Sometimes it’s the really simple ideas that are the best. How does controlling a transparent sphere with a monkey suspended inside it grab you? Now imagine you have to cross various maze-like floors against the clock, which are floating miles high up above the ground. Sounds fun right? Indeed it was, and it was here that the now very well established arcade platform series of Super Monkey Ball was born.
In fact, the maiden voyage for the series was actually a few months before Super Monkey Ball was released, in Japanese arcades no less. Not long after the death of the Dreamcast, SEGA decided that they would team up with Nintendo to bring the game to the GameCube as an exclusive launch title. However, it only took a few years for the series to explode in popularity, and extend its reach to pretty much every platform going.
Super Monkey Ball featured four playable characters: AiAi, MeeMee, Baby and GonGon who each handled slightly differently in terms of weighting. The premise reminded me somewhat of the often overlooked PlayStation gem Kula Word, where you had to guide a ball to the exit of a number of increasingly complex stages.
The simple aim was the same here, except things got increasingly more ludicrous as you progressed. In the main game, you could choose between Beginner, Advanced and Expert, which would task you with completing 10, 30 or 50 levels respectively. To make things more challenging, if you were playing on the higher difficulties, this would tweak the earlier levels to make them harder than usual.
After every ten floors or so the theme would change, to keep things visually stimulating. Not only this, but extra levels could be unlocked by completing the regular sets without losing a life, and “Master” levels by completing the extra levels with the same success rate.
Before you knew it, your poor little monkey would be hurtling down ramps as high as skyscrapers, getting catapulted into the air by booster blocks and attempting to balance on beams that were less than half the width of their ball. Each level was essentially a puzzle which required a combination of skill, strategy and luck to clear.
Like the premise of Super Monkey Ball, the control setup was beautifully simple. All you would need to do would be to steer your little monkey with the thumbstick, pushing forwards and pulling back to adjust your speed. There was no jumping or any other fancy tricks at your disposal, it was simply a test of patience and finesse.
It was, however, important to collect the bananas dotted around each stage, as 100 of the yucky things would grant you an extra life. Bunches of them were sneakily placed in more difficult to reach locations, which presented you with a risk vs reward decision to make. A golden opportunity to rack up some extra lives came courtesy of bonus levels, which were pretty safe affairs with a very generous amount of bananas up for grabs.
For those more adventurous players, many levels also contained secondary exits which would allow them to skip a few stages ahead. Depending on the timing of these, they could be an absolute godsend (especially when facing the later levels). Due to the nature of these shortcuts and competing against the clock, Super Monkey Ball became a natural proving ground for speedrunners (definitely worth a look on YouTube if you have a bit of spare time).
The beauty of Super Monkey Ball was that despite how much fun the single player experience was, it was even better in multiplayer. You could play through the main levels against friends if you wished, however the Party and Mini-Games provided the most enjoyable experience.
Games such as Monkey Target, Monkey Billiards and Monkey Bowling (to name my favourites) were an absolute riot, and I have fond memories of losing many hours playing them with friends. The conventional sports would replace the ball with the titular monkey ball (for example hurling the little simian down the bowling lane), whereas the others would work a little differently.
Monkey Target started you at the top of a huge ramp, which you would need to use to launch yourself into the air. At the right time, you would open your ball and glide to one of numerous islands with point zones, whilst battling the wind. Successfully landings would score you the points, and you could also use items such as points multipliers and aerial mines to mix things up. At the end of the final round, the player with the most points would win.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the series, Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania is arriving in a few weeks time. It’s a remaster of the first three games that were first released for console, and looks to be essential for fans of the series, with some cracking features announced already (you can play as a Dreamcast!). And of course, if you can’t wait, there’s Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD to play right now.
Super Monkey Ball was that rarest of things. It was a game which was so simple, and yet immense fun when playing both solo and with friends. It kickstarted a franchise which is huge today and will surely go down as an all time classic.
If you’ve got a GameCube kicking around and fancy playing Super Monkey Ball, you’ll probably find Amazon to be your best bet.