Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD review – balls to the wall action

After years in the wilderness, Sega bring back gaming’s second most famous ape family with a remake of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz.

It really does feel like Sega is purposefully trying to troll their fans sometimes. In the last couple of years they have made real efforts to revive their enormous back catalogue of old school titles – with everything from Streets Of Rage 4 to a Panzer Dragoon remake – but even when they focus on a beloved franchise they so often seem to pick the least interesting, or downright strangest, way to bring them back. Which leads us neatly into this would-be revival of Super Monkey Ball.

Although it started off as an arcade game, which we have never seen in real-life, Super Monkey Ball is best remembered as a GameCube launch title. The first one was a clever spin on normal platform gameplay and made excellent use of the GameCube’s controller, which had little notches in the hole around the analogue sticks that made going in a straight line – a key skill in Monkey Ball – unusually precise.

The game was also popular for its wide range of multiplayer mini-games, many of which were throwaway nonsense but included a few gems such as Monkey Target and Monkey Bowling. It was all good fun but despite a blizzard of sequels it was only the first two that proved widely popular and the series never really amounted to much on any format other than the GameCube. So you’d imagine that this remaster was probably based on one of those two first games. But it’s not, it’s an update of a 2006 Wii game.

Super Monkey Ball is perhaps the most descriptive name for a game ever, since it involves monkeys trapped in balls and, at least originally, was super fun. The aim of the main single-player mode is simply to guide your spherically enclosed simian across a collection of mazes; most of which can be over in just seconds, whether you fall off into the abyss below or actually complete the stage.

The trick though is that you don’t control the ball directly, but instead the maze on which it is perched. That doesn’t make as much difference as you’d imagine in terms of the controls although it does mean the course underneath you is prone to shifting and moving in a pleasingly panic-inducing manner.

We would compare Monkey Ball to that fairground game where you have to move a metal bar around a bendy metal loop without touching it, but since we’ve no idea what that’s called we’re not sure how that helpful that is. Suffice it to say that it’s a fun little platformer that absolutely does deserve to be brought back, even if it’s never justified a large franchise with multiple sequels.

You can imagine how all this worked on the Wii, in terms of motion controls, but there’s no attempt to replicate that with the DualShock 4 or Switch controllers, meaning it controls much more like the original GameCube games. Banana Blitz did introduce a jump move though, as well having longer and generally more linear levels, some of which contain enemies – as well as the odd boss battle.

We still prefer the elegant simplicity of the first two games but the real problem with Banana Blitz is that because it was always designed to work with motion controls Sega has made some fairly sizeable changes to the stages, specifically to try and make the second half of the game harder. The original was always a bit too easy, compared to earlier entries in the series, but removing rails from a lot of the later platforms seems perverse when you know they used to be there and that even a tiny mistake can have you falling off and having to restart.

The single-player was only ever half of the story though, as there were originally a staggering 50 different multiplayer party games in the Wii version. That’s been cut down rather drastically in the remaster to… just 10. That’s partly because some just weren’t very good but also that a lot of them used motion controls in various peculiar ways.

What’s left is not a particularly good selection though and while Monkey Target (where you catapult a ball into the air and try to land it on a target) and Dangerous Route (where you navigate along a very tight maze) are still fun they never stay that way for long.

To try and make the most of the miserly collection of mini-games there’s new Decathlon and Time Attack modes, plus online leaderboards, but none of it compensates for the fact that most of the games are extremely shallow and just not very interesting. The mini-games were a key part of the appeal for Monkey Ball and yet here they just feel like an afterthought.

Given that, and the slightly compromised single-player, it makes Banana Blitz more difficult to recommend than we would’ve liked, especially given it’s surprisingly expensive. Having not played any of the games in years we still enjoyed coming back to the series, but this is only a partially successfully revival and while Sega wouldn’t be bananas to try again we doubt this is going to raise the franchise’s profile enough to justify that.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD review summary

In Short: A welcome revival of a much-loved franchise, although Banana Blitz was never the best entry and Sega has had to accept too many compromises in porting it from the Wii.

Pros: The core Monkey Ball gameplay is still a lot of fun and even feels relatively fresh after all these years. Nice, bright graphics and a remaster that’s clearly been made with a fair amount of care.

Cons: The altered stages get frustratingly difficult towards the end. Poor selection of mini-games, with few of the usual favourites. Unwarrantedly expensive.

Score: 6/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Price: £34.99
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and New Entertainment R&D Dept.
Release Date: 29th October 2019
Age Rating: 3

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