Retro Gaming Challenge Week Fourteen: Super Monkey Ball (Gamecube) Review

Super Monkey Ball features Monkeys and Balls. Also, it is Super. That’s pretty much all you need to know.
Week fourteen of this entirely self-imposed challenge, but luckily the Internet voted me a good’n to play, so I’m still inspired to keep playing. For those coming in late, I’m playing through a different game in my collection each week for an entire year, with the reward at the end being able to play Bubble Bobble, the game I generally refer to as my all-time favourite “retro” title.
For those who want to catch up, here’s everything I’ve written so far in this challenge:
Retro Gaming Challenge Week One: Shin Nippon Pro Wrestling: Toukon Road 2: The Next Generation (N64)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Two: Donkey Konga (Gamecube)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Three: The Firemen (SNES)
Retro Games Challenge Week Four: Space Invaders (2600)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Five: Three Dirty Dwarves (Saturn)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Six: Trog (NES)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Seven: Robocop vs The Terminator (Megadrive)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Eight: James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing (Xbox)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Nine: Godzilla Generations (Dreamcast)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Ten: Devil Dice (PSOne)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Eleven: Asterix (Sega Master System)
Retro Games Challenge Week Twelve: Toki (Atari Lynx)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Thirteen: Backyard Wrestling: Don’t Try This At Home Review (PS2)

Super Monkey Ball: Teh R@RE!!!!

Super Monkey Ball is a rare game. No, not in the sense that it was secretly made by the same team as Goldeneye and Battletoads, or even in the terribly clichéd eBay R@RE!!!! sense.
It’s rare for a very simple, but terribly uncommon reason.
It’s a game that Sega essentially got absolutely spot on in its first attempt.

Except maybe in the advertising sense. This is bananas, and not in the monkey-pleasing way.
Most games evolve over time, getting better as they go, with many “peaking” at a certain point. To give you an example, Super Mario Bros is a superlative game and was a cracking thing to launch with the NES (more or less), but few would argue that it’s actually better than Super Mario Bros 3, or Super Mario World depending on where your “peak” 2D Mario game proclivities lie. It informs much of their action, and remains great, but it’s not the best. These things typically take time.
Super Monkey Ball for the Gamecube is that kind of title though, because while Sega’s iterated with Monkeys in spheres since (Wikipedia helpfully tells me there’s no fewer than 18 Super Monkey Ball titles!), it’s the first game that’s the most pure, the most fun, and the least flawed of the entire lot.

Super Monkey Ball: Bring The Crazy

You’re a monkey — well, one of four monkeys — in spheres, rolling towards goal ends sitting on platforms a massive distance above the ground. Why? The reasons why don’t so much defy explanation as much as they take explanation out the back, beat it around the head with a banana-shaped cosh and then politely suggest to explanation that any further attempts at trying to make sense would be very unwise indeed.
Or so I hear. There’s not way I’m going to risk it by trying to find out what’s actually going on. Or for that matter how you got the monkeys in the spheres, or how they’re kept clean.

I have no idea what's going on, but clearly they're very happy about it when it works.
I have no idea what’s going on, but clearly they’re very happy about it when it works.

I’m overthinking it again, and that’s clearly dangerous. Especially for a game like Super Monkey Ball, which got it so right, so early in the series lifespan.
I’m struggling to think of too many series that hit the ground running like that straight away. OK, yeah, maybe Devil Dice, although Bombastic, its PS2 sequel is pretty fine. And to be strictly accurate, there was Monkey Ball before there was Super Monkey Ball, but that was an arcade-only game with a banana controller that you’ve got essentially zero chance of playing right now. So I’m ignoring it.
Super Monkey Ball is an even finer achievement when you consider it was one of the three launch titles for the Gamecube, alongside Luigi’s Mansion (fine, but a little bland) and Wave Race: Blue Storm (not a patch on the original).
Or in other words, it’s a superb game that was also the best game you could buy back when the Gamecube launched in 2001/2002. I certainly thought so at the time, noting in yet-another-GameSpot-Australia-review-you-can’t-read-any-more* that if you were picking up a Gamecube, you absolutely should pick up Super Monkey Ball.
Monkeys, playing golf, with themselves as the balls. Whoever came up with this idea was clearly on "the good stuff"
Monkeys, playing golf, with themselves as the balls.
Whoever came up with this idea was clearly on “the good stuff”

