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access_time September 29, 2021 at 9:00 AM in Reviews by Daniel Ladiano

Review | Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania

When I reviewed Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD two years ago, my number one question was “why was this the entry to get the HD treatment?” The more logical approach would be to bring back the first couple of titles to the modern era. Thankfully, Sega listened to me, and to commemorate the series’ 20th anniversary, we now have said remaster: Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania. With its endless social media flair, this revival has garnered a lot of attention online, but is it warranted? For the most part, it is.

Banana Mania is a combo pack of all the elements from both Super Monkey Ball and it’s sequel (with all the extra levels from Deluxe). In the game’s main mode, the goal is simple. Lead a monkey trapped in a ball to the goal gate at the end of the level. Players don’t control the monkey but the entire maze, tilting so the monkey can roll to the desired location. While it does start simple, the difficulty ramps up very quickly. Players must weave around tricky turns, balance on narrow bridges, and many other devious traps.

The series is notorious for its rather harsh difficulty curve, but there are features that mitigate some of the stress. For one, there are no more lives. Players are free to fall out of the course over and over and not dread returning back to the beginning. While hardcore fans might scoff at this change, the game is still ludicrously hard so this is a huge blessing.

The other feature isn’t as beneficial. If a player falls out enough times, players can activate the helper mode. The time limit is doubled, you’ll gain the ability to slow down time, and directional arrows will display to help players show the ideal way to the goal. The problem with the helper mode is more often than not, it’s not very helpful. Slowing down time slows the entire screen, which includes the monkey as well. In addition, while the arrows are great indicators of where to go, they don’t convey how fast or slow players must maneuver to overcome an obstacle. There are many rotating platforms that require the utmost precision, which the helper feature does not provide. Not to mention if the helper feature is on, hidden levels are inaccessible, so it’s best to leave the feature off.

The main game is comprised of two modes: Challenge and Story. Challenge mode is straightforward, as each of the original two games have three sets of levels: Beginner, Intermediate and Expert. The harder the difficulty, the more levels players must overcome to reach the end. With 300 different levels to conquer, there’s a lot of mileage for anyone daring to conquer the challenge. One of my personal pet peeves with Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania is the lack of multiplayer in the Challenge mode. The original game allowed players to conquer levels simultaneously, and the sequel, while not as robust, allowed controller alternating. Despite missing from the release, the Challenge mode is still as solid as it was.

The Story mode, however, feels rather derivative. The game takes the original story mode from Super Monkey Ball 2 without much flair. There are 100 levels spread through 10 worlds that players must complete. Before and after each of the 10 worlds, there’s a short cutscene. AiAi and his friends are watching a TV show which retells the story of the second game. Unfortunately, instead of reusing the original colorful and cheesy scenes, the game resorts to simplistic cutout animations without much personality. Due to the brevity of the scenes, lack of any dialogue to make sense of what’s going on, or the sterile presentation, it’s a major letdown to fans of the original story mode.

Despite the lack of a life system, Banana Mania is surprisingly much harder than any of the original games. This can be attributed to the game being developed on the Unity engine, which is different than what Sega utilized 20 years ago. The Gamecube in particular was perfect with it’s octagonal analog gate that helps players roll straight. Since newer controllers do not have analog gates, this is not the fault of Banana Mania. What is a problem is how the new physics engine takes longer to get used to.

For example, in the World 8 level, Wrap, players must roll straight while holding the opposite direction of a downward slope without hitting bumpers on the opposite side. There is very little room for error, move too hard to the left, you hit a bumper. Move too hard to the right, and you fall out. Unless you are on the perfect angle and pushing forward at the right angle, you will fall. The physics are much less forgiving than in the original games, and even if you beat the level in the end, it isn’t without frustration.

Due to the lack of lives, there is a new incentive for collecting all the bananas scattered around. Those yellow delicacies are now currency for the point shop. This new mode allows players to spend their points on a variety of items. From clothing items to customize their simian, unlockable characters and new game modes. The customization feature has a lot of neat attire such as top hats or various transparent balls to roll in.

The unlockable characters are probably the most touted feature of the game due to the social media buzz. Sure, Sonic the Hedgehog is to be expected, but what about oddball additions like Kazuma Kiryu from the Yakuza series? Not only is it surreal to play as the guest characters, but they even get their own unique collectible. For example, instead of bananas, Sonic has to collect rings. The only problem with the unlockable characters is they aren’t usable in the party games, which is a baffling oversight. This is especially a shame since future characters like Morgana from Persona 5 and Suezo from Monster Rancher are going to arrive as paid DLC. It would’ve been great to use them in more than one game mode for the price we’ll pay.

