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Resurrection: Super Monkey Ball

Monkey Business…

Resurrection: Super Monkey Ball

Resurrection is Resolution’s weekly retrospective feature. Jon Beach climbs down a branch of the tree of gaming evolution and reminisces about SUPER MONKEY BALL.

IN THE space of time building up to the console’s launch, potential Gamecube adopters were feverishly expecting (amongst other things) a brand new Mario adventure. What they actually received was a rather bland Wave Race update, an extremely unconventional third person adventure/hoover ‘em up with Luigi in the starring role, and an arcade adaptation of a game where you guide monkeys trapped in plastic balls around obstacle mazes. As odd and unexpected launch title ranges go, the Gamecube’s initial line-up surely has to be up with there with the weirdest of them.

Along with the rest of the frankly bizarre Gamecube launch library, Super Monkey Ball actually turned out to be the greatest gaming curveball of all time. The title was instantly dismissed by hardcore Sony and Microsoft fanboys, who were quick to highlight the self styled primate obstacle course as being a symptom of Nintendo’s increasingly misguided strategic thinking. However, had they sat down to play the game, they would have been charmed by its madcap persona, seduced by its simplicity and challenged by its design.  Not that they would ever have admitted to liking (or even accepting) a cutesy Sega Marble Madness revamp, where the only objective is roll monkeys towards goals without falling off the edge.

The game’s visual design is like staring into a fruit bowl that’s been tipped over in an anti-gravity space station zoo; such is the ripeness and vividness of its colours and characters. SMB is pure arcade Sega goodness from the off – pick a monkey (AiAi, naturally), select a difficulty, and you’re off. In many ways, the game’s simplicity makes it the perfect launch title. It brought pick-up-and-play gaming kicking and screaming back into the living rooms and bedrooms that had been craving them since the decline of the 16-Bit era. Who’d have known we could trust old Sega to bring one-more-go gaming and clarity back to the disc slot?

Apparently you move the maze, not the monkey – but whichever way round it is, nothing can take away from the ingeniously implemented difficulty curve and applause-worthy level design. Each stage brings something new to the table, pushing and testing your analogue stick skills with every corner, slope, spiral or crazy accordion expanding obstacle that lies before you. Players traverse a number of well rendered environments, from sand blasted deserts to sparkling glaciers – but it’s the maze design that allows the game to truly shine, and feels in retrospect like a kind of cartoon Saw movie. What traps are waiting beyond the last seemingly impassable goal, and how will you deal with them? It’s a raw test of skill soundtracked by cheesy Euro techno, where the only thing that matters is getting that damn monkey to safety.

The game’s answer to implements an effective difficulty curve is not always to make slopes or passages narrowerand smaller, but often toys with perspective itself; tricking the eyes, punishing the fingers and literally moving the goalposts on several occasions. There’s always a desire to keep playing, if only to see how difficult later stages become and how truly sadistic the level design winds up being. Of course, when it all got too hectic, we could always take a load off with a bash with some of the minigames on offer – Monkey Target was always a firm favourite in my house, and saw monkeys launching and opening parachutes made from their plastic prisons, before landing on a huge dartboard, scoring points according to the accuracy of the jump.

At the very least, Super Monkey Ball is both an artefact of pure arcade gaming as well as a sugar coated taste of the casual gaming revolution Nintendo would later go on to pioneer. When the levels got too tough, casuals could simply bow out, gracefully watching the better monkey ballers tackle more advanced stages. It was interesting to both player and observer – a clear testament to the quality of the design on offer – and was always remarkably entertaining. One wonders why they had to go and spoil the concept with switches, Wii Remotes and Balance Boards – but I guess that’s just the Sega Way. After all, no one really ever asked for Big The Cat, did they?

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