Could anyone have predicted that a game about a monkey rolling around in a ball would be so successful? Since its 2001 debut, Super Monkey Ball has gone on to spawn more than ten releases in eleven years, appearing anywhere from the 3DS to the N-Gage. In a world where a turtle-killing plumber and chili dog-eating hedgehog are icons, however, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that AiAi and company would steal our collective hearts. Unfortunately, much like the aforementioned properties, it has seen its ups and downs. After some critically acclaimed releases out of the gate, the series began a nosedive (thanks in part to 2006’s Super Monkey Ball Adventure) it has yet to fully recover from. No longer considered essential, Monkey Ball games are now approached with caution. Instead of reinventing the series, Sega hopes to put the balls back on track with the series’ Vita debut, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz.
Gameplay in Banana Splitz remains unchanged from previous entries. Players guide a monkey in a ball through treacherous stages by tilting the environment with only the analog stick. As this is on a console with a Gyroscope, motion controls can instead be used, but are not recommended due to the game needing precise accuracy that only physical controls can produce. Suspended in air, the stage must be restarted if the monkey ball rolls off the side. The only other way to lose is by not completing the stage within the designated time limit (generally a minute). Bananas are collected throughout to increase lives and the overall score, while a special exit is periodically encountered that warps the player ahead a few levels — helpful as they become increasingly harder as the game goes on. While the concept may be simple, it’s an incredibly addictive formula that has always served the series well.
As the basic formula has long been perfected, the most important aspect of any Monkey Ball release is the level design and how it handles. While the Vita game may be a budget game with minimal fanfare, it certainly doesn’t reflect it. Stemming from a loose time-travel story, the stages featured throughout the multiple worlds are very creative. One world is based on a Aztec motive, with a standout stage featuring golden monkey statues pounding their hands down that must be rolled under and over to reach the end. Other stages incorporate prehistoric elements, with one memorable (and incredibly difficult) stage having players roll over the backs of both Pterodactyls and a T. Rex. Unique additions like these help make the game seem fresh while matching the inherent goofiness of the series.
Perhaps the most difficult Monkey Ball yet, Banana Splitz proves to be very challenging throughout its 100+ levels. Some stages will take even veteran players more than ten tries to complete, requiring precise timing and even some luck. As any stage can be solved with the right amount of practice, though, the proceedings are never frustrating. The only discouraging aspect is the “continue” system. In the Advanced Stages, for instance, running out of continues in the third world wipes out all progress in the first two. As they’ve already been completed, forcing players to replay up to twenty stages seems unnecessary. Luckily, the gameplay mechanics are a perfect fit for the PS Vita’s analog stick, ensuring the blame of losing lies solely with the player. It’s easily the closest a handheld incarnation has come to matching the feel of the console titles and is much improved over the unresponsiveness of the 3DS slider.
Besides the main Challenge Mode is a collection of mini-games known as “Party Mode”. Eight games are included, ranging from forgettable to surprising additive. Monkey Rodeo is the low point, with players awkwardly guiding a bouncing ball horse towards bananas by tapping the rear touch pad. While using the oft-forgotten feature of the console is impressive, it simply never pans out. By far the best mini-game is “Love Maze”, where players simultaneously control a different monkey ball through a maze with each analog stick. There are multiple levels that prove quite the challenge as they progress. Out of all the mini-games, it’s really the only conceivable one to return solo after an afternoon trying them out. Most of the mini-games are designed for multiplayer and could result in some passable fun on a rainy day. Impressively, there’s an online mode included so players can get the full experience without having pesky “friends” around.
With its analog-stick-only control scheme and addictive gameplay, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz is a very cathartic experience. As even the most challenging stage is possible with enough practice, players can engage their minds free of the lethargy that comes from more “advanced” titles. With its smooth graphics, inventive stages and unforgiving difficulty, Banana Splitz is the best Monkey Ball title since the Gamecube-era. While its party games may be largely disposable, the core gameplay alone is worth the budget price tag.
Platform: PS Vita