Super Monkey Ball Adventure
Sega's UK-developed Monkey Ball spin-off was always going to roll either way. We discover where it ended up.
PSP, PS2, GCN
There are a few words that come to mind when playing Super Monkey Ball Adventure. Cute is one of them. Give it time though and like opposite sides of the same sphere, another word will trundle along - frustration. And therein lies the crux. For periods of time, SMBA is cute, fun and enjoyable but at other times it is the very embodiment of irritation, wrapped up in a nice package and delivered straight to your PSP and PS2.
That's not to say it's a bad game. No, in the right dosage and with some perseverance SMBA is a joy but take the play mechanics that made this game so popular in the first place - the momentum system, the ball rolling, the tilting landscape, the party games, the puzzle levels - and apply them to a collect-em-up action-adventure and at times it just doesn't quite add up.
For those who have been living in their own little bubble, SMBA is based upon the hugely popular Monkey Ball series of games originally appearing in 2001. Primarily developed in-house, Sega have shown enough confidence in the strength of the brand and enough trust in UK developer Traveller's Tales that they have farmed out this iteration, the first to depart from the traditional puzzle-based mode of gameplay and enter a more platform-oriented game world. The original games were based around short time-based levels, typically less than 60 seconds each, the objective of which was to reach the end collecting as many bananas along the way as possible.
As simple as this may sound, due to the game mechanics, moving platforms, time limits, jumps and drops, the difficulty of each level ranges from easy to the nigh-on impossible yet it is exactly this short burst, easy to pick up and play appeal that makes SMB what it is. Add to this the range of party games on offer (i.e. Monkey Racing, Monkey Golf and Monkey Bowling) and you have a great single- and multi-player game that is fun for all. Not to mention the subtle addictiveness that, much like popping bubble-wrap, makes you want to continue without quite knowing why.
SMBA attempts to takes the unique strengths of the series and apply them to a full-length, 3D platform based world. To their credit, Traveller's Tales appear to have realized the limitations in the license and have created a game that plays as a series of short almost GTA-type tasks, only these tasks have very little dependency on one another and can for the most part be completed in any order and in isolation. In addition to this, gateways must be opened to enable access to other areas and to do this requires entering the Puzzle Realm and completing the puzzle levels a-la traditional Super Monkey Ball at it's best.
Playing as either AiAi, MeeMee, Baby or GonGon the game starts in the Monkey Kingdom of Jungle Island when a glider carrying Princess DeeDee of Monkitropolis and Prince Abe-abe of Kongri-La crash lands. From there, through some disjointed story telling and incoherent plot lines, the player must make their way through the 5 kingdoms of Jungle Island, Monkitropolis, Moonhaven, Zootopia and Kongri-La spreading joy where they go and defeating the Naysayers, all this to ensure the marriage of the aforementioned Prince and Princess and thus bringing peace to the kingdoms.
To spread joy you must help your fellow monkeys with their troubles and complete the tasks they ask of you. These tasks are many and varied and involve things such as switching all the levers within a time limit, rushing to a certain point in order to have your photograph taken, or using cannons to shoot yourself into huge gongs so as to wake up sleeping soldiers. Whilst the levels may not be huge, the depth and breadth of these tasks easily makes up for this. Along the way there are bananas to collect which can be used as currency to buy characters and levels for the additional mini-games. From the leafy green of Jungle Island, to the flying machinery of Moonhaven, through to the small town and carnival-like Zootopia each kingdom is distinctly different and the game is all the better for it.
Thankfully, to help with the increased challenge you face in adventure mode the capability exists to enhance your ball via chants. Once a chant has been learnt it can be used at any time you are stationary. Available abilities include the BoxerBall (which adds a boxing glove to the ball), the ScalarBall (which allows the ball to grow in size) and the StickyBall (which allows the ball to reach otherwise inaccessible places).
The biggest problem with the game lies in the camera system. Most of the time the player has only limited control over the camera and for certain set-pieces (such as when bouncing from flower to flower in order to reach a higher plateau) absolutely no control is allowed. Couple this with sluggish camera movement in general and it becomes a challenge just to see where you are heading let alone complete the tasks you are given. The camera does slowly rotate to be behind your monkey avatar, but without any way to force the camera to re-center quickly and seeing as it is possible to roll in a direction whilst facing a different direction and it soon becomes apparent that this is a problem.
Devotees of the original SMB will undoubtedly find pleasure here but for newcomers it will take some dedication and a little perseverance to get the ball rolling and up to speed. Overall though it's the little things that count - the long loading times between game areas, the pauses to auto-save before and after each task (surely there is only a need to save after each task, and even then only upon successful completion?) and the often unhelpful fixed camera angles. Couple this with the game's main sticking point - the camera control in general - and one can see why the game plays as a fine line between pleasure and pain. A line which SMBA valiantly rolls along and yet much like trying to maintain a straight line in a Monkey Ball, all too easily strays from one side to the other.
The PSP and PS2 versions are basically one and the same game with only minor differences. The PSP has the winder 'puzzles' thankfully removed. These are pointless tasks which involve turning a winder in order to open a gate (harder than it sounds using the Monkey Ball). Game saves can be transferred via USB from one system to another which allows you to carry on playing where you left off, handy for those PS2 owners who want to carry on playing whilst on the go. Although you will of course have to pay for the privilege by purchasing both versions of the game. The PSP version also includes some extra features such as the additional Banana Vacuum chant, card collectibles and unique quests and puzzles.