack a paid extra) but the original Super Monkey Balls are still absolutely banging games, and despite a few small missteps Banana Mania doesn’t really detract from that. Indeed, it’s a thrill to go back to what remains an absolute masterpiece.
Maybe, somehow, you’ve never played Monkey Ball before – or maybe you’ve only encountered one of the many underwhelming follow-ups that came in the wake of that brilliant early brace of games – so here’s a quick primer. A descendant of sorts to Marble Madness, Monkey Ball is game design simplicity at its most sublime – guide your monkey in its ball from one end of a stage to another, with just one analogue stick at your disposal to complete the task.
From that one input Monkey Ball extracts marvels. This is at once a puzzle game, a platformer and a racing game – there’s even the sweaty-palmed thrill of a good horror game when the timer starts to run down and the announcer screams ‘hurry up!’, the countdown pushing you to take ever bigger risks in an attempt to reach the goal. It is genius, the simplicity of the concept matched by exquisite execution that hasn’t been dimmed in this remake – the fidelity of control is fantastic, the sense of speed and the management of momentum electric while the level design is ever inventive. It’s phenomenal how much Monkey Ball can extract from something so simple.
That simplicity got diluted in later versions of the game, and I’m so much of a Monkey Ball traditionalist I still can’t quite stomach the sequel’s introduction of switches and teleports – needless fussiness that gets in the way of the pure magic of the original Super Monkey Ball. I’ve softened my stance slightly on that having played through Super Monkey Ball 2’s levels as they’re presented in Banana Mania, so many of which display a wit that was lacking from later games, but still it’s the original’s levels where the magic is at its most potent.
Indeed the genius of the original Super Monkey Ball remains undimmed in this remake – if anything the 20 years between the original and Banana Mania only highlights what a very special game this was, and remains. There’s a mechanical intricacy to the level designs, where the engineering seems explicit – the simplicity of Monkey Ball doesn’t just hark back to 80s arcade classics, but also to the mechanical wonders of 19th century penny arcades. Plus there’s a monkey in a ball!
Banana Mania does throw in a few mod cons. There’s now camera control, which might well dilute the simplicity but does also end up quite welcome on certain levels, even if the camera itself is a little slow and unwieldy to ever prove truly useful. There’s an assist mode that can let you either move on from any particular level that’s giving you grief – and classic Monkey Ball is exceptional at giving you grief – or a slo-mo mode that can be activated to take out some of the sting. There are challenges and unlocks and special new modes and filters, plus a bolstering of the cast with some classic Sega characters – there’s Yakuza’s Kazuma Kiryu and Jet Set Radio’s Beat, plus the possibility to put Sonic or Tails in one of those hamster balls and pretend you’re playing the best set of Sonic the Hedgehog bonus stages ever conceived. You can even unlock hats and booties to dress up the likes of Ai-Ai and Gon-Gon.
But beyond all that, perhaps the most important thing is you can play over 300 levels from when Monkey Ball was in its prime, or play one of the 12 mini-games such as Monkey Bowling, Monkey Fight or – of course – Monkey Tennis alone or with friends. Some of the details and idiosyncrasies might not be exactly as you remember them – and no, Monkey Target is sadly not the same – which reminds you this is something of a cover version rather than the real deal. It’s a cover version, though, of an all-time classic, and one that ultimately nails the all-important fundamentals. It might not be Monkey Ball exactly as it lives in your memories, but it’s certainly the best Monkey Ball experience there’s been since those magical originals.