The new special modes are definitely a great addition. There’s a lot of variety between a mode that requires going backwards to the start of a level, one that requires avoiding red bananas, or collecting every banana in Golden Banana mode. The variety of the special stages add a new layer to the challenge, and it’s very welcome. The jump function from Banana Blitz also returns as a highly-priced reward. While it may make some puzzles simpler, at least claiming this unlock would take players quite some time.

This wouldn’t be a Monkey Ball without a slew of party games, and thankfully Banana Mania doesn’t disappoint. When it comes to variety, the 12 classic games from the original games return. The best part is that up to four players are able to participate in the fun in local co-op (though some modes only support two players). However, there are some duds in the roster, and some that unfortunately are a letdown compared to their original release.

Monkey Race is the series’ answer to the Kart racer genre. Players must win a three lap race in various circular tracks, and the first to reach the finish line wins. There are a myriad of different powers that players can use like projectiles or the ability to grow larger to squash opponents. Thanks to the surprising variety of tracks, Monkey Race is great fun. Monkey Fight is another classic mode where players are placed on a small arena with boxing gloves attached to springs. The goal is to push as many players out of the arena within the time limit. Similar to Race, there are many power ups like increasing the size of the boxing glove or a power spin attack. Just like Race, this mode aged gracefully and is another highlight.

Alas, the third of the classic modes, Monkey Target, is a letdown. Players must launch themselves off a giant ramp, glide to a target board in the ocean, and land on it to score points. Banana Mania’s version feels like a step backwards. There are much less bonus items in the sky, so there isn’t much to do while being airborne. The physics feel heavy and sluggish, as even a slight wrong push on the analog stick can cause the monkey to sink in the water. The controls here don’t offer much leniency, as players have to be exact in order to maintain height. The requirement for precision reminded me a lot of the main game where one tiny mistake can cost a whole run, and I was drowning far more than I did in the original titles.

Monkey Bowling and Monkey Billiards don’t offer much than traditional bowling and pool games, but they are perfectly functional. In fact, the Billiards mode in particular has a staggering amount of play modes for hardcore pool fans. Monkey Golf is also pretty ordinary, but it does include two variants in both mini and normal golf. Monkey Boat is a lesser version of Monkey Race. Not only are the controls more rigorous, with players having to alternate trigger buttons to paddle, but the tracks themselves are visually dull and the power-ups are ineffective most of the time.

Monkey Baseball is a great idea on paper. Players must hit the pitcher monkey to the edge of the arena to move bases. However, most of the time, aiming is near impossible. Either you hit the ball to an outfield blocker, or in the rare case the blocker doesn’t reach, the ball rolls too slowly to reach the edge and thus the judge calls an out. Despite some cool mechanics like various pitches, more than often games result in a 0-0 stalemate, which is a shame. Monkey Soccer is the exact opposite, the gameplay works okay, but there is nothing special about it. In fact, most of the time, being close to the goal and shooting the ball will net a goal. Considering the Monkey Ball itself isn’t the ball and rather an ordinary ball, there is no reason to play this mode more than once.

The last slew of modes fair better. Monkey Shot is a neat little rail shooter in which players have to shoot various targets. With many enemies to blast, power-ups to collect and even boss fights, this mode is great. Same with Monkey Dogfight, as players go to the skies and bombard their friends with pineapple homing missiles. The key is learning how to use speed to properly turn and lock-on to an enemy, which is more challenging than it seems. Lastly, Monkey Tennis is a functional Tennis game with a surprising amount of depth. My only gripe is the targeting system, as holding the analog stick slightly to the side would hit the ball off the court. The learning curve is definitely high, but to those who are willing to put in the time, there is another winner here.

When it comes to the visuals, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania definitely looks pleasant. The vibrant colors and lighting effects are definitely impressive. The many original locales are faithfully recreated, from the mechanical clock tower to the bubbly washing machine. The best part is the game runs at a solid 60fps regardless of console. For owners of next gen platforms and PC, the game can even reach 4K resolution. The only real knock against the visuals is the jarring giant text at the start of any game mode, as it looks tacky and doesn’t fit with the visuals. The game features a new soundtrack, but it doesn’t have the musical variety the original games had despite some standouts. Those who get the digital deluxe version (or buy the classic DLC) can use the classic soundtrack.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania is a major step up from Banana Blitz HD. Thanks to a better source material, both the single and multiplayer content is great. There are some changes with the physics that can lead to very frustrating moments, but as a whole, this is a return to form. Not every new idea lands, but the sheer amount of content for every kind of player will ensure there is something for everyone. If the series can keep this momentum going, I wouldn’t mind seeing a new game in the series, so let’s keep that ball rollin’.

Final Score: 7.5 out of 10

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