The now legendary Super Monkey Ball was my evil gift to Seal. The reasoning was twofold, on one hand SMB is one of my all time favorite games. In my household the game holds a kind of cult hero status. It rescued my brother and I from a mundane life of easy gaming and instilled in us a stubborn will to fight. We were high functioning monkey addicts. The second reason I gave Seal the game is because it is, bar none, the hardest Gamecube game ever made. Mechanically speaking, the game is absurd, and I knew Seal would love it. You see, Seal is a god of games. He brags all the time about his unparalleled platforming skill and it was time to put him to the test. The gift exchange was simply a stroke of destiny.
I am not a skilled gamer. Platforming has never been one of my strong suits. I don’t have the sense of scope to dominate at Starcraft. I get dunked on by trash mobs in Dark Souls, and I’m positively abysmal at Battlefront. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to RPGs that focus heavily on narrative, so I can hide behind soft bubbles of text and dialogue. So it was to my complete surprise that Jordan, who appreciates many of the same stories as I do, gifted me with the largely story-less Super Monkey Ball and Super Monkey Ball 2 for the NitWitty Gift Exchange.
Control, Control, You Must Learn Control!
Super Monkey Ball’s demanding gameplay mechanics have you use the joystick to weave the titular monkey ball around cleverly designed (and sometimes mind-blowingly brutal) courses. Moving the joystick moves the ball in that direction while steadily increasing speed, and the camera moves with it. You must traverse each course (while avoiding the various hazards on the way) and reach the goal before time runs out. The slightest movement can teeter your monkey off course, and the game tosses challenges at you that demands precise control over your monkey-filled sphere.
A little background — I didn’t grow up with a controller in my hands. Console gaming has taken a backseat to my PC for nearly two decades, so maybe that’s to blame for my inherent lack of skill with a joystick. For a game that is utterly dependent on one’s mastery of control, like Super Monkey Ball, this posed a major hurdle.
The game gives the choice of one of four monkeys to control, and I thought I could offset my lack of skills by choosing a heavier, more deliberate monkey. No luck — I didn’t notice any differences between them when taking them for a spin. Gon Gon looks like he has superior structural integrity to Ai Ai, but he moves just as fast as Baby or any of the other monkeys. So I couldn’t blame any screw-ups (or compensate for them) with a character that suited my playstyle. Anything that went wrong was entirely my fault.
Making My Own Difficulty
Navigating the tracks using Jordan’s lovingly worn GameCube controller was a trial by fire — or falling, rather. Watching my monkey careen off the track with a cartoonish wail brought me the kind of guilty joy you only get from a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. An instant replay camera throws your failure back in your face, making me feel twice as foolish whenever I botched a simple turn. Sega is lucky they made even failure fun, as it happened to me a lot. I had to make a conscious effort to stop barrelling forward as fast as I could at the start of each level; I constantly found myself victim to the false sense of urgency I got from the ticking of the countdown timer, the upbeat soundtrack — even the announcer proclaiming, “Go!” at the start of each level. Reining in my desire to always be moving, and always be moving quickly, thwarted my efforts and drained me of extra lives a countless number of times. I nearly considered calling this article “the Gift of Profanity.” Super Monkey Ball definitely inspired some of my more colorful commentary.
There are three main difficulties in Super Monkey Ball — Beginner, Advanced, and Expert — but even the supposed easiest levels were a challenge for me. Granted, I at first thought I had to collect all of the Dole bananas scattered across each stage before going for the goal, so I was making the game much harder than it needed to be. But even once I figured that out each course offered a new obstacle to overcome. When looking at the first few Beginner levels, I couldn’t help but think of the difficulty curve from World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. fame. The first introduced the simple mechanic of moving across a stage toward the goal, and subsequent levels would gradually ramp up the difficulty and add new features such as ramps, sharp turns, and moving platforms.
The wonkiness of the camera didn’t aid my performance. I was constantly tapping my monkey the joystick to correct my field of view, which was difficult on levels where I had to balance on moving platforms. I guess the camera is just as responsive as the monkey ball, but a quick look button would have been incredibly useful. I just wish there were an easier way to adjust the view than tapping in directions that would mean imminent monkey death.
More Fun Than a Barrel of… You Get the Idea
My time with Super Monkey Ball didn’t exactly end in triumph. I never really felt like I improved over the several weeks’ worth of time spent playing them. I did have fun with them, though. Both games are easy to pick up and get rolling right away, and even spending a half hour of playtime was enough for me to knock through at least a couple levels.
I don’t think I gravitated toward the parts of the game Jordan wanted me to play most. He recommended I try several of the multiplayer games, which I gleefully convinced my wife to play with me. But knocking around monkeys in Monkey Billiards loses its appeal once you realize it doesn’t offer much fun beyond any other version of virtual pool I’ve ever played.
Maybe my lukewarm feelings toward these other modes is because I found the core gameplay of Super Monkey Ball and Super Monkey Ball 2 so strong and appealing. If I had owned them as a kid, I could see myself having poured hours into them. But I could see both the main game and the multiplayer modes as an absolute blast with a group of friends, howling and hooting with laughter as we botch level after level.
Super Monkey Ball was far from the best game I played in 2015, but the intent behind it and the challenge it presented in taking me outside my comfort zone made it among the most memorable. So thanks for that, Jordan! If I’m ever in the mood for some arcade-y gaming, I know the challenge of Super Monkey Ball will be more than enough.