Though the Super Monkey Ball franchise is no longer exclusive to Nintendo platforms, a strong connection still exists in the minds of most gamers. When the Nintendo GameCube launched in November 2001, Super Monkey Ball was one of the few worthwhile titles for the system at the time, making it a fan favorite from the outset. It may have been an odd concept, but it worked extremely well. By using the ultra-precise analog stick, you could tilt the floor of the stage, causing the ball-encased ape to roll toward a goal while nabbing bunches of bananas on the way. Even though the later stages were impressively difficult, the entirety of the gameplay relied on that simplistic design and benefited as such, allowing children, adults, newbies, and hardcore gamers alike the opportunity to figure out just what a "monkey ball" was.
Five years later, a brand-new Super Monkey Ball title is ready for the launch of the Nintendo Wii, but the circumstances are much different this time around. Not only does the system come with a free game (the delightful Wii Sports), but it launched with roughly 20 games – one of them being The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which should scoop up several "Game of the Year" honors. The launch landscape is quite different, but then again, so is Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz. Aiai and company can now jump and battle boss characters, but the biggest difference comes with the advent of the Wiimote, which completely changes the core mechanics of the gameplay – both for better and for worse. Does more mean better in Banana Blitz, or is it just too much of a so-so thing?
After about a week with my Wii, the most important thing I can draw from the experience is this: Man, my arm hurts. I saw this coming, and I expect (or hope) that the pain will fade in time, but it is entirely bizarre to wake up in the morning with a sore shoulder and forearm from playing video games. While I cannot attribute this problem solely to Banana Blitz (I have been playing five Wii games), I feel pretty safe pointing my finger at the surely suffocating simians. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz requires gamers to hold the Wiimote in the standard, vertical position, but it must be held as flatly as possible. However, to avoid falling off of the stages, the quick flips you must make might send your arm into a seizure.
Making your monkey move is incredibly easy to do, but also quite difficult to master. A slight tilt in any direction will cause the ball to roll, and it often feels like you are using a large analog stick – it really is that precise. However, unlike analog sticks, your arm does not snap back into place after moving it, so you will always need to be aware of your location. Jumping can be done either by pressing the A button or by flicking the remote upwards and releasing the B trigger, but I cannot recommend the second option. Such a move will throw your sense of balance into upheaval, potentially knocking you off of the edge (or at least off of your intended path). Just hit the A button and try not to jump too hard or too far.
The single-player game in Banana Blitz is divided into 10 worlds of 10 stages each, with eight of the worlds displayed from the start. Each world has eight main stages, a bonus stage, and a boss fight, which is a new addition to the series. The boss battles start off fairly easy; for example, the first stage has a bird whose beak gets stuck in the ground, giving you the opportunity to smash your ball into his head. Simple, right? The difficulty ramps up significantly with the third boss stage, which requires you to evade a series of massive snowballs before you can even attempt to attack the boss. Once you get there, he spins in circles and tries to knock you off of his platform before you get a tiny window of time to bash in his belly. Oh yeah, and you have to hit him three times. Good luck with that.
These elaborate boss fights can be extremely difficult and frustrating, but then again, so are many of the later stages. A stage may take between a few seconds and a couple of minutes, with the lengthier ones requiring much more dedication and precision to make it to the goal. The first few stages of the game are extremely simple, but the learning curve still seems extremely steep, especially considering that just 100 stages are included. The Nintendo Wii features a style of control that has never been used in the world of console gaming, and Sega should have made more of an effort to make more content accessible for younger or less-skilled players. Some might argue that lowering the difficulty of the game would compromise the developers' vision, but sometimes, you have to do what is best for the consumer.
Aside from difficulty issues, the gameplay is fairly similar to the tried-and-true style established in the previous Super Monkey Ball games. Your goal is to roll from the starting point into a goal, avoiding obstacles and enemies while collecting as many bananas as possible. I have to wonder if the Wiimote would be better held in the horizontal position, like in Excite Truck, but that may be something worth considering for a sequel. My only other major issue with the single-player game is the camera. It is not always as active as it needs to be, and you will occasionally roll backwards after attempting an uphill climb, making it impossible to see where you are rolling. The camera doesn't kill the game, but it may take away some of your precious monkey lives.
Say what you will about the graphical prowess of the Nintendo Wii – Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz is a very pretty game. Its use of simple, quirky designs and a vivid color scheme create a bright, shiny world that looks especially great on a widescreen television. Compared to Super Monkey Ball 2 on the GameCube, Banana Blitz features a much more compelling visual look that uses a cartoon-inspired style much more befitting to a franchise about glass-cased gibbons. The original soundtrack is light, fluffy, and entirely too cute for words; in other words, it's perfect for this setting.
Sega has made it well-known that Banana Blitz features 50 party games, and it was one of the main reasons that I wanted to check out the game. After all, Monkey Bowling in Super Monkey Ball Jr. for the Game Boy Advance was an obsession of mine when I lived on campus while in college. Sadly, the fact of the matter is this: The majority of the party games are not worth playing. Some are just so-so or not particularly exciting, but others are terrible and feel broken (or perhaps, incomplete). Many feel like shells of decent ideas – concepts that were not fully explored, yet were quickly developed and included on the disc. Essentially, you have a mighty collection of tech demos, and far too many are not worth your time.
Some of the mainstays from previous entries are back, including Monkey Bowling, Monkey Golf, and Home Run Derby. The returning games feel less robust than their predecessors, as if they were rushed to make the launch date. Hit up some of the Monkey Ball message boards and you will find a bevy of complaints about these games, especially Monkey Target, which apparently does not come close to matching its former glory. Monkey Race is a pleasant surprise, though; while it could not compete with a fully featured Mario Kart game (or even a Mario Kart clone), it is fast, fun, and easy to get into. Monkey Darts is a very strong idea, though I think the execution comes up just a bit short. Clubhouse Games for the Nintendo DS did a better recent job of simulating the experience.
The most glaring issue with many of the party games has to do with the control schemes. Most of the games that require any sort of forward or backward movement fail to work as advertised, leaving a broken mess of a mini-game. To make matters worse, the game will lose track of your Wiimote far too often, and any movements made outside of the basic shape of your television will often be ignored, leaving your character helpless on the screen. This is especially prevalent in a game like Dangerous Route, where you will be unable to steer your ball if your pointer is a centimeter too far to the right of the screen. Other Wii games have not given me similar issues, so I have to wonder if it's problem with the game, rather than the Wiimote.
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz works well with the Wiimote, at least in the single-player mode, though the ramped-up difficulty may be a bit much for your younger or inexperienced gamers. Those looking for a challenging adventure that involves rolling primates around themed stages should look no further – Banana Blitz can fulfill your needs. However, those who are intrigued by the prospect of a heap of party games should skip the title entirely. Very few of the 50 games are worth a second look, and the five mini-games in Wii Sports provide a better overall experience than all 50 of Banana Blitz's combined. More is often better when it comes to video games, but in the case of these party games, more is just a marketing gimmick.
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