As such, I had some trepidation returning to Super Monkey Ball. I do have quite a few of the sequels in my games library, and by and large they’re a case of diminishing returns. This made me nervous, because I wondered if it would still stand the test of time.
I need not have worried; it was great then, and it’s still great now. The core game has, for reasons that don’t need to be elaborated on, monkeys in spheres who roll towards goal platforms of increasing complexity against often brutal time limits. Fall off the world, and you fail. Run out of time, and you fail. Succeed, especially on the more advanced and expert courses, and you feel like a freaking genius.
I’m only an average Super Monkey Ball player, but that sense of completion, alongside urgency to have just one more go is still exceptionally strong. It helps, I find, if you pair up Nintendo’s excellent little Wavebird controller with your Gamecube for play purposes.
Remember those "Punch The Monkey" Flash ads? Those were terrible. This involves Monkeys and Punching, and while it's chaotic, it's still actually fun. So nothing like the browser ads, then.
Remember those “Punch The Monkey” Flash ads? Those were terrible. This involves Monkeys and Punching, and while it’s chaotic, it’s still actually fun.
So nothing like the browser ads, then.

Super Monkey Ball isn’t all puzzles and frustration, however, with a small but finely honed selection of competitive party games for up to four players, as well as unlockable mini-games, including Monkey Billiards, Monkey Bowling and Monkey Golf. You do have to play a reasonable amount of single player to unlock the Mini games, but they’re worth the wait. Again, for a launch title this is an exceptional achievement, even if it was based off a semi-obscure arcade title.
Random thought: When you fail, it’s usually because you’ve fallen off the world. Somewhere at ground (and sometimes sea) level, there must be thousands of rotting monkey carcasses, possibly still trapped inside their spheres.
I probably shouldn’t have random thoughts like that.
Mind you, here comes another. While it might seem like you’re rolling your chosen simian in their spheres, you’re not. What you actually do is tilt the world to give them momentum.
Which means that in this game, you’re not a Monkey in a Ball at all. You’re the Monkey God.
I guess that journey to India with Tripitaka really did pay off after all.

That sounds awesome! Where can I get a copy?

As noted, there are all kinds of spin-off Monkey Ball games, but outside the second Gamecube game (which is still good), the first game is the one to buy. Nintendo doesn’t do Virtual Console Gamecube titles as yet, although if you own a standard Wii console it’s well worth your while remembering that it will play Gamecube titles.
For such a great game, it’s also surprisingly affordable, even on the sometimes shaky waters of the ‘bay of E.
You can search eBay for a copy (affiliate link) here.

Next week: SPORTS FRENZY!

The voting for the game-that-isn’t-Bubble-Bobble covered all titles, but one title led the voting right from the get-go. Unirally for the SNES, the quirky little DMA design game…
that I’ve already reviewed before.
So while I’m sure I’ll enjoy next week’s gaming, I’ve no idea what new content I can add to it. Next week could be… interesting to write. At least I know it will be fun.
In the meantime, though, I need a fresh batch of games titles to choose from. So why not sports games? Sports games are amongst the best selling titles for any platform, although we’ve now devolved into endless iterations of Madden, FIFA et al for the most part. But they’re also games that don’t always age well, and they’re not often the targets of retro collectors. Want an old FIFA? Chances are you can probably grab your choice of games for a buck or less.
Also, I’m rather notable in the Australian frame of reference in that I’m not particularly fussed about sports per se. It’s almost un-Australian. Nobody tell Pauline Hanson, OK?
That doesn’t mean I don’t have any sports games to put up for vote, however. Here’s your selection — which game should I sweat once I’m done with Unirally?
[socialpoll id=”2372696″]
*Grr. I’m still a little bit bitey about that.

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.